Images as Arguments

by Site Author

In 1924, George Orwell began working as a police officer in Burma. While there, he witnessed a hanging.

Years later, Orwell wrote about the experience. He described the hanging in detail: the weather, the prisoner’s chanting from the gallows, the whiskey the police drank afterwards.

Orwell focused on one detail in particular. As the prisoner approached the gallows, he stepped carefully around a puddle.

He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily… At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

And it is that one detail—the step around the puddle—that revealed to Orwell the enormity of what was about to happen.

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.

I read Orwell’s essay years ago, and this one image, a prisoner stepping around a puddle, has stayed with me all this time. In the essay, Orwell did not devote many words to his opinion on capital punishment. Instead, he let the image speak for itself.

Orwell understood instinctively that humans are visual animals—an insight shared by all good writers. Over 60 percent of our brains are dedicated to visual processing. Images matter more to us than words or scents or sounds. And so the most compelling argument is not an argument at all, but an image.