5. Ethical Concerns

Ethical Concerns
The questions that the field of visual culture raises are all things that I need to consider very much as a visual practitioner and founder of Vidtionary. Since Vidtionary is an educational tool, there is arguably an ethical imperative for Vidtionary to consider carefully the various ways images can be interpreted or misinterpreted. Barthes referred to an ethical stand in Mythologies (2004): “Although it is a good thing if a spectacle is created to make the world more explicit, it is both reprehensible and deceitful to confuse the sign with what is signified” (p. 84). To define and categorize objects, without relying on existing stereotypes or creating new ones is difficult. The New Oxford American Dictionary (2005) defined stereotype as “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing” or “a relief printing cast in a mold made from composed type or an original plate.” It is from the second meaning that the word originally came into use (Lupton & Miller, 1996, p. 120). In Design Writing Research, Lupton and Miller (1996) wrote an interesting critique of stock photography. They described the way that stock photos represent (or do not represent) executives, the working-class, social relations, and all manner of human life. They wrote:
The catalogues and archives of the stock industry provide an index of how images communicate in the context of mass media. In the process of building and marketing their collections, stock agencies are establishing a visual dictionary of mass media – a visualization of emotions and situations such as leisure, parenthood, friendship, work, power, confusion, love, and aggression … Stock photography is an index of how images speak in the public realm. Writers as diverse as Daniel Boorstein, Guy Debord, and Jean Baudrillard have written about the disturbing power of ‘the image’ in contemporary society. Less frequently has this phenomenon been looked upon as the effect of a new kind of literacy. (p. 133)
I read this description of stock photography with much interest, since I often employ stock photography in the video definitions I create for Vidtionary. I have a membership for one stock photography website (www.clipart.com), which lets me use its low-resolution photos on an unlimited basis. If one holds diversity as a value, which I do, or if one wishes to live a more equitable world, as I do, then due care and diligence is needed in the proper selection of images. In the context of anti-oppression in education, Kevin Kumashiro (2002) wrote:
The privileging of certain identities and the marginalizing of others happens when members of and institutions in society learn to associate these identities and groups with differentiating markers. Examples include associating Whiteness with Americanness, Asianness with foreignness; maleness with strength, femaleness with weakness; or heterosexuality with normalcy, homo- or bisexuality with queerness. When social interactions, legal protections, and religious teaching continuously perpetuate these associations (as when stereotyping Asian Americans, failing to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, or teaching that men are leaders of the household), what can result are the systematic inclusion and exclusion of different groups, valuing and denigrating of different identities, and normalizing and dismissing of different practices. (p. 68)
Here, Kumashiro has provided a good list of bad stereotypes and clichés to avoid and undoubtedly others could be added. It is certain that the images widely disseminated in the media have oppressed many, by either not being inclusive or by reinforcing existing stereotypes. I think a constant consideration of visual culture’s interpretative methods will help me to identify images or arrangements of images which might be oppressive. Within the Vidtionary website, I also intend to create feedback mechanism through which video definitions can be spoken back to, unlike the uninvited advertisements we see everyday, which stare out at us, but deny us the chance to respond.
In terms of Vidtionary, I recognize the importance of visual literacy and visual culture both in terms of building fundamental visual skills in and of themselves and also critical visual interpretative skills as part of a larger world picture. Readings I have done during the course of my Master of Education program have shown me time and time again that it is difficult, or not necessarily desirable, to entirely separate education from sociopolitical concerns. Detailed in Education for Critical Consciousness, Paulo Freire’s experiments in 1960s’ Brazil with teaching literacy through visual aids placed literacy in a larger sociopolitical context, while showing how images can be part of a good literacy education. Through the very process of learning to read, Freire hoped to facilitate an awakening of consciousness in his students. He focused on introducing words which would be both relevant to the students and make them conscious of their place in the world. He created photo slideshows to present the words along with images. The generative words used in discussion were slum, rain, plow, land, food, Afro-Brazilian dancing, well, bicycle, work, salary, profession, government, swamplands, sugar mill, hoe, brick, and wealth (Freire, 1973, p. 56). Freire wrote:
We planned filmstrips, for use in the literary phase, presenting propaganda – from advertising commercials to ideological indoctrination – as a ‘problem-situation’ for discussion. For example, as men through discussion begin to perceive the deceit in a cigarette advertisement featuring a beautiful, smiling woman in a bikini (i.e. the fact that she, her smile, her beauty, and her bikini have nothing at all to do with the cigarette), they begin to discover the difference between education and propaganda. At the same time, they are preparing themselves to discuss and perceive the same deceit in ideological or political propaganda. (p. 57)
Freire’s 1960s literacy program was a true meeting of literacy and media literacy. Prompted by images, the students became engaged with the words they were studying. Critical pedagogy, a field in which Freire is considered a key theorist, applied to images could be one more interpretive tool to add to visual culture’s methodologies.
Studies in visual culture and critical pedagogy make it clear that images and language can be distorted and that meanings can be hidden. Each choice of word or images I make in the creation of a Vidtionary video definition seems laden with social or political significance. The lexicographer’s task is not easy, and dictionaries can attract a lot of controversy, as they seek to create types and generalize. In an introduction to a selection from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, the writers noted that “lexicographers have been blamed oftener than praised” (McAdam & Milne, 1963, p. viii). While Vidtionary, like traditional dictionaries, attempts to be neutral and appeal to universal truths about objects and actions, a critical view would suggest this is impossible, that things are relative, and that a sign is never neutral. Lupton and Miller invoked Barthes and Foucault, when they wrote “the citizen/artist/producer is not the imperious master of language, media, education, custom, and so forth; instead the individual operates within the grid of possibilities these codes present” (1996, p. 9). The field of visual culture makes it clear that a video lexicographer must take due care to avoid provoking the same scorn and derision that lexicographers of the past have felt. Fortunately, visual culture openly poses many questions that might keep the lexicographer on track. Reservations aside, I intend to proceed on the basis that the traditional dictionary is a useful reference book, which has helped facilitate the organization of the English language and contributed much to society by making it possible to proceed with a common set of definitions.