Show and Tell

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words.

That’s never been more true than it is in today’s 24-hour news cycle, where news is more often watched than read. Headlines may come and go, but powerful news images can become part of the public consciousness almost instantaneously. Iconic images become closely identified with a news event, but not everyone perceives and interprets the images—or the stories they tell—in the same way.

Dr. Leslie Hahner, associate professor of communication in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences, says that while studying images and the way people react to them is not new, recent advances in communication technology have changed the ways in which audience members can repurpose images to give them meaning beyond those originally intended by the photographer. Thanks to the power and reach of the Internet, images can spread rapidly and take on lives of their own, opening up new avenues for academic inquiry.

“Traditionally, visual rhetoric scholars study the image itself and question how the audience is invited to view the image and respond to it. What’s new about this analysis is that we now have access to so many different ways in which people can repurpose images to give a different framework for viewing their responses.”

Prior to the last few decades, modifying an image involved lots of specialized equipment and skill. The resources required made image manipulation the province of professionals and left most would-be commentators with only low-tech tools like scissors and paste.

Now, thanks to the rapid spread of image-manipulation software, virtually anyone with a computer can change an image to cast the subject in a different light. Internet users can manipulate images in seconds, adding text commentary, superimposing new elements into the picture, or placing the subject of the picture in a completely different scene. When users create and share these images, it can spark a rapid-fire give-and-take where one viewer takes the ideas of another and adds his or her own touches before sending the image into the world. When these images, themes and comments begin to coalesce around a central idea, a meme – a cultural artifact in the form of an image or phrase that spreads quickly and is altered in a creative or humorous way – is born.

One particular image that has been the focus of Hahner’s research was taken in the riots following the Vancouver Canucks’ Stanley Cup win in 2012. The image, which became widely referred to as “Riot Kiss,” shows a city street at night with a couple kissing on the pavement while riot police look on. Viewers responded to the image in a multitude of ways: some saw it as an iconic juxtaposition of romance against a violent encounter with police, while others claimed that the image was staged or fabricated entirely.

In the days following the photograph’s publication, Internet users began to manipulate the image to place the kissing couple in a wide range of other familiar photographs: next to the row of tanks in Tiananmen Square, behind the Beatles crossing Abbey Road or on the shoulder of the highway where O.J. Simpson led police on a low-speed chase (the list goes on and on – while we’d love to show you some of these images, unfortunately, due to the uncertain authorship of these works, it is impossible to properly attribute them for copyright purposes). Some of these visual mashups are simply intended to make a silly joke, while others provide serious commentary on the event itself, journalistic integrity and the nature of authenticity in visual art. These repurposings, Hahner says, illustrate the myriad frames through which individuals can view an image and the arguments it presents.

While online memes like “Riot Kiss” are a recent development, they channel a classical rhetorical technique known as enthymeme, a rhetorical construction in which the speaker doesn’t explicitly state all parts of an argument and instead requires viewers to come to a conclusion on their own.

“Enthymemes are very persuasive because they invite the audience to do some of the work for the speaker,” Hahner explains. “The trick for a scholar or teacher of visual rhetoric is to make sure we recognize whether the particular image we’re seeing is an ethical form of persuasion or not.”

As both a scholar and a teacher, Hahner applies what she learns in her research to the undergraduate and graduate classes she teaches. That connection between research and teaching has also opened up opportunities for undergraduate students to pursue independent research projects of their own.

Rachel Reon, a senior majoring in communication studies, has worked with Hahner on research related to visual arguments for the past three years. In that time, she has had the opportunity to present her research at Baylor’s Scholars Week (an undergraduate research showcase) as well as at professional academic conferences. She and Hahner have even been co-authors on a scholarly paper related to the work.

Reon says that participating in research alongside Hahner has helped her clarify her ultimate career goals.

“Working with Dr. Hahner has really confirmed my decision to go to graduate school,” Reon says. “She pushed me to work at a higher level and gave me the freedom to explore concepts and learn on my own. That accountability and freedom gave me the confidence to write at a higher level.”