Essay Assignment

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Essay 3: The Photo-Essay: Arguing with Words and Images

(GWRIT 103-Moghtader)

We’ve all had some experience composing texts with words and images. As children, we learn to draw pictures and then, beneath them, write about what we’ve drawn. Later in life, we compose scrapbooks or photo-albums, and we have to make decisions about which images from a roll of film we’ll keep and which ones can be stored away in a shoebox or destroyed. Typically, though, these decisions aren’t made consciously; instead, we just “feel” that one image does a better job of capturing qualities we want others to “see” in us or capturing the essence or “aura” of the feelings we want to document at a specific moment in life.

As we have seen, however, these decisions may matter more than we think. When left unexamined, the images we chose to document reality can alter that reality in ways that distort, exaggerate, even demean who we are and what we experience. Moreover, composing arguments with images entails much more than just parachuting pictures into our writing. How we express the relationship between words and images dramatically affects how effortlessly readers “take in” or consume what we write about.

Essay Genre, Purpose, and Audience
The next paper you will draft takes the form of a photo-essay as exemplified by Susan Bordo or as theorized by Robert Coles. This paper must be “argumentative: That is, your paper should make a point about something you think is noteworthy but which most reasonable people may not. The information—text and images—you include in the essay should all coalesce around your central idea. The goal of this argumentative paper, then, is to get readers not to agree with you but to at least say that your idea was worth serious reflection—that your point was worth their time to read it.

The purpose of your photo-essay is to help a reader (your classmates and instructor) appreciate the complexity of some idea or subject that is important to you and that cannot be adequately understood without the use of both text and image. As we have seen in the readings for this section, composing a photo-essay isn’t as easy as it may seem. Remember that images cannot entirely “speak” for themselves—you must help them speak by using both text and images strategically to persuade a reader to understand the subject of your essay in a way that will preserve its complexity and your relation to it.

The photographs you use for this essay can come from many sources. They may be prepared specifically for this paper (cheap disposal cameras are readily available); they may be shot either by you or by a classmate or friend; or, they may be photos already available to you in photo-albums, magazines, and books, or on electronic databases (as the Reference Desk at Carrier Library for help). Whatever the source of your photos, they should represent a subject—a group of people or a place, a history and/or geography—that you know well and that appears to be misunderstood or underappreciated.

How To Begin
I would begin very simply by getting one image that represents some idea, person, place that you care deeply about and then writing informally a couple of pages about what the image “says.” That is, how could you assemble the details in the image to make it “speak” something that isn’t immediately obvious just by looking at it?

You could also begin with an existing set of images of a subject (or a set you took for this occasion) that you care deeply about but that cannot “speak” until you’ve positioned these images in some order (think here of what Coles does with the girl in the field; what Bordo does with the Häagen Dazs ad; and what Berger does with the Van Gough painting). In this case, the meaning you’re making is more in the way you sequence the images together to show some pattern.

Length and Format Requirements
Depending on how much page space you use for images, the photo-essay may be anywhere between 6-10 pages. Please use MLA style when formatting your paper; however, you may need to adjust this style to accommodate your integration of images. The Harbrace Handbook offers some help with orienting images in an essay (see pp. 157-71), and we’ll discuss more ideas about formatting the photo-essay in class.

Evaluating Your Work
The quality/completeness of your draft and the work you do during the in-class peer workshop will be evaluated as a significant part of your class participation. Your revised photo-essay will receive a grade out of 100 points based on criteria we will discuss in the next class.

Due Dates
Rough draft is due in class March 28. Bring TWO copies; the graded version is due April 4.


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