The Power of Image and Text

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File:MLK mugshot birmingham.jpg

I often discuss with students the rhetorical power of using both images and text to help readers understand the nature and stakes of a given problem, and to move readers to action. Civil rights activists have long understood this lesson, particularly Martin Luther King, Jr., whose “Letter from Birmingham Jail” underscored the importance of challenging unjust laws. These laws were designed to disenfranchise black people in their struggle for racial justice and the full rights of citizenship. It’s hard to forget the words that rang out from his cell: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” But equally hard to forget are the images of police using fire hoses and dogs to disperse youth marching peacefully at the Children’s March in Birmingham in 1963, images which moved JFK to promise passage of a Civil Rights Act.

To further understand the power of words and images, I invite readers to listen to a National Public Radio interview with photojournalist Matt Black, who describes his experiences traveling across the United States. Black captures images of poverty, now included in an exhibit called “The Geography of Poverty.” It is one thing for Black to speak about the abject poverty he has witnessed at a time when, he explains, many of our nation’s leaders have expressed their confidence about economic recovery, low unemployment rates, and tax cuts. It is quite another thing to view photographs of the lived reality of the people left behind.


In one of Black’s photographs, a black woman peers out from her kitchen. She stands next to a battered stove in a shack in the Mississippi Delta – an area which was the site of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s aggressive efforts to register black sharecroppers to vote in 1961. Sharecroppers risked their lives in order to have the right to vote and access to all of the opportunities citizenship affords.


The image of a black woman living in a tiny shack among rusted paint cans offers an arresting sense that a dream has been deferred. This image underscores the level of poverty that exists, even as the nation celebrates Dr. King’s dream and our leaders tout economic achievements. Black’s words add power to the image when he observes in the interview, “Many of the benefits of that era and of that movement went elsewhere.” And the images he has captured make his words all the more powerful in an argument that economic recovery is not evenly distributed.


In teaching writing, I want students to consider the types and forms of argumentation that might benefit from being presented visually. The power of an image inheres in its ability to make us aware of the gravity of an issue and convey its force, strength, and urgency. But how does a visual image contribute to arousing emotions in readers and motivate them to act?


An image of children may very well be an effective means of conveying a sense of urgency to readers about hunger in America, while using a map communicates different information. A map tells a story of where food insecurity exists, its prevalence, and perhaps how food insecurity correlates with other problems, including lack of employment opportunities and residential segregation among different racial and ethnic groups. With numerical data in the form of tables and graphs, students can create a powerful narrative, conveying a sense of immediacy, urgency, and importance.


I ask students to think about the following questions in developing a visual argument.

  • What is my purpose for including an image, such as a chart, map, graph, or photograph? What trends or patterns do I want to emphasize?
  • What story does the image help me tell?
  • How does this image complement or highlight my written argument?
  • How do I want readers to respond to this image(s)? What ideas and emotions do I want to evoke?
  • What sort of caption should I include to help readers understand the context and meaning of the image?


These are the kinds of questions that place rhetoric at the center of the students’ decisions about the best way to present their argument – if, and how, images can help them fulfill their goals as writers.


In From Inquiry to Academic Writing, April Lidinsky and I provide the following practice sequence as they read and then begin to compose their own essays.

  1. As a class or in small groups, discuss the strategies authors use to integrate image and text in the readings in this section.
    • When does using a map make sense? What about a photograph?
    • Are there instances when the authors might have combined strategies to fulfill their purpose as writers?
    • Are there some best practices you can come up with for telling stories that ensure readers understand the importance, immediacy, and urgency of an argument?
  1. Given your own purpose for writing, write down how you would follow the steps for integrating visual images in a written argument.
    • Identify your purpose. What is the story you want to tell?
    • Analyze your audience’s values and knowledge base to determine how they might react to different kinds of media.
    • Evaluate which kind of images will create a sense of importance, urgency, and immediacy.
    • Question the source of the data you want to use. Does the source of data tell us anything?
    • Integrate the text you have written and the image(s) you include. What conclusions can readers make from what you might include?


I encourage students to use their voices to share what they know. I want them to capture the humanity of people and places that matter, much in the way of Humans of New York.


Given the different models of writing instruction that appear in Bedford Bits, I wonder: what strategies do others encourage students to use to challenge persistent problems; writing strategies that move others to action?

About the Author
Stuart Greene received his Ph.D. in English from Carnegie Mellon in Rhetoric. He is associate professor of English with a joint appointment in Africana Studies at Notre Dame. His research has examined the intersections of race, poverty, and achievement in public schools. This work has led to the publication of his co-edited volume, Making Race Visible: Literacy Research for Racial Understanding (Teachers College Press, 2003), for which he won the National Council of Teachers of English Richard A. Meade Award in 2005. He has published a monographic, Race, Community, and Urban Schools: Partnering with African American Families (Teachers College Press, 2013), edited Literacy as a Civil Right (Peter Lang, 2008) and co-edited with Cathy Compton-Lilly, Bedtime Stories and Book Reports: Connecting Parent Involvement and Family Literacy (Teachers College Press, 2011). His current research focuses on literacy, youth empowerment and civic engagement in the context of university/community partnerships. This work appears in his edited collection Youth Voices, Public Spaces, and Civic Engagement. (Routledge Press, 2016), Language Arts, Urban Education, and The Urban Review.