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The image-word conflict

October 10, 2012

When I starting painting I was always puzzled by the question that why image making is forbidden in Islam and I am sure lot of you must have faced a similar question. It was as if making image is a rebellion against the religion. I always wondered why image is so dangerous and not the word. Why word is sacred and image is profane? What is so destructive and explosive in image that it is always controlled by words?

The supremacy of words in journalism is the reflection of the importance of words in our society (in Pakistan poetry is appreciated by illiterates as well as scholars and its popularity can be gauged by its usage on rickshaws, pawn shops and truck on the roads). One editor remarked that (during the earlier days of black and white printing) the dark rooms of photographers were always situated at backside of the building and sometimes close to public bathrooms. There was also a restriction on photograph printing in a newspaper of not more than three columns. In some editorial pages, still the image/cartoon has to find its place while daily poetry on current issues is published.

It is important to understand why captions are written under photographs printed in newspapers e.g. One see an image of a boy drinking water from a tap with a byline that say, ‘boy drinking water from a tap’. What is the purpose of this line when one can clearly see what the boy is doing? Does the editor-in-charge think that readers are mentally challanged or blind that he thinks it necessary to add this line. Or does he fear that people might think that the boy is drinking beer from the tap? I believe that caption tries to moderate and control the visual. Because if you look at the picture, you might notice the poor boy’s clothes without shoes and drinking unsafe water from the tap and some discarded water bottles in garbage at the back of the picture. That would give a new perspective to the picture. Or some animals close by giving the impression that humans and animals drink from the same tap. That is how a picture can express a message that is beyond the control of caption. A caption tries to harness the message of photograph.

In another angle a caption actually lures us to read the picture and not look at the picture. We are trained to read the pictures from our earliest days in schools. The first step in learning at schools is to discard the image and replace it with alphabet/voices. Even these alphabets are first shown with images. Eventually images are discarded and these alphabets are memorized and constructed to make words. Eventually we progress to the level where we have lines upon lines of text with no images. Memorizing and then writing a word is the yardstick to judge the progress of the student. Literacy is not about having the collection of images but collection of words.

Words belong to faculty of ear and we notice that ear is a synthetic organ as it can pick the different notes in a symphony at the same time receiving the total impression of a symphony. While eyes are analytic tools as when we focus on an image we loose the view of peripheral images (like we concentrate on a word we loose sight of previous word or line or the whole page. So these are two faculties of analysis and synthesis that complement each other in all forms of knowledge. Sacrificing one faculty at the expense of another would leave us with distorted knowledge. That is why they say that Atomic model of Neil Bohr is as an artistic imagination as much as it is scientific model. The method of printing and photographs all over the world was first discovered by french artist Georges Seurat, who painted with small dots of primary colors. He placed blue and yellow dots together that looked green when mixed in the air and viewed from a distance. The red and yellow dots looked orange. Now take a magnifying glass and look at the picture printed in a newspaper, and you would see the similar dots. The whole industry of printing and publication is based on the discovery of this artist. Yet the image is profane in the industry of words.


The author left architecture for painting but ended up as a cartoonist and now writes Hijjo. He is the jack of all trades.



The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.