Reading Violent Images

Article excerpt

"Great events, including terrible ones, produce great images" (Hampton, p. 1A). Despite the potentially tragic nature of journalist Rick Hampton's observation, the central role that imagery plays in our daily lives is evident. Indeed, many events are remembered primarily through imagery, as is the case with Nick Ut's black-and-white photograph of a young nude girl, fleeing a napalm bomb attack. For many people, this image epitomizes the ravages of the Vietnam War.

The power of images to convince, impact, illuminate, and provide long-lasting reminders of events underscores the significance of contemporary images to art education (Green, 1999). Incorporating such imagery into curriculum can, however, be a daunting enterprise. Relevant and compelling on the one hand, on the other, the undertaking can be overwhelming and even controversial.

In this article, a three-step process for the utilization of contemporary images related to violence is presented. These steps are: 1) the organization of imagery into comprehensible components, 2) a research methodology for reading images, and 3) an activist plan that employs art production to address the issues raised by the images. This discussion will exemplify the significance of images within society and suggest the importance that such content can have within art education curriculum.

Indeed, if there is any doubt about how violent imagery impacts society and at the same time raises ethical issues, one need look no further than the war on Iraq. In particular, two instances demonstrate how images signify information. For example, on January 27, 2003 the United Nations covered a tapestry replica of Guernica located at the entrance to the Security Council of the U.N. with a blue curtain prior to discussions regarding possible attacks on Iraq. "One diplomat noted that it would not be an appropriate background if the ambassador of the United States at the U.N.-John Negroponte or Powell-talked about war surrounded with women, children, and animals shouting in horror and showing the suffering of the bombings" (Vallen, 2003). Secondly, when the government in Baghdad was overtaken by the United States, it was charged that the destruction of an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein by a group of Marines was a staged event. To the cheers of Iraqi citizens, the U.S. Armed Forces toppled the bronze sculpture to signal the end of a regime. Such actions reflect the power of images to convey psychological aspects of history and testify to their potential for curricular content.

Exploring Strategies Used by Image Producers

After collecting images that correspond to violence, the first step in building a unit on contemporary issues is to catalogue them. When perusing more than 100 images culled from newspapers, periodicals, the Internet, and magazines, I recognized that several issues were raised. These issues are summarized by the following categories:

Glamorization and Celebrity Appeal, or the exaggerated, sometimes romanticized importance placed on images promoted in the media. Does the media glamorize violence when publishers feature young murderers such as accused sniper John Malvo on the covers of nationally distributed magazines or is such coverage vital public information? Does such media coverage afford celebrity status craved by certain individuals such as Sirhan Sirhan, who "was heard to boast in prison that he had become as famous as Bobby Kennedy" or is this an isolated incident (Cornwall, p. 353)? Do movies that romanticize crime sprees, like Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, misrepresent the harmful effects of violent acts or are they innocuous entertainment? Do televised crime shows such as The Sopranos cause copycat criminal acts such as the episode that, according to two California brothers, inspired them to cut off the head and hands of their mother after they had murdered her (People, p. 126)?

Minimization, or the downplaying of the significance of violent acts. …