There's a common expression which is used to explain how verbal expression can fail to express extreme or subtle experiences. Usually it's a trite way of really saying that you just lack the skill or vocabulary to organize your words to deliver that emotion. Sometimes, though, it is quite true that an experience is so sublime that only the best poetry on the perfect day can simulate the experience.
There's an equally common expression that denies words their power. A single poignant image can convey the very meaning that it would take thousands of these words to achieve. This is ridiculous, because a few lines of haiku can be more potent than a whole picture book produced under the eye of the uninspired. However, in out culture the image has a dominance which is difficult to escape. As a filmmaker and videographer by trade, I feel naturally in tune with this (supposedly) visual culture. I know very well the power images can and should wield.
This morning I was confronted with an unexpected scene of destruction which surpassed anything else I've seen with my own eyes in person. Now, I've seen everything there is to see through mediated imagery. These images are finite, contained within a frame and easily turned away from, but being surrounded on all sides by this destruction is another thing. You are absorbed in it, consumed by it, and left scrambling for frames to put it all into. This is futile. You cannot really fathom the entirety no matter how hard you try to compartmentalize. This is something that is truly terrible.
I will say that I dug in and got the job at hand done. I got my images, and I got some that I am very proud of. Images that present both the tragedy and the heroism of the scene. They are all inadequate. These images will never capture the scent of hundreds of severed tree limbs with their fresh wood open to the air. The effect of passing through drifting clouds of diesel engine smoke and chainsaw fumes cannot be created by the best of filmmakers. A picture or film can illustrate the disorder, but it cannot infect you with the lingering sense of defeat or recreate the suspicion of mocking breezes.
A film could recreate the moment when a beleaguered resident asks you "When will the power be on?", but it would be another thing to simultaneously present the viewer with a thundering awareness of all the other questions being asked in that one sentence. Or that the first answer that comes to mind, unspoken, is "never".
If a picture fails here, if moving images assembled in a clever way fail, than what could I possibly use to express this experience? I reach for words. Broken, flawed and clumsy words which can barely bear the air that carries them. They are slight, but they are all that remains to house the experience.
Words are damaged, but not failed.