Visual Literacy

Archive for September 2009

"Human Torch"  Greg Marinovich

"Human Torch" Greg Marinovich

I didn’t think that I would have such strong reactions to the Pulitzer photo gallery; there were times when I had to remind myself that I was around other people because I would’ve cried had I been alone. The flaming body draws the viewer to the picture. Like “Saigon Execution”, the  photographer uses the arm of the figure on the left to lead the viewer’s eye to the rest of the photo. Our eyes generally move from left to right when taking in images, which allows the story behind the photo to slowly unfold and piece itself together. In addition, the rule of thirds is implemented in both cases. The two figures in “Saigon Execution” take up the first and third portions of the photo, while the space in between makes up the middle. In this photo, each figure takes up its own “third”, with their expressions and mannerisms Of course, both photos also depict war, and how human lives can be ended with almost regimented ease. The most apparent difference is the use of color. The photographer uses vibrant colors and contrast between mannerisms and facial expressions to help evoke mood. By using color, the photographer seems to illustrate the reality of war; the hatred and conflict between the two groups results in a gruesome death. The figure on the right doesn’t even turn to look at the boy who is being killed, indicating that this scene is nothing new to him. The figure on the left is grimacing as he plunges the machete into the boy’s skull. He shows no remorse or hesitation in his actions. Finally, the boy in the middle is crouched down, trying to escape the unimaginable pain in the final moments before his death.


The first ethical decision I had to make involved sneaking in a camera to document a story. I chose to take the camera, because I believed that as a reporter, my responsibility was to expose a certain story. Maureen Beasely, a journalism professor, shared in the same belief. A journalist snuck in a camera to document the execution of Ruth Snyder, who had a hand in the murder of her husband. In this case, Beasely indicates that no ethical standards were infringed upon, and the photographer did not violate anything that was “journalistically bad”. She also indicates that it was for the greater good; the mass circulation of the picture could be used to discourage murderers with the consequences, or protest the use of capital punishment. I agreed more with her point that documenting such an event could expose practices that resulted in the mistreatment of certain people; as a result, I didn’t have much trouble making this decision.

The second decision I had to make questioned the amount of involvement journalists should take in a story. The photo “Ethiopian Famine” documented Stan Grossfeld’s dilemma:should he take the photo and not help the child, or should he abandon his responsibilities as a journalist, neglect to take the shot, and help instead? In Grossfeld’s case, he chose to take the photo, then proceeded to shoo the vulture away and watch as the little girl crawled towards a food tent.  In Beasely’s opinion, the photographer could have tried to help without getting directly involved, but he or she has a responsibility to the public to pass along the knowledge of what is going on. Ken Geiger, Pulitzer prize-winning photographer, reemphasizes Beasely’s point. The photographer is there to tell a story, and the image brought about positive results just by informing the public of the conditions in Ethiopia. While he believes that not taking the picture is almost as bad as not helping the child, it would be hard to not get involved even if the photographer’s life is at stake. This decision was much harder for me to make. Yes, as a photographer it is your job to document what you see, but I’m not sure that I could live with myself knowing that I had abandoned a child who needed help for the sake of doing my job. While photographers were instructed not to touch the locals to prevent the spread of disease, I’m quite positive that I would have helped the child regardless.

"Saigon Execution"  Eddie Adams, 1968

"Saigon Execution" Eddie Adams, 1968

At 12 noon on February 1st, 1968, Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan raised his pistol to the head of a Viet Cong prisoner and fired. Eddie Adams, a war photographer stationed in Vietnam, chose that moment to take a photo, which would be a defining image of the Vietnam War. From 1959 to 1975, North Vietnam and its allies tried to place South Vietnam under communist rule. To prevent the spread of Communism, the United States deployed troops in 1965. U.S. involvement peaked in 1968 during the Tet Offensive, a surprise attack by the north. Over 100 citites were attacked but the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces quickly retaliated and decimated the North Vietnamese troops.

Published in the New York Times on February 2nd, the photo helped polarize American sentiments towards the war. Advocates of U.S. withdrawal called themselves “doves” and their opponents “hawks”, and emphasized that further involvement would only result in greater bloodshed. Opposition to the war reached a high-profile level because of rallies and protests, and reached a climax with the fatal shooting of four anti-war demonstrators at Kent University. Anti-war protests ended with the final withdrawal of troops after the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973. On April 30th 1975, North Vietnam troops took over Saigon, completing their mission of capturing South Vietnam under communist rule.

Adams’ use of black and white gives a somber feel to the photo, and the juxtaposition of the light background with the “dark” circumstances also gives an interesting point of contrast. The eye automatically follows the general’s arm until it reaches the pistol, and finally settles on the face of the Viet Cong prisoner. The general’s stoic expression and the pained look on the prisoner’s face are also aspects of visual contrast in the photo. Finally, the rule of thirds is followed through the positioning of the pistol and the head of the prisoner, the main focus of the photo. The man’s head is also tilted slightly to the right, almost giving a sense of movement to the picture.

When I arrived at the Hirshhorn it was still pretty early, so there weren’t many people to observe. I sat in front of the Strange Bodies exhibit, and I noticed some interesting things. The first couple who appeared to be in their 20s were probably students. They were dressed casually, but pretty conservatively as well. As they wandered through the exhibit, the young woman would often go off in another direction, leaving her companion behind. However, she would look at another piece for about a minute then scan the room to find where he had gone, and would quickly walk back to him. While it seemed like she wanted to go off on her own, she perhaps felt insecure being by herself and felt the pull to return to the young man. The second pair I saw was two boys, but I couldn’t decide if they were high school or college students. They bounced around to a couple pieces without reading the didactics, pausing to look onlu for a couple seconds, then walked back upstairs. It seemed that they were only interested in the more grotesque pieces, and had no real interest in the exhibit or being at the museum. My favorite couple walked in just as i was about to leave. Probably in their 40’s or 50’s, they both wore casual clothing. As they walked past each piece, the wife would explain and analyze the artwork for her husbamd, talking him through color choices and line styles, which made me think that she was most likely an artist or at least had some artistic experience. The husband dutifully stopped and listened to every description; I spent a lot of time studying his face, which he kept very calm. As they made their way through the exhibit, I imagined that his thoughts either went along with”Thank God my wife knows what she’s talking about because I have no clue” or “Exactly how much longer am I going to have to put up with this?”.

I think that reading Berger’s ideas on cultural mystification before I went to the museum actually detracted from my experience. Rather than just go in with an open mind, I think I was too focused on not looking at any work of art with a preconceived notion, and I dismissed any interpretation that popped into my head because I figured it was probably dictated by what our culture has inscribed on us. With contemporary and modern art especially, it is difficult to deduce what the artist’s purpose was, or even if there was any purpose at all. While I’m not sure if i totally understand Berger’s point, my interpretation was that our culture ultimately dictates the kinds of reactions and interpretations we will have to visual images. If we can;t understand a work of art, it becomes difficult to give it any sort of importance. For example, the two younger boys I observed were only interested in the more gruesome pieces. With works of art that were more abstract, it was most likely too difficult to work out their meaning, and they simply skipped over them. I guess I can also argue that, while the wife from the last couple I mentioned seemed to have a good understanding of art, who is to say that the interpretations she was relaying to her husband were indeed what the artist had in mind when he created the piece?


The Gray Drape

Martha Rosler, 2008

I am always drawn to graphic art when I go to museums. I saw this piece out of the corner of my eye, but immediately went right back to take a closer look. The colors are pretty muted and dull, but there seems to be contrast between the gray interior area and the lighter exterior. What seems to be reminiscent of a 60s era housewife is elaborately pulling back a drape to unveil a war-torn scene. Men in fatigues and rifles make their way down a street as what appears to be a Muslim woman weeps on the ground. Flames burn in the distance, and a heavy cloud of smoke blackens the sky.

I love the contrast between the clothing that both women wear. Both are in “traditional” garments; the housewife wears a dress as was expected in the 50s and 60s, and the Muslim woman wears a skirt and hejab. The gloves of the American woman is juxtaposed to the bloodied bandages on the hands of the weeping woman. The expression on both women’s faces are also shockingly different. I even questioned whether or not the woman in the dress is aware of what is happening right outside.  Is she innocently oblivious or is she trying to alleviate any alarm that the viewer might feel after noticing the scene outside? I immediately recognized it as being a sort of anti-war cry, and while I thought the work itself was very visually appealing, I was unsure about whether the housewife’s face (probably symbolic of American culture), signified the attitude of the country as a whole in reference to the war, or to the leaders that pursued the war so vehemently.

Martha Rosler’s work focuses on everyday life, often highlighting women’s experiences. She “works in video, photo-text, installation, and performance…writes criticism” (2) and teaches at Rutgers University. She is most widely known for the creation of pioneering videos. In the late 60s, she created a series of collages protesting the Vietman war. Like The Gray Drape, she combined scenes from American culture with harrowing realities, illuminating what the war was really like for many who did not know. As a result, she depicted “an ironic, media-savvy attitude that changed the look of much art” (1). She recieved the Spectrum International Prize in Photography in 2005 and the Oskar Kokoschka Prize in 2006. Her piece protesting the war in Iraq (The Gray Drape) recieved harsh comments from critics, who felt she was regressing to her well-known, nostalgic style rather than invent something new.






To be honest, the shock I experienced after seeing a number of Benetton’s ad campaigns has yet to wear off. However, that is exactly what the company has strived to do, up until very recently; by associating themselves with images of “shock value”, the viewer is no longer just seeing an image. Now, he or she has an emotional reaction in response to a photo that is being used to advertise for a clothing company. I can understand the desire to break away from what we view as conventional advertising. Nearly every advertisement today is in some way promoting a certain lifestyle, or seems to include the message that without the product in question, happiness is unattainable. Rather than project this sentiment onto any of their products, Benetton’s founders believe it is more importance to raise social, cultural, and ethical questions through a new medium.

According to Luciano Benetton, their advertising hopes to undo the cycle of complacency that comes from being bombarded with “horrendous realities” in a constant stream through conventional media. By introducing these images into new contexts, they are more likely to be given warranted attention and simultaneously force the viewer to ask themselves how the Benetton ad makes them feel (55). From Luciano’s perspective, it seems like Benetton is taking a moral stance against social injustices. Maybe I’m too gullible; we should always be wary to some extent of anything we see in the media. However, a good advertisement, in my probably very naive opinion, only needs to catch the viewer’s eye and make them pause if for only a second. With Benetton’s ads, it’s more like a stop-pause-open mouthed stare for an extended period of time. While concerns raised about Benetton exploiting the suffering of others are rational and intelligent, I can’t help but wonder if even the mere use of such images helped bring about awareness from people who would have otherwise been uninformed. I mean, any publicity is good publicity, isn’t it? I’m not by any means condoning the use or misuse of the tragedies of others, but take Benetton’s ad featuring the man dying of AIDS. In the 80s and early 90s, AIDS was universally thought of as a “gay” disease, spread by the indulgent and sex-crazed. However, the photo shows the effects of the disease on the body of the sufferer but on the family as well. The one thing I truly disagree with was Benetton’s shift back to promoting their clothing in an orthodox manner after photographer Toscani retired. New ads featuring victims of domestic abuse surfaced, but several blogs have reported it as being a hoax, with one blogger even claiming that she spoke to the PR person. The believability of these claims can obviously be disputed. Benetton spent time and effort endorsing the messages that their advertisements portrayed, and refusing to continue their use of socially conscious images in advertising shows lack of conviction in their own methods.


  • emmalaem: I've never heard of this movie before, but from what Ashley says it sounds like an interesting film. The scene that she posted was different than a no
  • zaiguo: I agree with you about her passion, it was very apparent that she was very excited to talk to us about being a new professional in the media world. I
  • Jessica Gale: Hi Ashley, Yes! I loved Alex's fashion shorts... Great to see the funky (yet sometimes conservative) sides of DC fashion... Especially liked her a