The Visual Bottleneck

So I finished a short movie on the third day of the Digital Storytelling workshop. I’ve got a number of reactions to the experience, which has been really interesting and useful in a variety of ways.

For one, I’m struggling again with the fundamental problem that visual representation poses for the creation of multimedia. At the beginning of the workshop, I reconsidered my own plan to produce a short piece about my personal history of attractions to and misgivings about computers and digital media, partly because the other participants and the facilitators were so strongly directed towards more deeply personal, autobiographical projects. (More on that change of heart in a later entry.)

When I think about digital storytelling as something I might use with my students, I don’t imagine them doing highly personal, emotional work. But even thinking about it as a creative tool for myself, I can think of a lot of stories I can tell that might be really fun to tell through this technology.

For example:

When I was a teenager, my family lived for a month in a farmhouse near the French town of Puy l’Eveque. We were renting from a large multi-generational family that ran the farm that surrounded the house. We hadn’t met more than a few of them before the night that a torrential rainstorm came roaring out of the west.

In the middle of the storm, there was a knock on the door. An old man was there, whom we all guessed must be an emissary from our landlords. He was holding an odd piece of wood with a hole in the middle of it. My sister and I could speak high school French, badly, and my mother could speak a bit better than that. This conversation was a bit harder to begin than the usual, however. What did the man want? Did he want to know if we were safe in the storm? We all realized we didn’t know the word. A quick glance at the dictionary. “We are all safe”,

The man laughed uproariously and spoke rapidly to us. We didn’t understand a single word. Oh. We had said that we were all coffre-forts, the kind of safe you keep money in. Try the adjective! We are safe, we are out of danger! En securite! Hors de danger!

Hysterical laughter and more rapid-fire talk. Now we wonder if he needs us for something? Maybe that piece of wood? Is the house next door in trouble? Is this a warning? We try this and more, and everything we say is apparently the funniest thing he’s ever heard. In fifteen minutes, we haven’t understood a word he’s said. My mother finally just drags him next door, hoping that we can sort this out in a combination of bad French and bad English with the matriarch of the family.

She comes to her door and looks in shock and dismay at the old man. He isn’t a member of her family. He’s the local lunatic who occasionally gets out of his facility and comes up to this house. He’s not speaking French: nothing he’s saying is intelligible in any language.

It seems to me that you could have fun telling a story like that in a multimedia, digital environment, a story that isn’t deeply personal but also doesn’t aim to be a full-blown work of narrative film. The technology isn’t limited to academic or intellectual projects on one hand and emotionally intense memoir on the other.


I realized that one reason the workshops push participants in that direction has to do with the practical and creative problems that digital images can pose for most people, especially in a creative process that is compressed into three days.

Most of us have at least some images of our own lives, whether photographs, drawings, or other ephemera. Generally, our ownership of those images is uncontested. And most of us can intuitively, quickly imagine how those images fit alongside a written or spoken narrative of our own experiences.

But think about the story of the French lunatic. I don’t have any pictures of him. I have one picture of the house itself and a scattered few of my family over that summer. Besides, if the story has any value at all, it’s not just about me or my experiences. It’s a slight, light-hearted fable about language and understanding.

So for one, this is a much bigger creative problem than selecting the images that I already know in my heart, that accompany my memories. I could go searching the Internet for images that other people have made that seem to go with the story. Some people are extraordinarily creative at doing this kind of work, especially in a humorous vein. But many other people get stuck in a painfully literal frame of mind when they turn on Google Image Search, and in those hands, you’d get a story with a picture of a random photo of an old man, a picture of a rainstorm, a picture of a piece of wood, and maybe a French flag. And what if you decide that you’d like to go beyond just remixing, and make some images yourself for this story? That’s going to involve time and it’s going to involve technology (even the simple technology of a pad of paper and a pencil) and it’s going to involve a degree of visual creativity that many of don’t feel we possess. All of which is a guaranteed disaster for a short workshop, but which is a limit condition even given a lot of time and a lot of tools.

Add to that the problem of intellectual property, which has come up quite a bit during the workshop. We own our own photos and images, but if you’re remixing a story using the publically available images of others, you’re going to come across an incredible diversity of covenants governing those images. In many cases, those covenants are going to end up deciding what gets used or not used, regardless of what is creatively ideal.

Now, intellectual property advocates will tell you that this is precisely the kind of problem that Creative Commons will solve. Up to a point, I agree. I really like the kind of work that the workshop did and the kind of work that I imagine could be done, the other stories and presentations that we could create with this technology. But images are a bottleneck not just because of copyright. Most of us are also simply not trained to be visual authors, and not accustomed to think of creating or presenting or arguing in those terms. Most of us are sitting on a pile of images that we’ve made or inherited that come out of our own lives, but it seems like a big stretch to go beyond that. Creating digital multimedia with a wider array of creative and intellectual purposes is at some point going to need that kind of facility with images.

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4 Responses to The Visual Bottleneck

  1. Rana says:

    Most of us are also simply not trained to be visual authors, and not accustomed to think of creating or presenting or arguing in those terms.

    Yes. Very much so. It’s hard persuading students in the first place that a visual source even has an argument, with claims and supporting material embedded in the image itself. A photograph, for example, is not simply a neat little slice of reality; someone chose to capture that particular moment, from that specific angle, and then later made the decision to keep and share that capture. Several photographs of the same place can make very different arguments; one might emphasize the trailer park and the powerlines next door to the park, one might juxtapose the two, one might crop or compose the image to exclude those very things, and so on.

    A child’s photograph, for example, is both very easy and very difficult to read. It’s easy in that children tend to center the object of interest, and whatever’s in the center is what the photograph “is about.” On the other hand, children (or, indeed, any other inexperienced photographer) are not very skilled at filtering out visual noise, so you may have to struggle to see that the picture is of a lizard and not a bunch of sticks and leaves.

    All of this makes using another person’s photographs challenging; given that they were not captured nor composed with your specific purpose in mind, they may very well convey or connote different messages than the ones that you intend. (That runs the other way too, of course – witness the photographs from Abu Ghraib, for example.)

  2. scwalsh says:

    Hmmm. even as a person trained as an art historian with some fine art training, I feel like images are difficult to grapple with.

    Unfortunately some of what we’re dealing with is the result of continually cutting back on art education in schools. It takes a fair amount of time and skill to build some visual literacy, and because it’s not tested, students miss out on it.

    Also tangentally related is the refrain from countless friends: “Oh, I can’t draw.” There’s a certain fear to even attempt to draw, because of the perceived high rate of failure. Drawing seems like am mystical skill that people just have, like playing the violin or doing mathematics.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Right. Image-making is either something that we trust to technology to do for us (and thus don’t think of ourselves as making choices or arguments while we do) or that we trust to people who somehow have a natural ability to do it.

  4. Western Dave says:

    I don’t think visual literacy is all that different from written literacy. It does take practice. I have been having students do scrapbook projects since I taught Earth Wind and Fire: American Environmental Histories at Swarthmore. My Springside colleague Margaret Smith had her 12th grade College Prep students make documentaries for her China class. You can read about them and watch them here:

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