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Citizen of the World Part VI: A picture inspires a thousand words


Two pictures.

One features an old man, sitting on a bed in a decrepit apartment. The gun in his hand provides a sharp contrast to the lax expression on his face. Looking at it, I think my expectation of tension is stronger than what I would have felt if it was depicted as an actual tension-filled scene.

The other photograph couldn’t be more alike— or different. A woman is poised on a parking lot curve. Her perfect ’80s hairstyle and icy glare seem like a part of her personality, not just accessories of the moment.

My Writing II teacher handed us a piece of paper in which both of these photos were featured side-by-side and told us to explain what was confusing about the images. What exactly was the photographer, as the manipulator of the scene, trying to get us to see?

But even as I went about completing my assignment, it occurred to me that there was more than one person who was actively shaping our impressions. Even though we were only supposed to talk about one picture at a time, most of my fellow students framed their answers in terms of a contrast between them both. “The lighting in this picture was better than in this picture….”, “Look at her face. She’s obviously more high-strung than he is…,” etc. It made me wonder how different everyone’s comments might have been if they had something else to compare it to. More than that, it made me wonder if ‘compare and contrast’, the skill we have been taught since our elementary school days, was not hindering our ability to see things for what they are, apart from and in spite of their context.

When Dr. Polchin gave us this worksheet, he was presenting it to us as one picture and its opposite. It was, consciously or not, a prompt to use language that is relative— words like “hotter,” “nicer,”“cheaper,” which are not descriptions onto themselves, but have meaning only when they rest on at least two subjects. And therein lays a mistake.

In my previous “Citizen of the World” articles, I have attempted to cite my experiences here in the United Kingdom versus what I had known in America— and while they were an accurate depiction of my feelings at the time, I hope they are not a disservice to either of these two places. Because the truth is, in today’s society, where so much is run in the spirit of competition, too much value gets placed on what is “better” and not what is “quality”. Every country’s culture is composed of the habits and customs of its citizens, therefore making it unlike any other culture in the world. If we only focus on those elements of it that can find an equivalent in another nation, then the possibility is we’re missing out on something new and wondrous. We might be going abroad and never truly expand our horizons.

I have loved the time that I have been in London. Even if it is difficult to find many of my American staples here— from Mountain Dew to familiar brands of laundry detergent— I would not say that it is lacking for anything. Reality shows me that the grass is green on both sides of the ocean, and that two pictures can tell two completely different stories that are still worth a thousand words.

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