Visual Rhetoric

Flickr Visual Rhetoric Assignment by Eileen McGinnis

Flickr Logo: with blue and pink letters

Image Credit: topgold 

For a handout, download the PDF document outlining this assignment.


At the start of the semester, my students in “The Rhetoric of Science Writing” read an excerpt from Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan’s prose meditation on a grainy image of Earth taken from the Voyager One mission. Without the accompanying text, the photograph is pretty unimpressive. However, after reading Sagan’s words, it would be difficult for readers to question the value of that image, since at stake is nothing less than our definition of what it means to be a human occupant of Earth, an argument for our responsibilities toward each other and toward the planet.

For their final short assignment, students themselves try on the role of “science writer”: they are asked to find a scientific image, contemporary or historical, and write a brief (500-600 word) argument that attempts to persuade a non-scientific audience of their image’s value. Their goal is to convince readers that their chosen image warrants a closer look and to leave them with a more informed appreciation of its contents.

Rather than submitting the assignment and accompanying image to the instructor, they will post both the image and text to the photo-sharing site Flickr. Using Flickr to collect students’ work will then enable them to present and discuss their images on the following class day. In addition, the relative “publicness” of this assignment will hopefully foster a sense of community and shared purpose (students can use content-specific tags to make their visual arguments more easily searchable by a broader audience).

Of course, this exercise doesn’t necessarily have to come attached to formal assessment. 

The broader idea here is to use Flickr to create a class “image gallery,” which will facilitate discussion about both individual images and trends across a group of images. Flickr would also work for a more informal homework assignment or even an in-class activity on visual rhetoric, in which students retrieve and analyze visual artifacts for class discussion. 

Pedagogical Goals:

  • To practice considering audience, establishing ethos, and finding voice.
  • To appreciate the ways in which visual and textual information can combine to create a powerful argument.


Rather than walking through the details of my particular assignment, I’ll provide a couple of logistical tips that are more broadly applicable to using Flickr in class:

  1. On the day before the assignment is due, one would likely spend a class period on visual rhetorical analysis. So, using Flickr to post one’s own images for that class discussion might help to model how Flickr can be used in a rhetoric classroom. It would also make sense to leave time for students to set up Flickr accounts on the class computers.
  2. Make sure that students “tag” photos with the unique number for the course, so that you can easily search for the images later. You might also link your course site to the unique-number search results on Flickr, so that there is a record of the group project.
  3. Note that Flickr allows students to annotate photos directly, which might be helpful for students’ presentations of their images.


The “Groups” feature on Flickr might offer another way to organize your students’ posts versus having them tag the photos. If you were concerned about access, it would also allow you to control who gets to view the images and/or comment on them. 


Thanks to John Jones for helping me figure out the logistics.

Calendar Boys, Beefcake Girls: Photographing the Bodies We Want

Rion Sabean, posed as a pin-up girl, with cordless drill

Image Credit: Rion Sabean

H/T: Melanie Haupt

My favorite way to take a break from dissertation research is to visit Facebook.  Some days, I’m lucky enough to be entertained by my friends, as when Melanie Haupt posted a provocative link to an article about male pin-ups.

Visualizing Censorship II

Screen shot censorship map

                                                                                                              Image: Partial Screen shot from Google Maps

How do you make a topic like censorship visible?  After all, the goal of censorship is to make things, in a literal sense, invisible, un-seeable.  But in a world where (sometimes wonderfully, sometimes insidiously) the visual has come to be paramount, how can you visualize censorship, see what can’t be seen?  A few weeks ago, I posted about a few of the visual images highlighted by the Harry Ransom Center’s new Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored exhibit related to this topic.  Inspired by Banned Books Week—it’s this week, in case you didn’t know—I want to examine some modern representations of censorship. 

YouTube & Fair Use (Part II)

Image Credit: Scott Nelson, Creative Commons, Attribute, Share-Alike

Last week, I addressed only the first stages in a YouTube copyright dispute. Should a copyright holder wish to issue a Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notice, the process is a bit more involved. This past year, the company introduced the YouTube Copyright School, a kind of “traffic school” for copyright violations. If a user receives a copyright violation notice, she is forced to watch a five-minute cartoon about copyright and complete ten questions regarding the content. As I mentioned above, on the third such copyright notice, the user is banned from uploading to YouTube for life. YouTube commissioned the creators of The Happy Tree Friends to craft the video tutorial, and so far, the video has received over half a million views, with around 1600 likes and five times as many dislikes. While the video certainly informs users of their rights and responsibilities under copyright, it uses visual rhetoric to present copyright law as frightening and complicated. Such a characterization contributes to the chilling effect on using copyrighted content to create YouTube videos.

Sol Lewitt, #StankyLegg, and the Publics for Conceptual Art

Evans Dances

Evans Dances Baldessari Sings Lewitt Via UIC

Can the Stanky Legg bring new publics to conceptual art? Perhaps this is arguable.  But why don't you make up your own mind about it while Chaz Evans shakes a leg in his Vimeo video.  Shots of Evans dancing the Dougie, the Robot, and the Hustle after the break.

Reboot: Bodies of Evidence by Emily Bloom

Museum of Fat Love

Image Credit: The Museum of Fat Love

H/T: Layne Craig

Amidst massive media coverage of the “obesity epidemic,” visual arguments have emerged online that challenge the terms of the current debate.  One example is the website, The Museum of Fat Love, which presents a collection of photographs of smiling couples.  Similarly, Newsweek ran a series of photographs on their website titled“Happy, Heavy and Healthy” in which readers submitted pictures of themselves performing athletic feats.  Both websites called for volunteers to submit evidence that individuals classified as overweight or obese can live healthy, happy lives.  The use of visuals in both instances is striking—both websites are predicated on the understanding that overweight individuals have been misunderstood (perhaps even vilified) in the course of public debates on obesity and public health.

Disaster Pedagogy

Japan's flag with a tear instead of a circle

Red Teardrop, via Anota bien.

My class, Rhetoric of Tragedy, is based on the idea that the events we normally label “tragic” are always points of contestation. The right way to remember, what we should do to ensure that it never happens again, who to blame—all of these are controversial questions that provide an opportunity to study how we argue. But it can be hard to talk about these conversations in class, especially when you are looking at visual rhetoric. How do we address these contemporary events without making the classroom an upsetting place?

BagNewsNotes Salon: Photos from Egypt


Flyer by BagNewsNotes

We wanted to share news about an international webinar hosted by BagNewsNotes forthcoming Sunday March 20th at 12 noon CST.  You can register ahead of time for this important online discussion of images from the Egyptian revolution.  For more about BagNewNotes, read our first viz. post from the spring semester.  See also our previous discussion about how the New York Times represented the early days of the protests in Egypt.

Cairo and Perspective

Lefteris Pitarakis Via New York Times

Since protests began one week ago across Egypt, the media has published many photographs of iconoclasm against images of President Mubarak, or images depicting the scale of the protests in Cairo.  I'd like to raise the question of how representative images from this week are using one-point and two-point perspective, and how that perspective informs our sense of the unfolding events.

Meat is Couture? - Lady Gaga's Meaty Message

Lady Gaga's VMA meat dress

Image Credit: Lady Gaga at the VMAs, Designer Franc Fernandez

I realize that I may be a bit behind the times to be addressing (ha!) Lady Gaga's fashion stunt of last fall, but meat's been on my mind this week as I'm about to embark on 30 days of eating vegetarian - largely as a result of the text we're teaching in our introductory rhetoric classes here at UT: Colin Beavan's No Impact Man. But that's another story.  Gaga's appearance at the Mtv Video Music Awards sparked controversy that dissipated rather quickly, and though this may have been due to the singer's own inability to adequately (or logically) explain the reasons behind her wardrobe choice, the images left behind offer a really interesting opportunity for varying and disparate interpretations.  

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