Today's students are comfortable, maybe too much so, with images packaged as truth. They have been raised in an advertising- and Hollywood-centric society that promotes appearances and trends over substance. They are the Selfie generation: adolescents practiced at taking photo after photo of themselves until they are confident they have just the right one to share on social media. In this way, they are their own propagandists and public-relations managers.
From digitally enhanced cinematography to air-brushed photographs of models and celebrities in magazines, students are constantly, if subliminally, told that how "perfect" or "new" something (or someone) looks is ultimately all that matters in life. The author Edward Bernays noted as much in 1928, when the movie industry was still in its infancy: "The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world today… The motion picture can standardize the ideas and habits of a nation."
In short, the motion picture industry can greatly influence American culture. Movies are also used to sell products. Students often fail to grasp that these images are intended to shape the way consumers think and behave. Whether it be a well-placed Coca-Cola can in a movie scene or a high-end luxury vehicle driven by a television character, none of these product placements happens by accident. As well-known linguist Noam Chomsky says, it's quite calculated: "The people in the public relations industry aren't there for the fun of it. They're doing work… they have a conception of what democracy ought to be: the population…ought to be sitting alone in front of the TV and having drilled into their heads the message, which says the only value in life is to have more commodities or live like that rich middle class family you're watching and to have nice values like harmony and Americanism. …So that's the ideal."
It is an ideal to which today's children and teenagers are increasingly vulnerable.
Public-relations companies and advertisers sell this ideal through images, and if students aren't critically viewing those images, then they are particularly vulnerable to the messages that they send. If we can teach students to critically view images, then we can teach them to begin thinking for themselves in a capitalist-driven society. But before we can teach them to evaluate and analyze political or commercial advertising, we must first teach them simply how to look and see what is before them.
We can begin this by teaching them the skills needed to observe images. An image is a powerful thing to study and analyze, to break down and look at long enough so that we begin to feel uncomfortable. We should
, which is nothing more than habit, long enough for us to
, which is discipline. And we must teach our students to do the same so that they can apply this skill to observe the world around them. Once students begin to pay attention to the images before them, the result can be profound. As photographer Dorothea Lange said, "[To] come back…having observed something that you didn't know was there, [or] …having seen something that you have seen many, many times and never realized… [is] a great discovery."
In fact, by analyzing photos like those taken by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression, in addition to paintings, we can teach students how to step back and objectively view not only imaginative works of art but also works of photojournalism. Students can observe the subjects of the photographs, the background detail, and then they can move on to ask themselves if it matters if they know what the photos are actually about? This raises a question: is it important for students to know the story behind an image—a photo, a painting, drawing, comic—in order to interpret its meaning or understand it? Indeed, what makes an image powerful? Is it the image itself, or is it the knowledge that the audience brings to it? And if the audience brings knowledge to it, can it objectively observe the image?
In the case of one photo, the public's knowledge of the story behind it significantly fanned the flames of anti-war sentiment during the Vietnam conflict. As Susan Sontag noted, "Photographs like the one that made the front page of most newspapers in the world in 1972—a naked South Vietnamese child just sprayed by American napalm, running down a highway toward the camera, her arms open, screaming with pain—probably did more to increase the public revulsion against the [Vietnam] war than a hundred hours of televised barbarities."
To use a tired but ironic cliché, the subject of the photo became a poster child for the anti-Vietnam War campaign.
How much we know about an image can enhance or detract from its impact. For example, many of Dorothea Lange's photographs during the Great Depression had captions with them that she had taken time to document after conversations with her subjects; however, those captions are often omitted from the publication of the photos. It can be argued that a photograph should stand on its own without a caption to summarize its story. Yet Lange biographer Ann Whiston Sprin argues that sometimes the accompanying story can make an image more poignant than it would be without a caption: "The verbal and the visual
distinctively different ways of thinking and knowing, but in those rare instances when one individual practices both arts, that whole should be celebrated, not suppressed. To divide the visual from the verbal, for Lange's work, is to miss the whole that it represents."
To that end, it can be powerful to introduce images to students without the accompanying background until they have made their own analysis of what they see,
but it is still important to eventually provide students with any text or captions that may accompany an image.
By teaching students how to first observe images and aim to see them objectively, as opposed to seeing only what connections we make to them or what projections we place upon them based upon our background knowledge, we are teaching students to slow down and assess information as it presented to them. In doing this, we can set up a framework for students to do the same with informational text, whether it be captions to photographs or entire articles and editorials. With the use of advertisements, photography, and photojournalism, we can help students cultivate skills that will help them determine the purpose behind a visual message, and to develop and articulate critical thinking against the tide of media that swirls around them.