“No visual perception is a pure apprehension of objective reality.”

Charles HIll, “Reading the Visual in College Writing Classes”

Hill recognizes the “epistemic power” of images and argues that college writing courses should make an effort to expose students to the complexity of visual communication in order to study and analyze it—largely because United States culture leans heavily towards “passive” consumption of media. Another issue Hill takes with this cultural turn is that most passive viewers of media believe what they see: the photo as reality, or “the purity of direct perception.” All perceptions are subjective, but as a passive viewer it isn’t always clear that your own perception is not the perception of others.

But the key is to help students become aware of visual communication in a more active way. Taking a pedagogical approach to analyzing media, the following is an assignment I would give my students to analyze a social media image like the photo above, and an example of an answer to one of the questions for analysis. I chose the cover image for a video of Chip and Joanna Gaines (from TLC’s Fixer Upper).

Visual Analysis of an Instagram Post

In 200-300 words, write a short analysis of an image you found on Instagram from someone who has over 100k followers. You will want to answer the following questions as you write about the intent of visual representation within the image.

  • Who is present within the image?
  • What objects are presented within the image?
  • What is the relationship of the person(s)/object(s) to each other? And to the scene?
  • What colors are used in the image?
  • What is the argument of the image?
  • Is text used in/on/around the image? What is the message of the text? How is the argument of the image furthered by the argument of the text?
  • What visual representations (objects that represent an idea, place, person, etc.) do you observe in this image? Are these representations literal or ideological?
  • How does this image reinforce/break away from cultural values? How is the portrayal of culture typical or atypical?
  • How does this image project “vivedness,” or emotionally engaging? What emotions might it evoke?

Example

This image is a cover photo for a short holiday promotional video. It features Chip and Joanna Gaines (of “Fixer Upper” fame), who are two major influencers on Instagram. Within the image, the viewer sees both Chip and Joanna, and a dog, sitting on a porch.

The visual representations in this image are focused on reflecting information about Chip and Joanna and their business, Magnolia Farms. The decorative objects in this image, two rustic rocking chairs, a lantern, a white throw blanket, represent the literal “farmhouse style” that the couple are famous for. Their clothing represents the idea of cold, with Joanna decked out in a tan coat and waterproof “duck” boots and chip in a thick sweater and boots. Another visual representation that signals winter is found in the light dusting of “snow” on the edge of the porch. The “snow” is pretty obviously fake, as the reflection in the windows shows a green deciduous tree.   

This image projects vividness through an emotional connection to home and the holiday season. More specifically, the image uses proximity of the people and animal to demonstrate that connection. Chip is seated in a rocker, while Joanna balances on the arm of the chair, their elbows and sides touching. Their warm clothing also points to the emotional connection to home, though in a more indirect way as it represents warmth of body, but could be indicative of an emotional “warmth.” In a similar way, the cups of coffee in their hands signal that warmth, but also signal a shared experience, enjoyment, and togetherness.

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