Notes on researching and authoring with images in traditional formats gone digital

Traditional essay formats make digital publications highly scalable and meet scholarly standards, but the more visual they are, the more marginalized. Image-driven essays move towards new forms of visual narrative in both obvious and subtle ways, helping bridge working scholars, heavily dependent on text, with future media forms based on the semantics of images.

“Civilization & Barbarism,” my unit on Visualizing Cultures, combines textual and visual arguments within a linear, essay-style format. However, the layout and argument are driven by image sequences that convey historical themes through visual elements like color, shapes, tropes, and characters. Authors writing in the essay format can forget that the image-to-image narrative is an active narrative stream that parallels the text. 

For example, the round shape of the globe appears frequently in the image sets. The top image (right) highlights Anglo-Saxon power, the U.S. and U.K. conjoined as a bloated figure who has swallowed the world. Next, the partners hoist the earth toward a glowing, heavenly peace. Finally, the globe falls from the heavens to dark helplessness, like a wounded solder, subjugated and carried off on a stretcher by the two nations. The caption of this French graphic, “Leur rêve" (Their Dream), suggests they have achieved world domination whatever the cost. The third image surfaced as a result of searching for the globe motif, which in turn, revealed a set of valuable French illustrated magazine sources. While these images usually appear separately, together they form a narrative "sentence." 

Patterns observed in the database determine the themes and overarching thesis. Image-driven scholarship starts with the images, that is, reading the database, finding patterns, and putting images into sequences. The ocular process stems from what can be seen rather than pre-existing knowledge and hypothesis, which may seem like a small distinction, but changes both the method of composition and the thesis itself. In this way, the database opens windows on a historiography unique to visual sources. 

The motif of the globe appears frequently in turn of the century imagery. This sequence from "Civilization & Barbarism" unit on MIT Visualizing Cultures (Sebring, 2014) shows the newly-minted alliance of Great Britain and the United States, its aspirations and costs. 

"China vs. the Allies: Kaleidoscopic Views," poster by Ellen Sebring, exhibited in Kefalonia, Greece, 2012, and SIVA, Shanghai, 2013. Graphics from many countries in a variety of media contribute to a kaleidoscopic view offered by the visual record of the Boxer Uprising.