Sunday 19 November 2017

Visual Texts

An image which captures the theme of childhood.
An image which captures the theme of childhood.

Evelyn O'Connor

We all know a good photo when we see it: a splash of colour, a glint in the eye, a captivating landscape, a moment frozen in time. Yet articulating what makes an image spellbinding can be quite difficult.

It can help to think of your eyes as zoom lenses and of the photo as a puzzle to be deciphered. Each piece of the puzzle can be individually zoomed in on, analysed, discussed and interpreted. Each element contributes to helping you make sense of the bigger picture. Consider some of the following elements when interpreting an image:

Framing: What is your eye drawn to immediately? What's in the foreground/background/centre/left/right of the frame? Is everything in focus or are some elements blurry? Why might this be?

Body language & facial expression: What mood is reflected in the subject's face? Are their eyes telling you something? What about the tilt of their head? Look at their hands and arms and legs: are they reaching, holding, relaxing, moulding? Does the slope of their shoulders reflect their mood?

Setting: Where is the photo taken? When? Consider time of day, season and era. Clothes, hairstyles, accessories and objects can give you clues about where and when the photo is set.

Lighting & colour: Is the lighting natural or artificial, indoors or outdoors? Are shadows used? To what effect? What colours stand out? Do they symbolise anything? Has a filter been applied? Why?

Comprehension questions on visual texts:

In the exam, there will typically be two or three images accompanying each written text. These can be any mixture of photos, paintings, graphs, book covers and possibly even cartoons, posters and advertisements. Although these last three have yet to make an appearance, whoever is setting the papers seems to like mixing things up a lot, so expect the unexpected. No matter what type of visual text appears, remember to zoom in on details, colours and, if relevant, text (font size and style). You can be asked to select your favourite image and explain why you like it; to describe the impact of the photo on you intellectually and emotionally; to evaluate how well an image captures a theme; or to assess how well the written and visual elements work together.

Let's imagine the photo on the left, and two others, accompany a text on the theme of childhood.

Sample Question:

"In your opinion, which of the visual images best captures the theme of childhood? Give reasons for your answer, supporting your points through close analysis of the visual text" (20 marks).

Sample Answer:

In my opinion, image two, which shows a young girl reaching up to grasp the window ledge of an old school building, is the image that best captures the theme of childhood. Her small body is barely tall enough to see in the 'window' so she is on her tippy toes, her head is tilted right back and both of her arms are at full stretch. Her curiosity to see and to know, which is such a feature of childhood, is really endearing in this photo. [Focus on body language].

She looks too small to have started school yet and there is a nice contrast between the little girl outside the window and the painting of the two older children who are 'in' the schoolhouse. They are not nearly as enthralled by the concept of school once they have seen it from the inside, which is so true of childhood. As a child, you often want something really badly but once you've got it, you tire of it easily. [Focus on framing in the image, particularly the use of contrast].

I also found the detail in the painted children quite striking. The boy at the back of the window frame is pulling the hair of the girl in front of him. She looks quite distressed, while a shadow across his face captures his cruel intention. This detail captures the casual torment and violence children are capable of inflicting on each other. Physical fights, slaps, hair pulling and kicks from siblings and classmates are a feature of childhood many of us remember with a cold shiver down our spines. [Focus on facial expression and light/shadow].

Finally, this photo reminds me powerfully of schooldays from my childhood that seemed to drag on interminably. Neither of the painted children are paying any attention to their schoolwork: however, the clock on the wall says that it is a few minutes to four o' clock so it's hardly surprising that they're finding it hard to concentrate. The torture of being trapped in the school for what seems like forever is further emphasised by the fact that it is clearly a bright summer's day, reflected in the T-shirt, shorts and crocs worn by the little girl and in the blue sky at the top of the photo peeking through the fluffy white clouds. [Focus on weather, clothes and lighting to reveal season].

For all of these reasons, to my mind this striking image brilliantly captures the wonder, curiosity, fickleness and cruelty of childhood.

Interpreting Book Covers

Publishing houses often create more than one cover for the same book, particularly if they feel the book will appeal to 'multiple target demographics'. In simple English, this means they think people of different ages, life stages, genders, hobbies and education levels will all like this book so they can't just target one specific group (young adult readers, romantic fiction fans, sci-fi nerds) with their advertising efforts.

One way they get around this is by creating different book covers aimed at different groups. For example, you can probably remember that there were children and adult book cover versions of all of the Harry Potter books so that adults didn't have to feel embarrassed sitting on the train reading them.

As with the photographs, you may be presented with more than one cover and asked which one you prefer, or which one best captures the theme of the written text. In this case an extract from the novel itself will most likely accompany the book covers so that you get a flavour for the book even if you haven't read it. You might also be asked to say whether or not the book cover would entice you to buy and read the novel.

When assessing the effectiveness of a book cover or for that matter of any product or advertisement ask yourself three questions:

1. Does it grab my attention?

2. Does it make an impression?

3. Does it convince me to buy the book / product / service?

Have a look at this book cover for the wonderful novel 'Skippy Dies' by Irish author Paul Murray.

Sample Question:

Does this book cover for 'Skippy Dies' make you want to read the novel? Give reasons for your answer, based on a close reading of the various visual and textual elements. (20 marks)

Sample Answer:

This book cover instantly grabs my attention. I really like the design and colour scheme: the geometric pattern of semi-circles in alternating shades of green and red against a warm cream background is quite hypnotic. It also looks like the cover had water spilt onto it in places as the paint has smudged and I feel this prevents the design from being too clinical in appearance. This slightly bohemian edge is again evident in the vertical lines drawn by hand around the edges of the rough red and cream semi-circles which reveal the title of the novel and the author. I like the handwriting font too which adds to the informal vibe. All of these features add a warmth to the book cover; a willingness not to be too perfect, which I really like.

In much smaller font at the top and bottom are quotes from reviews, sourced from reputable newspapers The Times and The Guardian. Including these snippets tells us this is literature, not pulp fiction, and yet the promise of fun and entertainment ensures we're not scared off – if reading this book is "hilarious" and "outrageously enjoyable", then I can cope with the "tragic" content.

At the very bottom of the page we're told this book was "SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2010 COSTA NOVEL AWARD" and fellow author David Nicholls describes Murray as "A brilliant comic writer". At this point it's difficult to resist this book, it's being so highly praised.

The title also instantly intrigues, with the stark warning that in this book 'Skippy Dies'. It's a daring concept to tell the reader what's going to happen and yet still ask them to invest their time and emotions in the characters, three of whom are represented in little uneven edged coloured blobs, each with their own rough line drawing. The presence of two boys and one girl at first brought a love triangle to my mind, but the fact that the girl is on the right rather than in the centre made me question this assumption. Their youth suggests that this might be a coming-of-age story, but my awareness that a central character dies gives this book an edge. It makes me think this is not going to be some twee little teen romance, but rather a book that challenges and provokes.

To conclude, this book cover most certainly made an impression on me and I am now tempted to leave the exam hall to go buy it.

Irish Independent Supplement

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