The question of defining “visual communication” has bothered me since beginning the quest for an education in photojournalism several years ago. Eventually I conceded to myself that the practice of photojournalism does technically fall under visual communications; journalists who tell stories through images quite literally communicate their messages visually. Though the more I think about the term, almost everything I do falls under the auspices of visual communication from this article and spread included to the clothing and accessories I choose to wear each day.
What does the term visual communication truly signify in a scholastic setting? Our group of students studying photography, design, and multi-media convey their messages in various ways. ‘Visual communication’ seems to denote any way in which we impart knowledge through visual media. Everything from these written words to architecture represents a way in which a designer and/or client decide to visually represent themselves for others. Therefore, I believe that through training in a school of visual communication, we learn to efficiently communicate our stories to others through visuals rather than a strictly written or aural tradition.
Were humans not, however, communicating visually before the advent of written and aural languages? Cave and rock paintings, petroglyphs, even make-up, tattoos and so many other calls from the past seem to equally fall under the term. The difference appears, to me, in how we’ve streamlined this visual communication process over the years. Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Asian characters often mimic their meanings and are equally as often paired with illustrations to solidify a message. This sounds more like photojournalism; pairing still images with some amount of texts to effectively tell a story.
I stepped closer at this point, there’s a nebulous idea of “visual communication” floating inside my head but the umbrella term of ‘Visual Communication’ still bothered me in regards to the scholastic setting. So I turned to the one place a child of the 21st century can trust for quick and reasonably accurate answers: Google.
Wikipedia unsurprisingly appears as the first hit from a query of “visual communication” from Google. The second hit: “VisCom ~ Ohio University School of Visual Communication.” We are visual communication.
These results do not truly offer a successful answer to my quandary. The Oxford English Dictionary fails to define the term as a whole, but provides several interpretations of each individual word. Of these I felt educated far enough to chose “Visual: Of beams: Coming, proceeding, or directed from the eye or sight” and “Communication: The transmission or exchange of information, knowledge, or ideas, by means of speech, writing, mechanical or electronic media.”
This felt closer, but something needed to pull what I know and how I feel about visual communication together into a concise sentence. At this point I rejected years of scholarly training to turn back to Wikipedia, which eventually enlightened me to the idea of visual communication as exploring “the idea that a visual message accompanying text has a greater power to inform, educate, or persuade a person or audience.” Now there’s enough pieces of the puzzle to form something I can support. The photojournalism I desire to study and practice uses light and knowledge together in still images, even video, paired with text and audio in a precise package that effectively tells each story.
After my first 10-week quarter in VisCom, two of which have been spent continuously redefining this article, I still question this overall notion of visual communication, though less deeply and frequently than in the past. Whatever the true answer is, I seem to be an integral part of it, and that does not make the query any easier. As a student of photojournalism in Ohio University’s VisCom, what makes me different from a student in fine art photography or print making, from the street artist pasting humanoid illustrations on the side of a building, or from a shaman retelling conquest on a cave wall? Each appears as a perfectly viable method for communication one’s message to others through a visual medium.
The epiphany, finally, is right here. Each of the aforementioned communicators utilizes a single tract to display their message. As a photojournalist and (eventually) certified visual communications expert, I add text, audio, and video to streamline and strengthen the narrative process. Although I cannot speak for Visual Communication students in other degree tracts, I do not consider myself a creator. I find purpose in photographing the paste-up of a chicken on a man’s body, as it were, and reproducing that image and information in a way that conveys the state of the scene I witnessed. I am not a creator, I am a visual communicator. My purpose rests in using my camera, growing knowledge and all of my wit to earn the privilege of sharing the lives and creations of others. As we continue to streamline and redefine our communicative processes, more in-depth and poignant stories are told. More accurate meaning can be gleaned from hieroglyphs than cave paintings, just as more can be found in multi-media than from a single still image.
My previous belief still stands; anyone who makes conscious choices in appearance is communicating through visual channels. However, we in the School of Visual Communication endeavor to thoughtfully and purposefully communicate the stories of others, to publish our work where it can garner attention and reaction, to move with a lens, and support with a pen, a microphone, and a sense of passion. We are visual communication. We are what we do.