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Just Imagine…the Power of Images

heidiware123 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Think about the following question: How old is a child when he or she can recognize the difference between a cat and a dog? Most children can make this distinction at a very young age – often soon after they learn how to talk. In fact, there’s some indication that infants as young as 4-6 months old can differentiate between images of a cat and a dog.

Now try to write down just how to distinguish between a cat and a dog. A written description of such a distinction is very hard to do. In fact, you can find flaws in almost any written description of this distinction. But you do, of course, know how to tell the difference. You have some kind of general image in mind that lets you say, “That’s a cat.”

We all carry images with us, but images are both hard to describe and yet hard to forget. It’s interesting that we tend to remember best the images and associations that we find hard to describe, but we often forget what we can convey only in words.

All of us relate to images. These images can be simple visual impressions of things we’ve seen. But they can also be shaped by stories, life experiences, and messages from others. Images are remembered long after words are forgotten. It really doesn’t matter that we can’t put into words the difference between a cat and a dog because we have the image that really matters.

Just imagine how images shape how we view our society. How do the images of the storming of the Capitol shape your views on the direction our society is taking? What about the images of the makeshift hospital tents and morgues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? How do those images shape your views of how our government protects us? Think about the images from the Black Lives Matter protests following the police killing of George Floyd. How do those images shape your views of justice?

It may be tough to put into words your reactions to these images, just as it is hard to describe the difference between a cat and a dog. But it’s not hard to tell what is right and what is wrong from the images. It was an image of children running away from napalm bombing in their village shown here that had a huge impact on how we thought about the Vietnam War. Maybe the prominent images of 2020 will result in the determination of the American people to put aside our differences and work together to renew our democracy.

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“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” – Ansel Adams (acclaimed photographer)


This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.