Visual Arguments

Visual images are potent--we can react to them strongly.

So, people use them to cause a strong reaction.

A protester shouts slogans against BP during a demonstration in front of the BP “Green Curve” Station in Los Angeles. Note that she is using images to cause a reaction, and other people can also use this image to cause a strong reaction, most likely ridiculing this woman.

How can an image be used as a factual argument?

If you are arguing about specific objects, images can be used to illustrate that object.

For example, if one is discussing historical finds like the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest Anglo Saxon hoard ever uncovered, pictures are a great help.

It's one thing to merely TELL you how magnificent these pieces are, which have been lying in a field for over 1,500 years without being found until last year.

It is another thing to SHOW it to you, so you can see it for yourself.

If you are arguing about the object itself, an image helps the reader understand specifically what is interesting or controversial.

For example, scholars are studying the inscription on one of the pieces--it is a Biblical verse, in Latin. But the Latin has some errors, and the letter forms are unusual.

If you are arguing about something specific about Barbie dolls, a picture would be very helpful.

Shaping the Message

Images make arguments of their own.

There are two possible arguments for these next photographs, taken in London, England.

What argument would a Western, liberal audience likely say this is? What about a radical Muslim audience? What about a moderate Muslim?


Analyzing Visual Elements of Arguments

To analyze visual arguments, think about the following:

The Pontiac Judge

  1. Creators/Authors
    1. Who created the visual text?
    2. What can you find out about the artist, and other work he/she has done?
    3. What is the attitude (=tone) of the creator towards the work (serious, satire, parody, etc.)
    4. What does the creator intend its effects to be?
  2. The Medium
    1. Which media are used for this text--sight? sound? images? text? video?
    2. What effects do the media choice have on the viewer?
    3. What is the role of words that accompany the text?
  3. Viewers/Readers
    1. What does the visual text assume about its viewers? What do they all know and agree with, and is the text echoing or challenging that?
    2. What overall impression does the visual text create in you?
    3. What positive/negative feelings about individuals, scenes or ideas does the visual intend to invoke in the viewer?
  4. Content and Purpose
    1. What argumentative purpose does the visual text convey?
    2. What values/ideals does the visual evoke? (good life, youth, adventure, economic power, justice, sex appeal, etc.)
    3. What emotions does the visual evoke? (desire, envy, humor, anger, etc)
  5. Design
    1. How is it composed? Where does your eye go first, and why?
    2. What is in the foreground? background? what is stationary? What is moving? What is high/low? What effects do placement have?
    3. Any information highlighted or stressed to attract your attention?
    4. how are light and color used? What effects are they intended to have? video? sound?
    5. How are line and shade used? What effects?
    6. What details are included or emphasized? What is omitted? Is anything ambiguous?
    7. Is anything surprising in the visual text? Why?
    8. Is anything repeated, intensified or exaggerated?
    9. how are you encouraged to "move" within the text?

How about this collection of people speaking their minds?

If they make an argument, what is it, what appeals are being made, and who is the audience?

Take a look at the United Colors of Benetton homepage, and analyze it.

Using Visuals in your Own Arguments

Visuals are NOT substitutes for arguments! They are either a claim (which will require support) or support for a claim, or some kind of appeal.

Visual arguments can affect your character

How do images like these of President Obama affect audiences view of your character?

How do you read an image like this:

Then you find out that that the artist is an Arab American from Illinois who is a Democratic party voter (he preferred Kucinich). How does this poster affect his ethical appeal?

You need to know how visual arguments work--not subconsciously and passively, but consciously and actively.