English teachers love acronyms. TP-CASTT. SOAPSTone. DIDLS. They are useful and practical tools to help students navigate their way from low-level understanding to critical analysis. However, in such a visual-era, classrooms are infusing more and more images for their students to read and interpret.
Visual texts appear as an easy source of interpretation, yet, many students struggle to reach the really critical level of interpretation that is necessary. Most students hover around summarizing the image or merely stating the main idea of the image, not the argument.
After sitting through multiple surface-level interpretations of images, I started to notice the error many students were making: they weren’t closely examining the minute details of the visual. Typically, they were focusing on the image as a whole, not how the parts (or lack thereof) contributed to the whole.
Much like a traditional text, it is imperative for students to consider alternatives to the image and what could have been included but wasn’t. They also need to recognize the relationship between elements/aspects within the image. To help students get to a more meaningful evaluation of an image, I, in true English teacher fashion, devised the following acronym that I encourage my students to consider when evaluating a visual. When it comes to image analysis, I ask them to SMEARS it:
What are the significant elements (i.e. people/groups) within the image? Strong images have multiple sections. Determine the various sections within the image.
What is missing from the image? Oftentimes when a person makes a prediction about how the text (or in this case images) could be altered, the person comes away with a greater understanding of what the image is actually conveying. What is missing from this image and why? How would the inclusion of this aspect alter the meaning of the image?
What emotion is derived from the image (either from the elements within the images or from your own response as a viewer of the image)? Did the artist intentionally try to draw out this emotion? How does it affect the viewing of the image? How does it alter your interpretation of the image?
What argument is being made in the image? (Hint: even the barest images can still be providing a striking argument). This will be a step beyond subject matter. What is the artist arguing about the subject matter?
How do the different elements (people/groups/setting) play off of one another? Closely examine the various significant elements interact with one another. How are they related? In what way? What does it signify about the argument?
What is the subject matter of the image? The more specific you are the better. Avoid the literal or generic. Consider what is really at stake in the image.
After following the above acronym when viewing Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, the students are able to construct a paragraph synthesizing their answers into a fluid interpretation. When utilizing SMEARS, students have independently recognized the fact that a father or male figure is missing and that we don’t see the children’s faces. They are able to identify that the mother, the dominant segment in the image, is conveying more emotion because she is looking in the distance instead of directly into the camera. Likewise, they are able to glean that she is sheltering and hiding the faces of the children, as opposed to the children merely turning away from the photographer. This leads them to stronger support for their interpretation of the mother and a deeper understanding than “it is a mom who is alone with her kids and she is sad because she is homeless,” which is what I was receiving in the past.
When incorporating art into the classroom considering beginning by asking students to evaluate the image through the above acronym, which will hopefully save you from painful image presentations.