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Introduction to Visual Analysis

This information is also available as a handout here.

One of the Learning Outcomes for this module is that by the end you should be able to ‘exhibit improved ability to assess and evaluate historical sources’, which includes visual images. Visual analysis is an important historical skill. As Gillian Rose puts it...

‘[A]rt historians of all sorts of interpretive hues contain to complain, often rightly that social scientists [and historians] don’t look at images carefully enough. And often too, social scientists [and historians] tend to assume that images are simply reflections of the social ‘contexts’…In contrast, I argue that it is necessary to look very carefully at visual images, and it is necessary to do so because they are not entirely reducible to their context. Visual representations have their own effects’ (Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies, 2001, p. 15; emphasis added).

Visual analysis is also of particular significance in the relation to the Caribbean because images have been central to the relationship between the Caribbean and its inhabitants, on the one hand, and the societies of ‘the West’, on the other. For example, the fact that the Caribbean has been imagined and represented as a paradise has both a long history and real consequences for the region and its peoples.

Caribbean beach

Above: The Caribbean as ‘paradise’ – sun, sea, sand (and the ever-present palm tree)

To help you develop skills in this area, we will be undertaking some visual analysis throughout our lecture and seminar programme. This text is intended to give you some general advice in this area and you should bring the accompanying handout with you to all lectures and seminars.

Assessment

While there is no compulsory form of assessment relating to visual analysis in this module, one of the questions in the summer examination paper will be along the following lines:

‘Look carefully at the image of [IMAGE DESCRIPTION]. The accompanying caption reads: “[CAPTION]”. Provide a critical interpretation of the image and caption in relation to relevant themes in Caribbean history’.

In addition, you are welcome to incorporate visual analysis into your short and long essays as and when appropriate. I am happy to discuss this with you as part of essay planning.

Learning to analyse visual images

While there are a lot different theoretical and methodological approaches that can be used in visual analysis (see ‘Bibliography’ below), we will keep things simple in this module. Here are some of issues and questions that I want you to address whenever you analyse a visual image:

  • Look over the image slowly, carefully and deeply.
  • Pay attention to the figures shown and the features of the landscape, including their position in relation to one other.
  • When analysing human figures, think about their posture (are they standing, sitting, lying down etc.?); their social identity (gender, ethnicity etc.); the direction of their gaze; and the interrelations between them.
  • How is colour used?
  • Remember that in most images, including staged photographs, nothing is there ‘by accident’. Therefore, think carefully about why certain things are shown – and perhaps why others are not – and what the image’s creator might be trying to convey in this way.
  • When comparing two or more images, think both about similarities – which may point to common, underlying themes – and differences.
  • Questions to consider:
    • What is the historical context in which the image was created and how can this help you to understand it?
    • What do we know about the creator of the image and their intentions?
    • Who might the intended audience be?
  • Overall, I want you to think about what the image might mean and what message it may be trying to convey.

Whenever we do any kind of visual analysis, you will be working with other students and there will be plenty of opportunities for us to talk things through as a class. I know that this kind of work may be new to many of you and I am not expecting you to become art historians! However, I am confident that you will develop new analytical skills that will be of use in the module and beyond.

Finding visual sources

Should you wish to include visual analysis in your own short or long essays, it is very easy to find all sorts of images of the Caribbean, especially those associated with present-day forms of tourism, through online searches. The following are great sources of historical images:

Bibliography

The following texts will help with both different methods of visual analysis and provide specific examples of such analysis.

Burke, Peter, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence (London: Reaktion, 2001).

Kriz, Kay Dian, Slavery, Sugar and the Culture of Refinement: Picturing the British West Indies, 1700-1840 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).

Mohammed, Patricia, Imaging the Caribbean: Culture and Visual Translation (Oxford: Macmillan, 2009).

* Rose, Gillian, Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials (London: Sage, 2016). [This is the best ‘how-to’ book on visual analysis. The library also holds earlier editions from 2001, 2007 and 2012].

Thompson, Krista A., An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).