Thinking about images in a Writing Course

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In my teaching, I find myself thinking these days about visual images almost as much as I do about words. Five years ago that wasn’t the case at all. Yes, I majored in art history in college and teach an arts writing course, and so I’ve long been pulled to the grammar of an image, but in my teaching of writing, I stuck pretty much with language on the page. These past four years have seen me not only inviting my students to consider the image as a viable writing tool, but insisting that they use them, and explore what an image does and how it means. Why?

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The last couple of days has seen a convergence for me of image-rich, image-tense, image-dominated moments that will help explain:

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I bought my first digital camera this summer and have been taking it out with me on dawn walks with the dog through the Vermont countryside. I forgot how having a camera in tow makes me experience a simple morning walk so differently–it isn’t the same experience of feeling the morning on my skin and eyes and ears in equal parts. With the camera I am more alert to the individual details of the scene–and it is more a scene–than when I’m just walking. I am more attentive to everything going on in the visual plane rather than to the full experience. I don’t lose myself in thought quite as often. And so each morning now I ask myself if it’s a camera morning or a sensation morning.

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Echoing in my head, too, is H�ctor’s recent description of visiting the sites of D.C. with his young son this past weekend. People were snapping photos as though their lives depended upon it. They never brought the little boxes from their faces, as he described it, and he wondered what this was doing to people’s ability to SEE, to look closely at ANYTHING anymore. The snapping away was indiscriminate, and distanced the snapshot-taker from the experience of actually looking at the Washington monument, taking it in, experiencing it. Do people not really want to have experiences anymore–do they just want photos to email home?

And then last night, late, we watched an episode of Six Feet Under, the one in which Claire (and Russell–there’s a little exploration of intellectual property brewing here, and collaboration, and artistic license) creates photographs of people on whom she has laid papier mache masks covered with collages of torn bits of photos of their faces. For one thing, this is the only television show that interest me at all, and I’m thinking of using this episode in my class to talk about what all these photographs–the taking of photos in particular–are doing for and to us as artists, as writers, and as dwellers on this planet at this time.

…Which got me searching back into an old post looking for the quotation from Susan Sontag. on how images are being used today: “a shift in the use made of pictures–less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated, circulated.”

I also bought Ron Burnett’s How Images Think, a book that wouldn’t have been high on my list just a few years ago and now sits on my desk atop several must-read novels and collections of poetry and essays, next-in-line (and I can hardly wait for the weekend when I can start it). Today I wandered over to his blog (because that’s what I seem to do nowadays, see if writers who interest me blog, and if they do it well. Ron Burnett has a beautiful blog which is part of his
CRITICAL APPROACHES TO Culture + Communications + Hypermedia website
. Much to explore there. In his latest post he announces a new book he’s writing, The Age of Six Feet Under. Ha.

All of which brings me to my students, of course, as most posts do, and what they’re up to. On the Blogging the World Project blog, many posts (on the students’ own blogs linked off the Motherblog) focus on the feeling of disorientation and disequilibrium that comes with living for some time in a place quite different from your own. Those first posts covered impressions of feeling, I would say, and the ones coming now are more visual in their content and theme as they begin to post photos and remark upon what they are seeing. I’m going to be interested to see what posting images to a blog and hearing back about them does to and for the experience of being abroad. How will they use the pictures? Piya uses them poetically in this post and this one, Zoey as punctuating illustrations that really help us to see what she’s talking about. I’ll have my students in Writing Workshop follow along, watching the way in which the bloggers abroad use their images. Will it be like the snapshot takers in D.C.; will it be like Julina last year in Artswriting? How will they choreograph the screen, and what impact will it have on our reading their journey and on their experience of it? Will there be writing only blog days and image-rich blog days?
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3 Responses

  1. Barbara, I found this last entry of yours quite fascinating. As a foreigner in a land, I find myself constantly contemplating whether I should bring my camera with me or leave it at home. Of course, whenever it is not with me the most stunning images tend to appear.
    There is obviously a strong distinction between a tourist with a camera and yourself on a routine stroll with the dog. As you said, it changes the experience in a place you are familiar with. As for the tourist, everything is new, they have no relationship with the streets, the people, the buildings. Hence the subject of most tourist photos, buildings, bridges and street musicians. They catcht the outer-layer, the surface and can indulge in it. The smaller details don’t scream as loudly, they don’t speak to the tourist and are missed. I think it is a wonderful idea to take the camera into familiar settings, because it forces you to look deeper, look from different angles, underneath rocks, and behind old oak trees.
    A perfect exercise for writers! How many different ways can they describe the same image? What memories does it stir? relationships? and possibly most important, what can they NOT see in the image? Many greetings from Berlin, Zoey

  2. Zoey,

    I see a budding writing teacher here, one who should come do a guest lecture in EL170 this spring if only she weren’t across the Atlantic!

    It’s an interesting observation you make about the difference between wielding a camera as a tourist and as a resident, that a camera in hand could reinvigorate the seeing, make us pay more attention. What I like most, perhaps, about having a new camera is how I do take in the small shifts that occur day to day on the land. Even when I resist bringing it along. Wonderful tensions occur between what a camera can do for you and what it can do to you. I’m having my fall class take cameras out with them whereever they go for a weekend later this fall, taking all the pictures they like. The following weekend they cannot take any pictures. And the weekend after that they must take 5 but only five. We’ll see what transpires…and how it affects their writing.

  3. Hello Barbara, I wanted to know something..
    I was visiting the Irish Blog that’s in your links, and well I noticed that the posting stopped last year in March… and I wanted to know if it’s completly abandoned? or did you start a new one? Because I wanted to link the “what being Irish means” post on to my blog (since I’m half Irish, and really proud of it.) Thank you for answering. =)

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