Images in Prism

One thing we have thought about in recent weeks is the role of Prism in our goals for the semester.  As part of this brainstorming I wanted to share some of my thoughts about a potential future for Prism.

What I was most interested in is how we can use images with Prism.  Images call for a different type of literacy that is potentially more accessible and inviting.  Specifically I am interested in looking at historical photographs as texts to interpret through crowdsourcing.  For example, this photo is an image used in a colleague’s work.

This image, used by the Southern Rural Action Inc., was taken in Georgia in the 1970s.  However, little of this information is self-evident in the photo.  What I would be interested in finding out is what viewers, both those educated in Southern African American history, and those viewers who may only know Southern African American history through popular culture.  Offering both these groups a forum to analyze these photos will serve a few goals.  First, it can illuminate the role of Southern African Americans in the imaginary of those who examine the image through Prism.  Second, the call for audiences to bring an analytical eye to bear will hopefully expose the constructed nature of photographs.  Hopefully it will show how photographs are deployed for political ends and are not neutral snapshots of a moment in time.

What I imagine is the viewer being introduced to an un-annotated photograph where they can respond to questions like:

  • Who is in this photo?
  • Who are the subjects in this photo?
  • Where is this photo taken?
  • What is happening in this photo?
  • Who is the audience of this photo?

After completing their own analysis the viewer can go on to see the bibliographic information of the photo (the who, what, when, where) and additionally the analysis of a specialist on the topic.  This layer of annotation could include a more discursive analysis of the image that can expose layers of meaning in the photo.

This is just one idea and I look forward to seeing what is possible!


  1. Do you envision interpretation to be based on subsections of the photograph like how Prism bases its interpretation on words – in this case like how Facebook or Flickr images can be tagged with identifications and commentary? I ask because, many of these questions are difficult to answer through this framework. What do you tag to answer “who is the audience of this photo”? Or, for that matter, who the photographer is and what motives or biases does he or she have? The most interesting parts of photographs are often out of frame. It’s a problem that Prism-with-words also has, but I feel that it’s exacerbated by having even less uniformity in selections. Where we can tag a certain word in Prism as “sad” or “Whiggish” or “racist”, it may be difficult to break parts of an image into such constant segments.

    Also, as kind of a non-sequitur, did you know that Migrant Mother was actually photoshopped?

    • Great questions. I imagined certain portions of the photo being blocked off such that when you scroll over them they are highlighted. For example, in the photo above when you scroll over the children a series of questions would come up about the subjects of the photo etc. The same could be true if there were signs or other layers of imagery in the photo. I see what you’re saying about the other more meta information about the photograph. Perhaps that would be in a section beneath the photo where viewers could reflect on intention/position of the photographer. What do you think? Thoughts about ways to incorporate your ideas?

    • Photoshopped? What? Please explain!

  2. I love the idea of using the Prismatic approach to deal with other types of data: photographs, paintings, music, sounds, etc. I also think your framing questions are really great ones, especially for how they orient people who might not be familiar with the things to look for when examining different types of documents. This is a big problem when trying to get people to talk about music or literature who feel less comfortable doing so. Most often, people who think they have nothing to say just don’t know how to ask the right questions about what they already see. These sorts of guiding questions seem key if we are going to break out into other non-textual documents that might require a different set of critical tools.

    Another thought – we talked a bit the other week about how the markings that we ask a user to make imply certain arguments, pushing their responses towards certain conclusions. I could see the same thing happening here. I wonder if we could think about a marking process with more than one stage. The first would be free form, mark what you like, how you like. The second would be guided by whatever questions we pose.