The Power of Imagery


Dr. Joseph Graves

Several years ago, I was sitting in the amphitheater of MTI’s Technology Center, snuggling into one of the surprisingly comfortable chairs inside what is really a lecture hall and preparing to listen to a day-long lecture on various topics in American history.  The speaker was Holy Cross College associate professor of history, Edward T. O’Donnell, a Ph.D. in American history from Columbia and an unabashed (is there any other kind?) Irishman.  (He even wrote an entire book on the Celtic influence in America.)


            But, as so often happens, what I expected to take from the good professor’s lecture was not what, in the end, impressed me the most. It was, instead, his remarks on the influence of visual imagery on people’s understanding and appreciation of history that struck home with me. History professors have, in my opinion, a well-deserved reputation for a love of the written word but not so much the picture or the painting or the map.  Oh, they’ll include them in their books, to an extent, but it will be a case of an avalanche of words next to a couple of pebbles of actual images. Yet O’Donnell expounded upon the view that if we really want to reach people with the reality and the importance and the visceral clenching of historical realities, we need to take a page from the book of the PR people and give them a slew of telling and iconic and fascinating pictures, images which show a historical reality in a single bolt in a way no thousands of words can hope to match. 


            I was so fascinated with the idea that I purchased the American history book, Visions of America, he co-authored.  It painted the great canvas of our country’s history with vivid, teeming imagery on every page and even someone who loves the written word could not help but be taken by its visual allure.  He made his point, in other words: Since learning is enhanced by the emotional grasp, drenching American history students with deeply-meaningful imagery, in addition to well-written narrative, will better engage them in that learning.


            I suppose we’ve all had that experience of encountering an image and being a bit bowled over by it.  I certainly have over the years. And I had another hit me like a well-aimed slap across the face, a poor metaphor inasmuch as this was a ‘welcome slap,’ when a series of photos arrived as an attachment to an e-mail from Cory Aadland, Mitchell Activities Director.  A student Chris Mentele, it seems, had been engaged to take pictures of the September 15 football game with a drone-borne camera.  All the pictures were good, many of them excellent.  But one it seemed, the one that you see immediately above this column (with any luck), rather took my breath away.  It was of that football game at night and included the Performing Arts Center to the field’s south.  Night had fallen and the stadium’s great lights shone over the field to allow the players to pursue their sport and the spectators to watch it.  And those great lights did something more, something extraordinarily more.  They shone their light over a complex of buildings and fields and facilities devoted to the wide-ranging interests and pursuits of the students of our district.  And they did so with a photographic resplendence that reminded one of the first book of Genesis.  “Let there be light.”  (Gen 1:3)


            People who go into education, at least people who are happy in the field, do so because they love kids, because they want to see them succeed, because they love learning and want to cultivate that same love in the children with whom they work, because they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. 


            Somehow, Chris Mentele managed to convey in that single extraordinary image that very reality—that school when done well is an institution and a process and a culture and a love which offers something meaningful to each of the students it serves and which is something far bigger than the sum of its parts. 


            And so, ironically, I offer these words, far fewer than 1,000, in description and admiration of an image which conveys for more than 1,000 words ever could.