“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”
– John Berger, Ways of Seeing
The power of visual rhetoric is monumental. An image can often have a greater impact on an audience than a written text. Visual images, like written texts, are rhetorical. That is, they possess both a way of representing and carrying representational content. As we are increasingly surrounded by images, it is important for us to critically analyze both their rhetoric and content. My concern in these notes is to suggest a way of teaching visual rhetoric with first-year composition students. Let me begin with a gloss of the problem that our students confront.
I want to argue that they live in an essentially deceptive and manipulative culture: advertisers and politicians and every message sender with an agenda assume that our students process images less carefully and more reflexively than written texts, that they scrutinize them less critically because they can’t penetrate their surfaces. Ironically, this army of communicators counts on inundation and numbness to do the work of rendering their signs and symbols powerful. They’re there on the screen, and then they’re gone. No freshman at an American university can think about one image and its contents before it is replaced by a dozen more. Propagandists of all stripes know this and craft their images to appeal to the comfort of young humans’ short attention spans.
Consider the world into which our students awaken: There’s the TV, the Web, smart phones, messaging, Tweeting, Facebooking, WhatsApping, e-mailing, and all the rest of it. Most of the images in this media cloud make an explicit or implicit argument. They want us to believe in, do, or respond to something; they want us to vote for someone, watch a show, drive a specific car, dress in a designer’s clothes, drink an amazing craft beer, eat some joint’s outrageous burgers, and, generally speaking, just buy something as soon as possible.
One of my goals in working with students on visual rhetoric is to help them see that they are forced into an intellectually defensive position just by living in this culture, unless they regard blatant manipulation as an acceptable way to be in the world, and I reject that proposition. So, what is to be done in the composition classroom where both teachers and students are puzzling over how to proceed? Just this: we as compositionists have an obligation to ourselves, our students, and the integrity of our role in the culture to analyze, evaluate, and critique the images that inundate us. The question becomes how.
As teachers, we can begin with a commitment to the idea that students deserve an opportunity to develop a more nuanced understanding of the image and grasp how it differs from the written text and is used in argument and persuasion. We must consider committing to helping students engage in this critical activity despite images’ relentless assault.
Ultimately, our goal is to help equip students to push back against the temptation to passively receive images, to process them superficially, if at all, and to allow them and their sponsors to shape our opinions and views of the world without our conscious, critical intervention. Both teachers and students need a rhetoric with which to exchange ideas about specific images and species of images, but we also need the analytical tools from critical theory, cultural and media studies, cognitive psychology, and anthropology.
Perhaps it is counterintuitive, but I want to suggest that we begin the work of helping students deal with the rhetorics of digital culture by slowing down and introducing them to the methods of peeling back the surfaces of images that do not go whizzing by, that we take a page from the slow movement’s playbook to lay a foundation for evolving a vocabulary and tool set for thinking critically about how visual rhetoric works. Ironically, we have to help students turn off the digital fire hose long enough to learn the rudiments of combating the larger conflagration. We have to bracket for them some quiet space in which they can reflect rather than dodge, consider rather than crunch, and dwell rather than merely cope.
Bringing matters back to basics, I invite students to work with five types of visual images that are comparatively static:
- Advertisements (TV, Internet, magazines, billboards)
- Newspaper/magazine/journal photographs
- Political and editorial cartoons
- Public sculptures, paintings, architectural monuments
To teach visual rhetoric, I ask students to choose a print image. They can focus on spoof ads, photographs, editorial and political cartoons, paintings, sculpture, and public monuments that have appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals, image-heavy periodicals, and magazines such as Adbusters, National Geographic, and Web sites like Benetton and others.
In their essays, students note the location of the image’s capture, whether it is on the cover, front, middle, last or back page – even the back cover. Students note whether the image appears in black and white or color; they also consider the size of the image and whether it correlates with the subject matter’s importance.
The ideal essay begins with a meticulous dissection of the image; every detail becomes a potentially telling clue. Urgent questions immediately arise: What is in the foreground and background? Why? Is there a shallow or deep depth of focus, a wide-angle shot that allows for context, or a narrow framing? Might there be reasons, editorial or otherwise, for these decisions? What about the lighting (or lack of it), the shot’s angle and the way the subject (or lack thereof) is framed or positioned within the image? Does the image serve a journalistic or some other purpose? Is it in an editorial or an advertising space?
The next task is for students to formulate the image’s argument. Often, these images depict global issues like climate change, child labor, pollution, hunger, racism, media violence, controversial technologies, human-rights abuse, outsourcing, terrorism, and many others.
Something important happens at this point: what begins as an image description and analysis evolves into an argumentative research paper that takes the image’s argument as a point of departure. Through research, which usually involves looking into various regions of the world that have the same concerns, students interrogate the image’s argument by doing extensive research.
Octavio Paz said that reading is an act of translation. Reading and translation are what we’re doing when we engage analytically with images, and, like written texts, we translate them according to our individual perceptions, experiences, cultural knowledge, values, assumptions, and biases. Like any other texts, images are vulnerable to mistranslation, in which case we miss (or misunderstand) the image sponsor’s point – we don’t get the joke, the double meaning, or the visual metaphor. To correctly read, translate, and critically assess images, we need the tools and methods of visual rhetoric to understand the deep – not just the surface – content when and if it exists.