Of humans’ need for stories, the power of visuals and the tools we need to decipher them

telling stories

My thoughts and picks from the book I have just finished: “The Age of the Image: Redefining literacy in a world of screens” by Stephen Apkon. Part of my research for my “Words” project.

Stephen Apkon’s ode to the moving picture is motivated by a love for stories and an appreciation for the skills needed to both tell and digest them in an effective manner. The Age of the Image: Redefining literacy in a world of screens is an important read for anyone interested in appreciating the power of imagery on the human mind, together with the mechanics behind this strong but often invisible influence.

Expanding beyond the world of pictures alone, Apkon shows a sense of connection and a strong relationship between the word and the image, illustrating how they inform and enhance each other; which was the very thing that drew me into this book. In Martin Scorsese’s words, Apkon “lays out the tools we need to cultivate awareness of and attention to every message and every gesture, artistic or opportunistic, expressed in print or in pixels.” This is an invitation “to look closely and find the story within”.

Throughout the book, Apkon refers to the work of the Jason Burns Film Centre in Pleasantville, New York, a centre he founded, “squarely focused on what it means to be ‘literate’ in a world dominated by visual media”.

“All good storytellers, in whatever media, are first keen observers of the world around them. They see nuance and story in the small details of life, and they possess the skills to convey these observations in compelling ways”.

In video, what Elizabeth Daley refers to as “the current vernacular”, the most powerful examples share “a literacy that sustains their construction and their messages, and which allows an audience to derive meaning”.

This literacy includes knowledge of the “reserves of experienced-based, image-based, and test-based knowledge already present inside the viewer… One simple image becomes like an electric cord plugged into an existing grid of knowledge acquired through reading, listening, or experiencing, all of which make the image brighter and more immediate, pouring a surge of intellectual electricity in a rebus that fills the eye and dominates the discussion. The image touches us in a way that speech cannot; it becomes the handle for carrying the whole luggage. It brings a superbly human dimension into that picture.”

And it is this literacy that is a prerequisite for communication that gets as close as possible to conveying what we have within. “We are all striving for unmediated communication…Our never-ending search for this elusive pure communion has driven technology. Paint, the alphabet, the press, the camera, the television, the semi-conductor, the satellite- all these derive from that hunger and scratching we were born with: to reach out, to share, and to connect.”

Putting moving images, spoken word, text and music together is like “a needle straight into the cerebral cortex” according to Apkon, making “the movie the most powerful and compelling text we have yet created.” And yet this medium cannot be fully exploited by society until “a critical mass of citizens is capable of both seeing and critiquing what is put in front of them with some level of sophistication”.

In building a case for and helping to build this literacy, Apkon takes us through the history of human expression, from cave paintings, to writing and printing, to images and film. Each innovation came with societal resistance and stories of the impending doom of pre-existing forms. “Printing will kill bookselling. It is the end of the world that is drawing nigh”, predicted Master Gilles Lecornu in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notredame.

With films, humanity seemed to have struck communication gold with a medium that appealed to the eyes and spoke directly to the most ancient parts of our brains.

“Our eyes are the gateway to enormous columns of data and information, and it is no accident that up to 85% of the brain is dedicated to processing and making sense out of visual stimulation that flows in at an astonishing rate…Neuroscientists now know that the brain begins to categorise and make sense of an image within 150 milliseconds of the first glimpse…The speed is part of the reason images tend to ‘hit us in the gut’ quicker and more consistently than the written word…our visual pathways are tapped in more directly into the inner, ‘reptilian’ core of the brain that houses pleasure-reward centres and that governs our basic responses.”

Together with Rafael Malach, a professor of brain research, Apkon explores research about vision, images and the brain library we refer to when making sense of them. “Seeing is a subjective and creative act.”

One part that I found particularly enlightening was about research that seems to confirm philosopher Willam James’ theory that emotion is a “preparation for action”. In watching someone in danger, a child crying or intense joy, we experience emotions that prepare us for action related to what we have witnessed, tapping into our instinctual fight or flight response. According to Malach, reading has less of a direct effect on us as the language of words, a more recent development, has a less direct link from reception to cognition. “It keeps us further removed from its emotional core and leaves lots of room for us to fill in with our own experiences”, allowing for a more mediated response. “We are primed to experience unconsciously – or even, in a sense, to imitate – what we watch”. Our brain literally fires up the same neurons that govern the action we see another doing, not only in real life but also on screen.

Of course images and writing can also work perfectly in tandem. Apkon cites several examples of videos “bringing a visceral emotional capstone to a mountain of written material”. Videos and images have this intense ability to mobilise the public into action but their effectiveness is the result of long campaigns in written or verbal format that provide background, context fuel in the minds of the audience, ready to be set alight by visual fire.

This difference between our responses to writing and imagery sparked an interesting lunch conversation with the other participants of the artistic residence I am currently living. I had just read this piece minutes previously, which triggered a reaction in me so deep that I literally felt like I was suspended in some kind of ether. The writing brought up memories and feelings related to my own experience in a magnitude and closeness that I do not believe imagery could have managed. As Ines, one of the other participants theorised, writing leaves space for us to construct our own imagery, our own pictures inside our heads. Yes, the process might be slower, but the strength of feeling in seeing ourselves in the story is a thing of great power.

“One thing will never change, no matter what kind of new technology emerges in the coming century” writes Akon, “we are story animals. And we need to tell our stories in as direct, as unmediated, and as emotionally resonant a way as possible…Because ultimately, one of the most rewarding things we can do is tell our stories and hear the stories of others. It is one of the fundamental cures for loneliness throughout time, a means of human connection.”

The Age of the Image is an excellent tool for infinitely more meaningful consumption and creation of visual stories.


A parting quote:

“The stories people tell are a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away when they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in eachother’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.”

Albert Maysles