Using Images -- The Universal Language?

May 28, 2015

Bill Smith is a current OHMA student. In this post, inspired by Dr. Ron Doel, he looks to image analysis as a tool for a deeper reading of oral histories. Watch Dr. Doel's full lecture on YouTube.

Ron Doel, backed by his 24-page resume, presented to the cohort on 25 March.  After a 30 year career as an evangelist for visual learning—designing learning materials for kids, the entries: “Professional Photographers as Public Intellectuals” (2012) and “Creating New Narratives:  Oral History and Photographs in Writing the History of Recent Science” (2009) set bells ringing for me.

Professor Doel includes image analysis as a tool for deeper reading of oral histories.  Doel presented archival photographs of Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory from the 1....  The Observatory is an outpost of Columbia University’s Earth Institute located on the Hudson River Palisades on the New Jersey side.  The Doel photos portrayed Doc Ewing (1906-1974), then Director of the Observatory with his all male nautical crew of trained researchers. Dr. Doel’s reading of the Ewing photographs reinforced what we know- men had the professional upper hand -- including glamorous brawny sea adventures.  Women—specifically wives, kept the aprons on over home and hearth.  The revelation was not in Doel’s findings, the revelation was in the power of the photographs to imprint for us:  we got it. 

Here’s why--

“…images imprint new information for learners at a higher rate than text alone.  Around 40 percent of learners respond better to visual information than te....”[1]

Images are the universal language of our time.  Witness the 20-year cascade from conventional written forms, to email, and landing—for now, on my 13 year old Mabel’s minute-to-minute compulsion to post on Instagram.  Academic studies show a consistent decline in words-per-sentence, sentences-per-paragraph, and long form written language in general within the labyrinths of the media saturated developed world.  

And why not?  According to the Visual Teaching Alliance: 

  • We can get the sense of a visual scene in less than 1/10 of a second.
  • 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual.
  • Visuals are processed 60,000 x faster in the brain than text.

Illustrated text is 9 percent more effective than text alone when testing immediate comprehension and 83 percent more effective when the test was delayed. [1]

Pearson, the world’s #1 powerhouse for educational content, documents that visuals improve learning up to 400 percent[2]

Another corporate Goliath, IBM, calculates that “90% of the world’s data was produced in the last two years -- we produce 2.5 quintillion bytes of data daily.[3]

Visuals result in faster absorption and they create stronger reactions than words. Visuals help users engage, aka retain.  The brain is an image processor not a word processor. The part of the brain used to process words is small in comparison to the part that processes images.

“The brain is set up in a way that visual stimuli and emotional response is easily linked, and together the two form memories.”[4]

Language, particularly reading and writing, are learned skills.  But seeing and comprehending are ours from birth.  Typically, an infant comprehends six colors among their first ten learned words. Visuals are automatic -- images are universal. 

Well, sort of--

When we imprint a visual, we contextualize it, we personalize, we bring our own meaning to it.  This is the message of the generation of semiotic artists defined as the Pictures Generation-- Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, Richard Prince and Sarah Charlesworth, who is the subject of my OHMA thesis.  These artists, among others, worked with a vocabulary of existing images to demonstrate the subjectivity of imagery.

Thirty years ago, it was not commonly understood that an image pairs with the viewer’s prior knowledge to form meaning. “Pictures don’t lie” was the maxim of an earlier era--that has changed.

While we may share a universal language of an image’s general meaning, we add meaning by filtering through our experience.  “What does this image mean to me?”

Kudos to Professor Doel for reminding us with that visuals are critical aids to empower and enlighten oral histories.  But another door opens in the relativist galaxy that bedevils every oral historian—images too are subjective —both in their presentation and their reception.  In the words of Louis Menand:

“No historian lines up all the dots.  Every work of history is a ridiculously selective selection from the universe of possible dots.[5]"

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