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When a thousand words isn’t enough: Looking outside of the image frame

We’ve all heard the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. But what happens when a thousand words isn’t enough?

Recently, a now infamous video was shared widely that depicted a confrontation between a high school student and an Indigenous man in Washington, DC. No matter how you look at the video, and regardless of your own politics, it’s a charged scene. But for all this video says, there’s also a lot that it doesn’t.

To be clear, the intention of this article is not to choose a side. There is plenty of commentary available that speaks to that already. Instead, the point is that this video in particular is an example of how for everything that a video (or photo) can say—a thousand words and more—there will always be things that are not being said.

The context. The circumstances surrounding it. What’s just outside of the frame. The events that happened directly before and directly after this particular moment was committed to our digital record—not to mention hundreds of years of history leading up to it. These are all things that have not been included in the thousand words of the video in question—or of any image—we may encounter.

And that can be dangerous.

We are all pocket photographers thanks to the prevalence of smart phones. This is great! Think of all the opportunities this presents for us to capture important—and even not so important—moments in our lives.

But every single image or video we encounter—from our Instagram feeds to our news outlets—has been carefully selected to tell a story. To service a message. To continue a narrative, whatever that may be.

Just as we must all be savvy and discerning when it comes to selecting our information sources, it’s important to remember to apply the same rigorous thought process to the imagery we encounter—from the mundane to the more complex.

What’s happening out of frame of that amazing vacation video your acquaintance shared on Instagram this morning? How many outtakes and moments of tension went into getting that perfect snap of that smiling family on Facebook? And what were the events and moments that happened before that front-page video saw the light of day? And most importantly, why are these visuals being shared?

Just because a picture is worth a thousand words doesn’t mean the story stops when the word count is met.

As communicators, we have a responsibility to ensure we are being careful in how we frame, edit, and present the stories we share. And as media consumers, we have a responsibility to stay savvy and ask questions about the materials we’re seeing and to always be asking why.