I am very interested in the concept of communication. This stems from my frustration in establishing a meaningful (to me) way to reach my brother Mike, who is autistic, profoundly retarded and nonverbal. This is one of the themes that I frequently revisit in this blog.
I recently read On Writing by Stephen King. He said that writing was the same as mental telepathy. The reader assembles the writer’s words and reconstitutes their original meaning as mental images or ideas. The ideas the writer portrays, travel to a different space and time and the reader receives the message that the author intended.
Visual works of art are also able to convey thoughts and ideas over time and distance. For example, paintings done centuries give us an idea of what the artist was trying to convey. Photographers, who employ the visual language of framing, use of light, juxtaposition and other elements, know how to get their message across. There is a difference between the messages words and visual images convey: much more room for interpretation when viewing an image. For example, there is a photograph from the 1940s of a woman with a shaved head surrounded by an obviously hostile crowd. One feels quite sympathetic for the woman, until the context is revealed. It seems that the woman was a Nazi collaborator. I don’t remember the photographer, but I do remember how my feelings flipped from sympathy to anger.
Communication with the use images does not seem as reliable as communication with words. One might be able to appreciate the beauty of an image in its own right, but may not receive the intended message.
Pictures of Mike
Isolated from context, my brother Mike’s expressions seem transparent. They seem to convey emotions clearly. How could one not know his state of mind by looking at his face? I can see happiness, sadness, frustration and annoyance in some of his expressions. Looking at pictures I took years ago, it seems clear what Mike’s state of mind must have been at the time. It would be clear to a stranger, someone who doesn’t know the context.
As I get further away in years from the experience of having taken the photographs, I can view them as a stranger would. As I glance at them, I see expressions that convey a definite state of mind. But when I engage my mind, I travel back to the time I took the photograph. While the photographs may express his state of mind, I remember the disconnect between knowing his state of mind and inferring what his state of mind must be. I remember the confusion of the moment, my efforts to understand his state of mind and my desire for more from him.
Words communicate ideas. There is a potential for two-way communication when two people in the same place at the same time use words to convey inner thoughts. Visual images can also communicate ideas. However, I would characterize this communication as an expression of the artists’ ideas in a visual medium. Aside from sign language, visual images are not conducive to two-way, real-time communication. Messages sent and received by nonverbal expressions in face-to-face conversation are exceptions to this rule. Context is intact in this situation and nonverbal cues are available for interactive feedback and interpretation.