Friday, November 8, 2013


What do we see when we look at images?
How do images speak to us?

How do images speak to other images?

Discourse studies, with its roots in classic rhetoric, has traditionally been about speaking well, and thinking and talking about texts.  Now, however, this area of study also includes multi-modal, multi-disciplinary, and contextual considerations--and images.

According to Teun A. Van Duk in the introduction of Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction
Discourse is no longer just conceived of as verbal text and talk, but also encompasses the nature of context…(xvii)    
Contemporary discourse studies now also involve many disciplines-- anthropology, sociology, linguistics, psychology—all areas of the humanities.  According to Van Duk: 
Research into discourse today... combines the study of language use, verbal interaction, conversation, texts, multi-modal messages, and communicative events (2)  
As we think about text and talk there are several fundamental properties we must consider.  Van Duk asks us to think about discourse, variously as:   

  • Social interaction
  • Power and domination
  • Communication
  • Contextually situated
  • Social semiosis
  • Complex layered construct
  • Sequences and hierarchies
  • Abstract structures vs. dynamic strategies
  • Types of genres
So as we interact with, question, and analyze texts, we might examine each of these properties within the text and in relation to other texts.

There are many forms of writing that embody the talk in which we engage with others, our talk about texts, and also the talk we have around images.  As we interact more frequently and critically with both texts and images, we find that texts can “talk” to other texts.  See related post, Strange Bedfellows: Texts Speak to Texts.
As we transition into thinking about images and how we respond to such, an excellent resource is Twice Told: Original Stories Inspired by Original Artwork by Scott Hunt.  In this collection of YA fictional stories, pairs of well-known writers each write  in response to a single image, which allows us to recognize that images speak to us in individual and differentiated ways.  I have successfully used the paired stories by Jaime Adoff and Margaret Haddix Peterson to initiate conversations about how we see images.

Likewise, images can “talk” to images---supporting, complementing, supplementing, augmenting, illuminating, diminishing,  pushing, or opposing each other.  

And I suggest that the fundamental properties of discourse listed above also can be applied to images. We can ask the same questions of images that we might ask of  texts or other discourses.  
How is the image contextually situated? What sequences and hierarchies are represented? Absent? 

One example of an image talking through another image is The Periodic Table of Poetic Elements by Jeffrey Skinner He has humorously represented poetic and literary elements  in the format of the traditional scientific Periodic Table.. (Skinner's Periodic Table is also available in in The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets: A Self-Help Memoir 
What conversations does this unique poem initiate? What questions does it force us to ask?

What do we see and hear as we talk with images?  
What do we see and hear as we allow the images to talk to each other?

Juxtaposed images can create tension and demand we enter their conversation
An article by Tom Roston, On Pinterest and in Documentaries, Don’t Judge a Killer By An Image,  provides two pairs of images that will generate conversation around the topic George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. These images present negative and positive images of both Zimmerman and Martin.  This alone fosters discourse around these images.  

However,  the article discloses that the negative image of Trayvon Martin is falsified--- it is not really him, but had been posted on Pinterest by a white supremacist Several news sources confirmed the lie.  What further conversations are generated as a result of that new knowledge? 

This article itself becomes a mentor text of discourse around images and, depending on the age of your writers, you may want to share it with them after discussion of the images. 
In addition to your observations related to the chosen images, you may also want to use Van Duk's discourse properties listed above to further analyze and question the images.

On a related note, I gasped out loud when I saw the first iconic picture of Trayvon Martin in the red shirt.  He so eerily favored Emmett Till, a fourteen-year old boy who was murdered/lynched  in Mississippi in 1955 for supposedly whistling as a white woman.

Images don’t necessarily have to be controversial to create tension. Critical thinking and conversation may result from the juxtaposition, context, symbolism, surprising elements, or some other  focus in the image or set of images.
Joel Robinson’s images depicting the joy of reading can also talk to us and each other. These are available on one of my favorite blogs, Brain Pickings by Maria Popova and will also foster critical discourse.

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Take your  own photographs or  locate in magazines or other sources, including the Internet, two or more images that in some way “talk” to each other.
The images may complement, supplement, augment, diminish, or oppose each other.

Write a reflective response or essay to these images, describing and representing the relationships to each other and perhaps also to yourself. 

Write a poem capturing the conversation you had with the images-- or the conversation you imagine between the images.

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