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A Thousand Words

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

With the AP® Language exam looming, many teachers like to gear up by reviewing prompts and multiple-choice passages with their classes.

But another good way to get "tuned up" for the exam while still targeting the skills of rhetoric and composition is to focus on the skill, still relatively new to the AP® Language exam and to many English classes, of interpreting and writing about visuals.

I have found that students are very engaged by the interpretation of images, and these resources may provide you and your classes with some stimulating opportunities for analysis and argumentation, while honing students' abilities to examine images closely and critically, and incorporate them into their arguments.

A good place to start might be with this short TED lecture from Jonathan Klein of Getty Images on the power of photographs to change our perceptions of the world.

Note some of the propositions Klein uses in his talk, many of which are good starting points for discussion and debate. The following are some examples:

Klein asserts (~1:30) that images were largely responsible for the birth of the environmental movement.

  • Do you agree?
  • Were other conditions necessary for such a change in perception?
  • Are some of the images that he shows subsequent to his assertion just as powerful or as galvanizing as the initial image of the earth from space? Why, or why not?
  • Can you think of similar events or movements in your recent memory that were initiated or spurred on largely through images?

Some images are deemed "too graphic or disturbing" (4:45) for public consumption; often such images force us to "question our core beliefs" (4:25).

  • Does good taste trump access to challenging material?
  • Who decides the limits of what should be considered "too graphic or disturbing"? Are some images suitable for some audiences but not for others? Based on what criteria?
  • Examine this page of reader responses to a recent front-page image published recently by the Washington Post. Critique the assertions made in the letters to editor: Which arguments are based on analysis of the photo? Which on a visceral reaction to it informed by personal beliefs? Which are convincing, and why? Does this photo hold any power to sway you personally? Does it cause you to question your core beliefs, and is that a good thing? Is it too graphic or too disturbing?

Klein  cites (and disagrees with) Ansel Adams regarding the relative roles of photographer and audience in creating a photograph (5:18).

  • Who do you think is most instrumental in the creation of an iconic image---photographer or audience?
  • Read the excerpt from Susan Sontag's On Photography from Q3 of the 2001 AP® Language exam (PDF). Consider the prompt with the TED talk and your own reactions to it in mind. Does the way in which the photographer frames the image limit our understanding of its subject matter and change the way we perceive its message? Why or how (or not)?

These and other points Klein makes help students to identify aspects of image analysis that are necessary for determining how they play a role in argumentation. Many involve his premise that an analysis of images interacts with a context of societal perceptions and preconceptions, along with an understanding of where emotional appeals lie and a cultural literacy that helps make sense of associations and allusions---for example, an understanding of crucifixion imagery that helps identify that imagery in the photograph of the slain gorilla at ~1:55.

A logical writing follow-up to this exercise is to have students write about an image that changed their world (especially one that caused them to act or to think differently). They should not only describe the impact of the image in narrative or reflective form, but explain why and how the image had such an effect through a thorough analysis of the photo itself---ideally, they will have a copy of the photo for reference. This New York Times lesson plan might help to get them started.

You could also poll them to find out how many of them recognized the images Klein considers "iconic" in his opening sequence, and follow up with a discussion of whether iconic images stand the test of time. Challenge them to find an image from their own experience that they think will be remembered as iconic twenty or thirty years from now, and to explain what it is about that image that makes it so memorable, using their image-analysis skills, their understanding of the importance of cultural and historical context, and their persuasive powers.

The Time and Life photo archives are good places to start.

®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.