Regarding the Visual Messages of Others

(c) 2003 Paul Martin Lester
Professor of Communications, California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and Web page)
A book review for Journalism Educator

Sontag, Susan (2002). Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux. 144 pp. Hardcover.
Goldfarb, Brian (2002). Visual Pedagogy: Media Cultures in and Beyond the Classroom. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 264 pp. Softback.

All images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic. --Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 95

I do not mean to downplay the radical potential of programs that engage students in the visual, the popular, or the technical means of media production. --Brian Goldfarb in Visual Pedagogy, p. 7

An interesting and valued feature for this journal would be for AEJMC members to periodically report what books they read for pleasure--ones that are chosen for no other purpose than to learn about topics unrelated to career paths, and yet, if the authors do it right, ways of incorporating their teaching into ours can be found. For myself, I tend to choose nonfiction books to read for fun with one word main titles: Beauty, Crying, Dust, Salt, and Stiff, for example. But so far this summer I have made two exceptions: Regarding the Pain of Others and Visual Pedagogy. Guess which one I was asked to review for this journal?

I must confess at the onset that pedagogy, the word, is one of those "fingernails on the blackboard" haughty terms like hegemony and paradigm that I usually avoid when selecting books and articles to read or conference presentations to attend. (Perhaps part of the problem I have with the word is I am never sure if it is pedaGAAgee or pedaGOgee. My wife and writing collaborator says the former but I prefer the sound of the latter. But then I digress).

As soon as I saw the recent Sontag collection of essays on the shelf of a bookstore at a mall, I snatched it up and devoured the articles in one afternoon pausing only to underline phrases and write comments here and there. Back in 1977 when Sontag's first collection, On Photography was published, I was a green, 24-year-old photojournalist living in the French Quarter. Her book taught me, among other things, that I could be intellectually challenged while working as a professional. On Photography was one of the most influential works about the nature of images, image making, and our responses to the artifact and the artist. And just as its predecessor, Regarding should be more than simply regarded. It is a vital addition to the ever-expanding literature of visual culture that all of us--word and picture people alike--should read (although in truth, how many are reading this review?). In this age of MTV music videos, "Headline News" crowded screens, and even university professors trying to jazz up their lectures for their bored undergraduates, there is a good chance that our media-driven culture dulls and dilutes the message somewhere between the pupil and the hippocampus.

And nowhere are there better examples than with images from war. Think of the pictures of those killed and those grieving over their profound loss--regardless of sides--during the on-going Iraqi conflict and judge whether you were truly moved by such grotesque agony.

Quite simply, visual messages, as necessary as they are to fully tell important stories of the day, cause us to be weary. Weary of the war on terrorism, weary of another dead soldier, and weary of Laci Peterson.

Part of the weariness many feel is not connected to 9/11, wars, or real crime subjects closer to home. It is an outgrowth of a trend in photojournalism that has long-established and honored roots Photojournalists at conventions receive standing ovations, Pulitzer Prizes, and community and professional accolades for photographing others during their worst moments. Through reading magazines and newspapers, watching television and motion pictures, and using the World Wide Web, we can find all manner of agony: desperate and inexperienced miners in South America, kids doing tricks to buy crack, a beautiful young woman forever altered by a fiery crash caused by a drunk driver, or close-up shots of those shot during battles. These depictions of grief neatly framed and sometimes explained with words is a form of commercialized voyeurism rendering the viewer impotent and useless, and are as objectifying as any pornographic image. That is the message of Sontag's essays and one that we may never learn what is the proper response.

But as educators--excuse me--as enlightened pedagogues--we are challenged, it must be said, by two factors in our teaching: our students must be made aware of the pornography of grief that causes us to disregard the pain of others and they must be given the tools--intellectually as well as technically--to affect change. Otherwise, we have not only failed them; we have failed all.

Knowing this challenge, we are left with always the disquieting question of what to do about it? Despite my initial hesitancy because of its title, Visual Pedagogy offers a possible way out of this cycle of cynical criminality.

Goldfarb teaches media production at the University of California, San Diego. His educational experiences within traditional and alternative classroom settings combined with his position as Curator of Education at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City make him a unique force in the field of teaching students how to engage their audiences with their stories using innovative technologies or traditional methods with innovative ideas.

Imagine a journalism in which readers and viewers become as engaged with the plight of others as our students do during a semester-long project. In two parts, Goldfarb describes how that feat might be possible. The four chapters of part one look at innovative technology and ideas within traditional classroom settings: the advent of television instruction from Washington, D.C. to American Samoa, empowering students as video producers, learning from lessons from sex education, and peer instruction in which students teach students through a variety of technological methods. The final three chapters take us outside the box of the classroom: using the philosophy and history of the museum space as an educational tool, studying African filmmakers and films in which the African viewer "functions finally as the crucial figure of pedagogical authority" (p. 189), and seeing how local television and community politics collide and interact in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Engagement is the link between Sontag's concern and Goldfarb's solution. Journalism should engage a reader, viewer, user, and/or consumer with the facts and people involved in a story. Too often, however, it does not. Mass communication and journalism instructors should take the initiative and meet with instructors from other disciplines that in the past have been separated by traditional modes of thinking. Instructors and students from theatre, art, music, computer science, and philosophy should work together to produce trans-media collaborations. Grant applications should be completed to obtain funds for equipment, instructor time, conferences, and new media centers. Engagement can lead to connections between users, the people that are a part of the story, and the producers of the story. But that's not all. Engagement also can lead to what has been described by philosopher Albert Borgmann as "the good life."

Arrow that returns to the columns.