Writing with Images: A Primer

Emma "Books Can Change People's Lives" 2013

Instagram, Flickr, Facebook, Fotobabble, Pinterest, Tumblr, Shutterfly, Smugmug.  If you have used one of these online tools today, you have shared your opinion, offered a commentary, expressed your creativity, or witnessed a moment in time — and you’ve done it through images. As we write nowadays with images as often as we write with words, if not more so, we need to give some attention to how we teach and how we learn how to use images online.

We Are What We Post

Whether we are sharing on social media or bringing a visual dimension to blog posts, we curate all kinds of photographs to make a personal statement about who we are. Here are some questions you can ask to bring curatorial awareness to the images you share:

* Have you taken the time to produce or share quality work?

* Are you using basic photo techniques to produce the best images you can?

* Does your image add to discussion or debate? Does it enhance what you want to say?

* Does your image stand alone, or does it need a well-crafted comment to go with it?

* What do your posts say collectively about you? Do they represent your best self?

Learning the Basics

As I work with my middle-school students, I first ask them to create a photo narrative essay about themselves as readers.  We talk about how to read the story in a photograph, how to pay attention to light and angle and framing. I remind students to keep the camera steady, hold their breath, and consider the rule of thirds when composing a photograph. I want them to master some tools for creating great, expressive photos of their own as a starting place.

I want my students to think about how image works with text, how it adds to the design of the page, how it enhances what they wish to say, and how it provokes additional discussion. In the end, the powerful impact of a well-chosen image will elevate their writing; a poorly chosen image, at best, will distract from what is said.

Teaching Beyond Selfies and Google Images

Ask any student to find photos, however, and the first thing they do is power up Google Images. Ask them to choose something from their own photo albums, and they produce cheesy mug shots with friends or embarrassing selfies. Yet, given a few simple tools and guidelines to work with, students unleash real visual power into their writing. Here’s what I like to do:

* Develop a greater appreciation for great photography; discuss the impact of photos you see every day. I introduce students to masters like Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, and Cindy Sherman, along with lesser known contemporary photographers. I also like to use the Lens blog at the New York Times for this.

* Help students discover search engines for photographs, and teach them how to use them. I use Compfight.com, which has filters for “Creative Commons” and “Safe.” I also sometimes use Behold.cc. Searching for photos also takes some practice — finding the right search terms, thinking beyond literal illustration, and identifying emotional tone are all part of the mix.

* Explain Creative Commons, Fair Use, and copyright. These terms are a foreign language to my students at first, and they have often been taught bad habits by the well-meaning adults in their lives. Once they feel ownership of their own photographs, however, they gain greater sensitivity for using the work of others. I emphasize using Creative Commons licensed and copyright free works, because I want my students to publish their own content on the web, regardless of the school environment it was generated in.

* Teach students how to write a photo or image credit. As far as I can tell, there is no real standard for this. (I’d be happy to know it, if a reader can help me out). I do know that it isn’t just the URL, which students are frequently taught is sufficient. I teach my students about scholarly documentation, how this is different from copyright, and suggest a format something like footnoting: photographer/creator, “Image Title,” date, URL.

(The ever-helpful Richard Byrne offers more suggestions in his post, “Free Digital Photos and a Guide to Citing Them,” Free Technology for Teachers, Nov. 26, 2013.)

Be Nice

It doesn’t hurt to reinforce a bit of online photography etiquette. Asking permission never hurts, whether you want to ask permission to use a photograph or artwork by someone you know, or whether you want to post a picture of a friend. Students need to be reminded of school policies about posting photographs of other students, and it’s not a bad idea to have them check in with their own parents about what they are posting.

It’s worth talking about how photographs can be used to hurt, expose, or embarrass others and how we need to take personal responsibility for the images we share. This is a character issue that goes to the heart of how students communicate every single day.

Students have endless “what if” questions about the subjects of their photos, but if they get the concept of being considerate of others, you’ve done your job.

Imagine, Envision, Create

We have long honored the power of the written word to move an audience. Yet, today we are just as likely to pick up a camera (in our phones) as we are to pen a note. Learning how to envision and create with both images and text constitute essential skills for all of us as we share our imaginations and ideas, now and in the future.
Photo Credits:
Emma, “Books Can Change People’s Lives,” 2013
Tres, “What’s Next?” 2013.

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Nancy Sharoff

I'm curious (as I too face a similar dilemma)...we teach about copyright, but do we teach about looking at a website's TOS (Terms of Service) to see if we are indeed of 'legal' age (in the U.S. that would be 18) to use their services? I have a slew of what I call 'image banks' that offer copyright free images, yet when I go to look at their TOS (which I always do when students are involved) inevitably I run across the 'legal age' phrase and decide not to have my students use that particular website.
Do you address this issue? And if so, how?

Susan Davis

Great question! I teach tweens, so I do indeed talk about what students are legally allowed to do or not. In almost all cases, I discourage my students from using anything that requires them to sign up for an account.

Cheryl Colan

A quick note to thank you for this post: you've covered many ways that visual literacy is an enhancement to writing. The concept of curatorial awareness is important and I'm thrilled to see someone teaching it.
I'd like to suggest you rethink the link to Richard Byrne's post, which does not actually offer any attribution guidelines, but rather simply points to a chart at freedigitalphotos.net. I teach image attribution to college freshmen in a graphic design program and we use Molly Kleinman's excellent "How to Attribute a Creative Commons licensed work" as a starting point for attribution guidance: http://mollykleinman.com/2008/08/15/cc-howto-1-how-to-attribute-a-creative-commons-licensed-work/

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