Which comes first, the image or the text?

When I first learned about digital storytelling, it was suggested that I begin by crafting an outline for a story, a lived experience. Sit in a quiet place and write, by hand or keyboard. Take the time to craft an outline, then a written narrative that will direct the rest of the process. It is only after you have written the story that you are able to choose the images, music and other effects that will help you accurately communicate the message. Words first, everything else is decorative. That isn’t descriptive of all digital storytellers, but it is how I initially understood digital storytelling.

I certainly respect this word-first approach and I believe and hope that the written word has a long future. Beyond almost every great play and film is a great screenplay. Every talk show host has a team of writers to help him or her sound funny (the recent strike highlights this fact). And people on the six o’clock news don’t get by with tooth whitening, a contagious smile, and a likable voice. Turn off those teleprompters and see what happens.

I personally find this text first approach to be valuable, but it is not the only option. For one reason or another I became interested in photo essays this past week, so I stopped one of my colleagues, a faculty member in the art department, and asked her what she could tell me about photo essays. My vision of a photo essay was still connected to what I just wrote, writing an outline and then finding images to help tell the story- images serve the words. But she explained that many photo essays don’t even have words. It can be an image-first approach to telling a story, communicating a message, or evoking an emotion. After you have crafted the visual experience, you may or may not choose to go with subtitles.

So we have two contrasting approaches to creation. From an educational perspective, this is a promising discovery. Photo essays might be a wonderful way to help visual learners explore, communicate, and understand. It might even be a strategy for helping them learn about the written word. And those students of the word (yes, they still exist despite the various claims that 60% percent of people are visual learners), can use their love of the lexicon to gradually explore the world of visual literacy.

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