UW News

October 10, 2023

“Ways of Knowing” Episode 6: Visual Literacy

An empty wallet, a hairbrush, a diaper. These are just a few of the items left behind by migrants at the United States-Mexico border, photographed for a 2021 article in the Los Angeles Times.

Click to see the full transcript of the episode

Ways of Knowing 

The World According to Sound 

Episode 6 

Visual Literacy 


Diana Ruiz: So, we have close ups in one image of an empty, open wallet and a hairbrush. We have another with a backpack with some items inside, obscured so you can’t tell what they are, and a belt that is very snakelike on the ground. We have another image of a 200 peso. We have a pink beanie with a little fur pompom on top. We have red and blue wristbands on the ground. 


Chris Hoff: Diana Ruiz, assistant professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Washington. She’s describing photos of personal items left behind by migrants at the U.S.-Mexico Border.  


DR: We have a diaper. And all of these have a similar brown-gray-greenish kind of hue. They look like they were taken fairly early in the day or fairly late from the shadows on them and the kind of golden hour of sunup or sundown here.  


CH: These photographs are from an LA Times article published in 2021, during a period of increased attention to immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border. The photos are meant to engender empathy, encouraging a viewer to imagine the difficulty of deciding to leave one’s home and come to the U.S.  


DR: These are artifacts of endurance. We can read the kind of human toll in the way that these objects show wear and tear. They’re sun bleached. Some are encrusted with sand and dirt. These objects have really been through it. 


CH: It’s not just what’s in the photographs, but how they were taken, and the way the subject’s presented: Each one is a closeup of one individual item, with nothing else in the frame.  


DR: This kind of closeup, forensic look at them, really invites a lot of inquiry and inferences as to who the person was, who the people were carrying them, under what conditions were they disposed, discarded, lost, taken away. 


[music plays] 


CH: Closeup photographs of personal items left behind at the border aren’t new. The trope has been developing for years. Diana says there was a big surge of these kinds of photos in 2005, when humanitarian and mutual aid groups like the Border Angels began using them to garner sympathy for people migrating to the U.S.  


DR: They were really interested in using these images as promotional material to get other people to physically join them on the border. 


CH: The photos are presented as proof that migrants were leaving behind garbage, desecrating American soil.  


DR: In isolating these close-up images of objects left behind, stolen, seized, discarded by migrants — that really propelled their vigilantism on the border. It was a way for them to show, here is the proof, without consideration of anything else around the frame. 


CH: The same kind of photographs were being used to evoke both empathy and fear, to promote humanitarian organizations and vigilante groups, to advocate for pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant policies.  


DR: The thing I am interested in here is identifying this visual trope that is doing the work of multiple stakeholders in border militarization and also attending to chronicling the lived realities of people on the move. 


CH: The visual trope here is the close-up of discarded personal items and there’s two big reasons it’s so effective. First, it appears forensic, like a photograph of an object from a crime scene. If you look at it in the right way, it seems like the photo can convey an objective fact. Seeing is believing after all. A photograph offers concrete, permanent evidence. A permanent truth. At the same time, since there’s just this one object in the photo, a viewer can spin their own entire narrative about the person who discarded it, and there’s essentially no other context that can refute them. 


[Diana Ruiz begins speaking in the background] 


Of an empty, open wallet … and a hairbrush … a backpack … a belt …  


CH: At the same time, since there’s just this one object in the photo, a viewer can spin their own entire narrative about the person who discarded it and there is essentially no other narrative that can dispute them.  


[Ruiz continues speaking in the background] 


We have another image of a 200 peso … we have a pink beanie … red and blue wristbands … a diaper … 


CH: What makes a visual trope so dangerous is that it operates subconsciously, triggering reactions without a viewer realizing it. That’s true for these close-ups of personal items, but also for the many other visual tropes informing the immigration debate: things like masses of people spilling out of the frame or disorderly crowds or women stoically holding children. These tropes are patterns that can be identified and read. 


DR: The kind of pattern recognition helps tell a larger cultural story about how something has been treated, what kind of stories have been told about something so far. 


CH: Diana’s about to publish a paper about the visual trope of discarded personal items and how it fits into the larger economy of imagery shaping the debate at the US-Mexico border. Look for that in the journal of Critical Ethnic Studies. 


[music plays] 


CH: Diana’s identification and analysis of tropes is one part of “visual literacy.” The term Visual Literacy was coined in the 1960s, but it has intellectual roots in criticism—literary, film, and of course photography. It encompasses all aspects of “reading an image”—formal elements like composition, symmetry and contrast; technical elements like cropping and remixing; and literary elements like symbolism, metaphor, and parody. A major tenet of Visual Literacy is that there is no objective truth in an image; images are not facts. They must be “read” by a human being, and therefore interpreted. And the better you can read them, the stronger your interpretation of them will be. Visual literacy gives you the tools to better read an image. 


CH: Further reading 


Here’s 5 texts that’ll help you learn more about visual literacy as a way of knowing. 


On Photography” by Susan Sontag and “Camera Lucida” by Roland Barthes 


These two books are a great introduction to photo criticism. On Photography looks into the role of the photograph in the modern era. Specifically, how the proliferation of photographs quote “has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events.”  


Barthes’ Camera Lucida deals with the effects a photograph has on the viewer, both intellectually and emotionally; and how every spectator of a photo brings their own personal experience to it, but at the same time their response to a photo is bound by their cultural upbringing. 


How To See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More” by Nicholas Mirzeof 


This book addresses the flood of images in our culture from a more contemporary perspective. Every two minutes, Americans take more photographs than were printed in the entire nineteenth century. 


No Caption Needed” by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites 


What makes a photograph iconic? This book presents nine of the most well-known photographs in American culture—why they are so powerful, and how they have circulated through other media—the internet, merchandise, billboards, TV shows, tattoos, and more. 


Finally, to get a better take on how photojournalism shapes public sentiment and discourse, there’s Barbie Zeller’s 2010 book, “About to Die: How News Images Move the Public.” 


CH: Ways of Knowing is a production of The World According to Sound. This season is about the different interpretative and analytical methods in the humanities. It was made in collaboration with the University of Washington and its College of Arts & Sciences. All the interviews with UW faculty were conducted on campus in Seattle. Music provided by Ketsa, and our friends, Matmos. 


Sam Harnett: The World According to Sound is made by Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett. 





Diana Flores Ruíz, assistant professor of Cinema and Media Studies

Diana Flores Ruíz, assistant professor of Cinema and Media Studies

In this episode, Diana Ruíz discusses how the same images can be used on both sides of the same debate. In this case, pro- and anti-immigration. Ruíz, assistant professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Washington, describes how the photos evoked empathy and assistance for humanitarian organizations, but were also used to promote support for vigilante groups by inducing fear.

This is the sixth of eight episodes of “Ways of Knowing,” a podcast highlighting how studies of the humanities can reflect everyday life. Through a partnership between The World According to Sound and the University of Washington, each episode features a faculty member from the UW College of Arts & Sciences, the work that inspires them, and suggested resources for learning more about the topic.

Next | Episode 7: Material Culture