Monday, 29 October 2012

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words, and Other Clichés

In writing chapters for my thesis, I have been thinking about the use of pictures in academic work, and why scholars can often be reluctant to litter their text with illustrations. Perhaps it is the limits imposed by the publisher, or that there is a feeling that only popular histories use extensive pictures, as they may detract from serious academic discussions and complex ideas.

Through the use of three clichés, I will try to make the case for the inclusion of illustrations.

A picture paints a thousand words’. Rather than detract from an argument, a picture can actually augment it. Being able to see an image of a coaling station (like the illustration below), for instance, can help a reader understand how the infrastructure worked, or why certain problems occurred.

A diagram of Yokohama Coaling Station in the 1880s.

‘Assumption makes an ass out of you and me.’ The production of a piece of academic work is a serious endeavour, and often takes months of detailed archival work. It is easy to forget, therefore, that the reader hasn’t seen any of this. This can easily be solved by using a picture to illustrate the kinds of sources that have been used. A discussion about the production of knowledge through reports about coaling stations, therefore, is made even more persuasive by showing examples of the type of knowledge that these reports contained, such as maps (pictured below).

A Map of Port Louis Coaling Station from the Carnarvon Reports.

‘Always start a speech with a joke.’ Maybe this cliché is a little bit of a push, but it is worth considering the role of the picture when presenting research. Although the above points apply equally (arguably more) with presenting work, there is a further use for pictures here. I have often seen the use of a joke to relax the mood, but this requires some comedic skill, and material (not many jokes about coal.) In its place, a well thought out picture which shows the lighter side of the research (such as the one below) can ‘break the ice’ or provide a break between sections of the presentation.

A Sailor in Fancy Dress (


  1. Steven,

    It is an interesting and valid question. We don't see many picture in either theses or academic books. I wonder whether the issue has something to do with academic snobbery on the part of some people that has now filtered down into being a cultural norm amongst academics. Is there a fear that some academics, and perhaps even academic publishers themselves, fear being likened to more popular authors and publishers and that this just will not do for them. I agree that they can be used in a useful manner. A friend of mine who completed his thesis last year made good use of them but I am not sure how they were taken by his examiners.


  2. I think it is a mixture of that and the demands of publishers to keep costs down (which is why they often use black and white instead of colour). Whereas this is perhaps unavoidable, it does seem a shame they are not more widely used in lectures, papers etc, as people seem to share plenty on twitter.