A picture paints a thousand words.
The origin of this phrase is attributed to an artist, Frederick R. Barnard, who published a piece commending the effectiveness of graphics in advertising with the title “One look is worth a thousand words”, in Printer’s Ink, December 1921.
I’m seated by an open window on a public bus transporting mostly locals along with my fourteen fellow Costa Rica explorers – people from around the globe who are part of my tour group. We’ve spent the majority of the day, a day which started in Le Fortuna at 6am with a plate full of fresh local fruit for breakfast, jumping from vans to boats, with a short stop at a rainforest zip-line (flying fox) park for fun and our guides family owned pizzeria for lunch, before stepping into yet another van which drove us to a wharf where a ferry was docked awaiting departure.
The ferry would soon take us south from Puntarenus, on the northern side of the Golfo De Nicoya, to a dock a little while west of Playa Cuchillo on the southern side. After sitting on the upper deck for over an hour watching the sunset, with the cool and much needed ocean breeze washing over us, we reached Playa Cuchillo and boarded the public bus I find myself sitting on now. The bus is taking us farther south to Montezuma on the south western edge of the inlet into the Golfo we just crossed, where we stay for the next three nights.
So here I am seated by an open window on this bus, which every so often I stick my head out of to cool down some or to get a better idea of what’s around the next bend. Sitting beside me is an 18 year old English lad, Harry, who I’ve been chatting to for the entire bus ride so far. Harry’s part of my tour group and is traveling with two of his fellow recent seconday school ‘gradu-ees’, Hamish and Freddy. As the conversation slows, not from lack of something to discuss but from the exhausting long day now behind us, I look out my window into the open fields of local farms, fields now covered in darkness, and I ponder a thought… a question I have not yet found the answer to.
The question, which has been on my mind even more so since reaching New York 12 days ago, is how do I possibly capture what I’m experiencing into words? This is after all the point of travel writing right? Something I am attempting to delve into more and more. You see I suppose no story could replace being somewhere yourself so maybe I’m striving for the un-reachable (very like me by the way), but even so how great would it be to be able to translate a place into words so extremely well it was as though you were there?! My first real and possible successful attempt at this was a recent post titled ‘To Trail in the Sky‘. It was a post which captured my flight from Vancouver to Trail. I guess reading over it I did quite well I think, but that flight lasted only a little over a hour. How can I possibly capture a days walk through one of the worlds most culturally diverse cities… New York?
It’s a question which is proving not only quite stressful, but its also creating a barrier I’m finding difficult to overcome when it comes to sitting down and at least attempting to communicate everything my senses sense into words – visuals, sounds, textures along with emotions. Hence the lack of posts so far! Although I did start writing a post during a quick lunch break on my third day in New York which started something like this: if a picture paints a thousand words then how can I possibly capture New York when a million words exist in every frame? As you can see I’ve been stuck with this issue for some time. A photo can not possibly capture it, nor a descriptive story. I can of course describe my days events, adventures and mishaps, but i want to communicate more. Maybe I’m approaching it the wrong way?
Again, as I’m sitting here looking out my window at the Brahman cows again stressing about this problem and pondering the answer, I see these tiny tiny flashes of light – Fire Flys I think to myself, after taking a few seconds thinking over the options? I’m instantly excited as this is my first time seeing them. They light up for only a moment before disappearing into the darkness only for another to light up near by drawing your attention to it instead. As amazing as the last flash of light was your focus is now somewhere else and then somewhere else and so on and so on. You look back for the previous Fire Fly, but it’s gone. The memory of that momentary flash is already beginning to fade. You might have an overall vague idea of what that Fire Fly looked like, but when it comes to the details they are now lost. It’s just like any other Fire Fly now.
As I sit longer and watch them flash in the fields or a trees canopy I realise this is why travel writing is so hard. As you travel each and everything which draws your attention, no matter how long for whether it be for a second, an hour, a day or a week, in the scheme of traveling or venturing somewhere they are mere flashes of beauty. Beauty who’s details fade with each and every new flash which draws your attention.
For me New York was like seeing the Olympic opening ceremony from above – It’s just a wash of camera flashes. Each and every corner I turned my attention was drawn to every nook, crack and cranny. Now… I may look at things differently to most and this may be something derived from my Architecture training – something possibly proven in my photography more so then anything else. BUT, even if you don’t realize it the parts which evoke the emotion in you whilst traveling are not brought on by the broader picture – an entire high-rise for example. They are evoked by the details. By the way the sun’s light reflects off the high-rise’s glass facade. They are evoked by the feeling of the pavement below your feet mixed in with the smell of the grit covered streets.
As we venture it is the addition of all of these details, these momentary flashes of beauty, which create the whole picture. As Frederick said: One look is worth a thousand words… just like a single ‘Fire Fly’. So as I walk the streets of New York my mind is overwhelmed with these monetary flashes of detail which in themselves would take pages of descriptive writing to effectively communicate. Plus the details begin to fade as you continue trekking around the next ‘bend’. This is where my problem lies I think? A problem hard to overcome as it means I must stop after every ‘flash’ and write detailed notes before I move on – I would get no where!
Taking this further and changing the topic, or approach to the question a little, we don’t I believe see the world through a wide angle camera lens with a large focal depth. We see it as though we are a fixed 35-50mm lens with a very small focal depth. We see things in details, with what surrounds this detail out of our focus! If you look at how I photograph this is obvious. To me there is two types of travel photography, and maybe the difference is where my answer somewhat lies?
There is the typical travel photo, taken as proof of visiting a place – we’ve all stood in front of a statue or monument or tried to hold up something in the background. But this photo for me does not communicate what it feels like to exist in that place. Just like giving you a run down of my days events wandering through the streets of New York does not communicate what it feels like to exist in a given place. Photography with this approach, and also writing, is mere proof of you having been ‘there’. To me this is completely pointless! In 10 years when you look at this photo, placed upon a mantle’s top or hung on a wall as proof to on-lookers that you’ve been ‘here’ and ‘there’, it will sadly not allow you to recall what it was like to exist in that space. Admittedly some may use a wide angle lens or a fish eye to capture the ore of a mountain peak which stands before you, but I think you get my point without having to complicate things… well beyond what I already have anyway!
Look out your window! Let’s say outside is a park. You don’t see the park though right? You see a man placing something in a bin in the park (flash)… you see where a trees trunk meets the ground (flash). You see the different shades of green grass vary in height and health (flash). You see the wind via the movement of a tree’s branches (flash). Put your hand in front of your face and again look out your window. Look at something in the distance past your hand. Do you see your hand in any detail? No! Now switch your focus to your hand. Do you see anything outside the window? No!
So as I struggle to write about the ‘hand’ AND what’s outside my ‘window’ – the foreground AND the background – so to speak, I realise I should only write about my ‘hand’ OR what my ‘window’ frames. Maybe I can’t write a post about NY or even a day in NY in any way which will allow you to feel as though you were there yourself, but I can write a post about a ‘Fire Fly’… about a detail. If I wrote a hundred posts this way wouldn’t it not communicate what it’s like to exist in NY better? This is after all how you would see it! How you would view it.
Whether you’re viewing a photo or reading an anthology (piece of travel writing) both should provoke a thousand more words than are written. The gift in either is in effectively communicating a place. The gift is in removing a person from their seat and taking them into the world of your travels.