Recently a friend invited me to her grandson’s christening. It had been a long time since I attended a mass, and I found the sermon extremely stimulating, although not necessarily from a faith perspective. The priest started by showing the infamous ‘selfie’ that President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt took of themselves at Nelson Mandela’s Memorial service (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / ROBERTO SCHMIDT/Getty Images). Even on that solemn occasion, they couldn’t help themselves and succumbed to the temptation of taking a selfie. And they were caught in the act, by another camera!
The priest then showed a ‘selfie’ he took of himself at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. He said that the ‘selfie’ is our modern way of showing the world that “I was there”, with that famous person, or at that famous place, and I have the photo to prove it. It is our way of ‘witnessing’ events, landmarks, encounters, and, more often than not, trivial moments in our lives.
Before the invention of cameras, and more recently, digital cameras, people documented their encounters, travels and experiences by writing them down. The priest referred to the gospels, particularly the gospels written by John and Matthew, who were two of the twelve apostles*, and as such witnessed first-hand the life and deeds of Jesus, the most famous and enduring ‘celebrity’ of all. The gospel writers couldn’t take ‘selfies’ of themselves with Christ, so they wrote everything they saw to document it, and their stories spread like lightening – or in modern terms, they went ‘viral’.
Nowadays, with everybody carrying a camera in their pocket, selfies and photographs documenting our lives minute by minute are overloading the media landscape. Facebook posts that don’t include a picture, don’t receive as many ‘likes’. Images are much more likely to be re-twitted than plain text. Media releases with photographs have a much higher chance of being published. We live in a visual era, and words without pictures are often overlooked. People take thousands of photographs of their every trip or special occasion, but how often do they look at, or even download those pictures?
When I travelled to Europe in 2003 – still in my 'pre-digital' age – I took a grand total of 144 photographs: six rolls of 24. Nowadays that is a laughable quantity for a three-week tour, but when I returned home and developed the rolls I could hardly remember what photo was taken where. Fortunately, I had taken a comprehensive travel diary as well, describing the places, their history, the people I met at every stop, and other interesting facts. I was able to marry the words and the pictures and the resulting illustrated story was much more detailed and effective in conveying my adventures than the digital photo albums I produce these days, which have a one-line caption per photo and sometimes not even that.
A few months ago I was driving back home after work and I witnessed the most incredible rainbow. I thought of taking a photo, but my phone was in my bag and thankfully for the other motorists, I am not very good at multitasking when driving. I felt frustrated at first, but then realised that sometimes we miss the moment by trying to capture it with a camera. I captured it with my eyes, committed it to my memory, and that was enough.
I still remember the highlight of my first trip to Adelaide, South Australia, in 2001. In my diary, I recorded Womadelaide (the music festival at the botanical gardens) as one of the highlights; also the day tour to Hahndorf and Victor Harbour, and a cruise down the Murray River. But the biggest highlight of that trip didn't cost a cent: it was the sunset over West Beach on the night of our arrival. It was a hot afternoon and we walked to the beach to cool down. While we were there, the cloudy sky turned into an incredible canvas with a mixture of colours, textures and shapes in constant motion. The sea became a liquid mirror of the sky, reflecting the silver, blue and pink hues of the clouds, and the effect of the sun setting over the water was nothing short of miraculous. People quickly began to arrive, sensing that something momentous was taking place; some of them were even carrying champagne bottles and glasses. We all stood there, in awe, clinking glasses and taking in the landscape with jaws dropped. I cursed myself for not having my camera with me (pre-digital / smart phone era), but then again, a photo would have never paid this moment justice, so I wrote it all down as soon as we returned to our hotel. We went back to the beach at the same time the next day hoping to repeat the experience, with some friends who joined us in the morning, but unfortunately for them the sunset was nothing more than ordinary.
Thirteen years later, I don’t remember much about the Hahndorf and Victor Habour excursions or the cruise on the Murray, even though I took copious pictures of those places. But when I read my travel diary, I can instantly recall that sunset, which remains in my mind as one of the most spectacular I have ever seen.
To be able to conjure a visual image like that, after all these years, by painting it with words, demonstrates – to me – the supremacy of words against pictures. It might take an hour to write a thousand words (as it did to write this 1000-word blog post), and less than a second to take a picture, but it is time well spent.
* Mark and Luke, who wrote the other two gospels, were not part of the twelve apostles – in fact Luke joined the Christian movement after Jesus died; but they researched their stories by interviewing sources who had met and been close to their subject.
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,