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The Uses of Visual Argument

posted: 4.27.12 by Donna Winchell

A look at composition textbooks these days shows how much the business of teaching writing has moved toward a teaching of the visual. Certainly in this day of sound bites and multimedia, the educated consumer has to be able to read a visual argument as well as a written one. The Trayvon Martin case brought this home in a powerful way when almost overnight the hoodie became a visual symbol of solidarity with the Martin family and others who saw Martin’s death as a hate crime. I’ve been trying to remember the last time I saw a symbol take hold so quickly and so widely.

I don’t know if it was a conscious decision to use the first pictures released of Martin and his shooter Zimmerman to slant the public’s perception of the two, but it certainly played out that way. The earliest pictures of Martin that the public saw showed him several years before his death—a little boy, really, in a football uniform. The one of Zimmerman that was reprinted in those first few days looked like a mug shot rather than like the much neater man who turned himself in to the police. It will be hard for prospective jurors to get those images out of their minds.

The Centers for Disease Control recently decided that graphic visuals might be the way to scare people into stopping smoking. The vivid ads show individuals who have lost limbs as a result of smoking, and one shows a woman who has to speak through a stoma because of the damage smoking has done to her larynx. The ad campaign features both television and print ads, but both depend on the shock of the visual in conjunction with the text to make their point. One reads, “A Tip from a Former Smoker: Allow Extra Time to Put on Your Legs,” and shows a young man putting on his two artificial legs.

For good or ill, visual argument is a part of our print and digital world. Today’s students have to learn to read the pictures as well as the text. We may also be at the point where we have to teach them to use the visual in their arguments more than we currently do. We may have to rethink the traditional research paper that depends on words alone and make room in our assignments for effective use of those pictures that are worth a thousand words.


[Photo: I am not a number on Flickr]


Categories: Argument, Visual Argument
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