“You are not a writer.” Every person at The Chronicle has told me this since I stepped into the doors of 301 Flowers my freshman year and chose the photo hallway instead of the news corridor. However, I would like to defend myself because I am a writer—I just choose to use visuals to tell my story instead of words. Pixels create the eye-catching, front-page photos that make you pick up the paper every day. So no, I am not your typical pen-to-paper writer, but I do help tell each story within the paper. I write with color, I write with depth-of-field, with shadows and emotions. Visuals, even those photos of yet another conference podium, enrich the stories flanked by rows of perfectly kerned black text. But now, you are reading my writing and not my photos for one of the first times in the history of my four years behind this paper.
You all learned the ABCs or your native tongue’s equivalent—some in preschool, and some of the more precocious learned their letters in the womb. Amid your lessons on letters were lessons on the color wheel (if you grew up outside the borders of California, and if your school had elected to preserve the arts from budget slaughter). By first grade, you all knew that “m,” “a” and “t” spelled mat, 1 + 2 = 3 and yellow mixed with red made orange. But as we grow older we lose focus on the color. Culturally, we put a primacy on reading letters and symbols, yet few of us learned how to read an image.
If you look around yourself today, how many images are you asked to pick apart and decode? Zero. Yet you are only asked to digest thousands of images daily. Think about it. We are constantly surrounded by images, in our textbooks and on our computer screens, cell phones and TVs. We are constantly consuming images, yet we don’t do so as critically as we should.
English classes teach us to parse text, but we are not taught to pull apart the interlocking threads of an image and understand the nuances of what we observe. History textbooks come laden with images, but we treat them as illustrations rather than as sources. Don’t skip the images; they are there not just to show, but to tell.
Reading images needs to be incorporated into our classrooms, just like reading texts. Visual literacy makes educated, engaged citizens. Who produced the image? Is it a reliable source? Where does it come from? Why was it produced? What is it trying to say? You ask these questions of the written word. I challenge you to try out these questions on the next Facebook album you peruse during finals procrastination. All images can be interrogated and analyzed, even the embarrassing party ones you immediately de-tag.
I hope the answer is clear: We need more visual literacy in our classrooms, even here at Duke. No one wants another requirement for graduation, but a visual literacy one should be discussed by the administration.
PowerPoint is a tool for sharing visuals, but so often the visuals linger on the screen behind us, and we don’t call on the audience to read the constituent elements. And we’ve all seen those presentations where someone copies and pastes their paper in size 11 font onto slide after slide.
Please, dear underclassmen, save future generations of Dukies from student presentation boredom: Use some pictures! Ask the audience to read them with you. And don’t just copy and paste from Google—just like for your papers, you need to check your sources.
The simple query: What do you see? If we ask this question more frequently we will see that we all “read” visuals differently.
Some people thrive on visuals. Reading was not fun for me when I was a kid because I saw things visually. That is why the camera naturally became my pen, my way of communicating with the world. At Duke, I feared that my visual eye would hold me back. Quite the contrary, I found visual studies, a major that allowed me to explore every discipline visually and ask critical questions about imagery. The classroom even complemented my night job at the newspaper, where, as a sophomore, I learned to pair the daily stories with what the photographers brought in.
Storytellers, no matter their medium, whether it be words or images, work to tell a captivating truth of what happened. Headlines may capture your attention, but I bet it is the image of Scheyer jumping into Thomas’ arms that made you grab the newsprint on April 5, 2010. I ask you to always question what made you look.
Duke made me look at the world differently, and I hope it does the same for you.
Maya Robinson is a Trinity senior. She is the creative director of Towerview Magazine, former photo editor, and former multimedia editor of The Chronicle.
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