If PowerPoint is framed primarily as a visual presentation medium, then the user is encouraged to try to represent their thinking visually. The visual essay, in its turn, provides a different context where technology can serve as a tool with which students can think and represent the world in more complex ways.

The photographic/visual essay is a genre that is especially associated with Life magazine. Henry Luce, the founder of Life believed that this form of visual communication would allow the reader “to see and take pleasure in seeing, to see and be amazed, to see and be instructed…” (Cited in Baetens, 2003, p. 185). There is a sense of wonder in this description about the possibilities of linking photographs with text. And students today can also experience this wondrous feeling as they access diverse visual material on almost any topic. However, exposing students to this form of text can also highlight strong continuities with past communication practices. The visual essay may not have been described as a multimodal text in the past, but in utilizing images and texts, that is just what it is. Exploring this communication practice allows students to see that current new media has strong affinities with the past. Technology like the Internet allows students to access rich media which they can use to shape their responses. However, technology never operates in a vacuum and by applying it within an existing cultural form, like the visual essay, new media can often be better appreciated as a reworking of long standing cultural trends.

The New Snapshot

But why is it important that our students become adept at creating multimodal texts and understand the central role of images within them? One reason is that students need to be aware of the emotional power of images. Jameson and Gombrich have both alluded to this, as does Ann Barry who draws on recent brain research which she concludes contradicts earlier thought and reveals how sensory signals from the eye travel first to the thalamus and then, in a kind of short circuit, to the amygdala before a second signal is sent to the neocortex. The implication of this is that we begin to respond emotionally to situations before we can think them through. The ramifications of this fact are significant, suggesting that we are not the fully rational beings we might like to think we are. (Barry,1997, p.18) It takes a deliberate conscious effort to counteract the power of an emotionally charged image, and I have argued that using still images enables immediate acceptance to be replaced with thoughtful observation.

Producing visual essays is also a way of furthering this distancing process as students seek to visually represent their thinking. This point is highlighted in the following example which concerns how anti-abortionists have used graphic medical images as a tool of persuasion. The student’s visual essay examined how “image use” as pioneered by Robert Dodenhoff, a strong anti-abortionist, is presented on his website AbortionTV(.com). Disturbing medical images are shown on the “Abortion Pictures” section of the website. The student reflected that the use of such medical images “is as real as it gets, (but) it’s also as emotional as it gets.” It draws attention to the power of images to persuade through working on our emotions. The aim of this website is that others will follow the path of one girl who on finding herself pregnant visited the website, and “felt physically sick at the truth. Without hesitation, she chose adoption.”

Nick Sidoryn
Marden Senior College

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