We all know the cliche about pictures being better than words — but a good photo is worth far more. The lesson holds everywhere, from information design to art. WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath, an exhibition of 400 photographic war prints by amateurs, officers and professionals, conveys elements of war that could not truly be expressed in text — you have to see it to believe it.
Anne Tucker, one of the exhibition’s curators, refers to a photograph of a young girl screaming and covered in blood. “It’s heartbreaking when you find out the blood belongs to her family, but [even without knowing] you still you see this kid screaming and covered in blood,” she said. “It’s one thing to describe it to you; it’s another to see the child.”
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston exhibition, currently hosted at the Brooklyn Museum, features photos from 1848 to 2011. They can also be found in a lengthy catalog about the exhibition. Books, magazines, albums and camera equipment accompany the prints, which are ordered by theme instead of chronologically, to show how the same issues crop up again and again in conflict.
“Because of what war is, certain types of pictures recur because those types of events occur over and over again,” Tucker said. Those images also don’t require explanation.
“If you have a news article about war and have a woman prostrate on a fresh grave, you get it,” Tucker said. “If there’s someone in uniform with a prosthetic leg, don’t need a caption. It’s self explanatory.”
The quality of imagery should be commensurate with the magnitude of its subject matter. It should also convey information as quickly as possible. News organizations have long known this and lead their cover stories and homepages with photos that, alone, tell their own story. It’s stunning visually and important ethically to show what’s really going on. Recently, news organizations have been taking these same lessons into infographics and data visualizations, to give the subject matter the import it deserves.
A number of mapping software solutions, including Google Maps, allow users to upload images to augment the meaning of these spatial stories, such as map company Esri’s interactive story map of the key moments in John F. Kennedy’s life, illustrated with historical photos.
Similarly, the New York Times interactive map of Typhoon Haiyan‘s destruction in the Philippines couples real life photos of Typhoon Haiyan’s destruction in the Philippines with a color-coded map of the severity.
The Wall Street Journal has been putting out a number of graphic timelines that are illustrated with iconic photos of the story they are telling. Above is a timeline of the uprising in Syria, visualized with the backdrop of young protestors, political banners and physical destruction.
As an information designer, if you have a powerful story to tell, make sure you have pictures that fit the bill. You’ll need to use way fewer words.
Featured image credit: Walter Astrada (Argentinean, born 1974). Congolese women fleeing to Goma, from the series Violence against women in Congo: Rape as weapon of war in DRC, 2008 (printed 2010). Chromogenic print, 14 5/8 x 22 ½ in. (37.1 x 56.2 cm). The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; museum purchase with funds provided by Photo Forum 2010. © Walter Astrada
Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School and is the editorial producer at Gigaom. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.