I recently conducting research on the .S, S, Hunley, the now-famous submarine used by the Confederates during the American Civil War. Much of this research consisted of images depicting the old ship and its schematics, as well as the reformation of the crew’s faces as made possible through the reconstruction of their retrieved skulls. These images fired my imagination and inspired my curiosity. Who were these men? Where did they live? How old were they? Did they have families? . . . The questions kept on flowing; the imagery drew me in and motivated me to look for further information on the Hunley, its crew and their mission.
Images are very important in research for many reasons, some of which are obvious, others not so much. First, as illustrated above, they offer a means for continuing searches through the formulation of questions that direct the research and enhance some degree of personal interest. Another common means for utilizing photos and video compilations is that they offer information that might not be otherwise available through textual data. For example, in my years of research on the Titanic, visuals of the wrecksite have opened up to me the vast array of details crucial in explaining how the ship sank, from point to point, and how one outcome led to further developments resulting in the ship’s ultimate demise. By viewing the images of the hulk and debris, one can see not only what happened that fateful night, bit HOW it happened. This is one way I was able to piece together the sinking from beginning to end. Likewise, I was able to discern what didn’t happen and why, so images work both ways. That leads to yet a third possible role for visual compilation in the process of research: they otherwise confirm or refute that which may be theorized regarding a certain body of knowledge. Finally, these visuals add the oh-so-important ‘face’ to the subject so that researchers can see for themselves what they are studying, as in the case of Waverly Hills Sanatorium. Pictures of this old structure , inside and out, show us what the place was once like and now is as well as how it is/was designed. We see it for ourselves and know that the subject of our research is, in fact, real and not imaginary. Without pictures, researchers lack that eye’s view necessary for getting to know the subject matter intimately, and for serious researchers, intimacy with a given subject is essential, even crucial, for success in knowledge acquisition because they form personal relationships that open them up to whole new worlds of insight and being.
This last part is not as ideal as you may think. Researchers yearn to connect in some way with their subject matter so they might “communicate” with it, swim in its vast seas for both frolicking enjoyment and concentrated retrieval and application of ever-growing information that only a close relationship with the subject matter can bring forth.
Keep in mind that information comes in many forms and degrees of significance, all of which incessantly lead to yet information further that would otherwise be inaccessible through mere reading. Intimate knowledge comes by way of a researcher getting close to the subject, even becoming one with it. This intimacy even allows one to create knowledge through theorizing, deductive reasoning, even forming presumptions. For example, viewing images of Scottish Castles allows a researcher to form conclusions in many areas of study related to the castle, such as history, architecture, medieval warfare, structural material (stonemasonry), genealogy, meteorology, and Scottish traditions and legends, just to name a few. And from here, research and its ongoing accumulation and formulation of knowledge continually branches off and expands as further research is conducted and data collected. Images of these castles, along with field research to allow researchers access to physical contact with an object or objects of study, open up a window to all of these interrelated areas so that information can be more easily absorbed and cataloged away in the permanent memory. Since the majority of people, like me, are visual learners, this seems most ideal. In actuality, the preference and desire for imagery in research and even formal education is likely due to this human condition.
The above consideration can be further explained in further detail: When researchers visit any of these Castles, they are able to determine many things: height (not only actual, but perceptual height, which is equally important in the case of description), size, conditions of the stone, the pattern of destruction and structural deterioration, the placement of debris (see also Titanic), actual geological location, agricultural conditions, proximity to water or other geological formations, location relative to other castles and nearby towns . . . All of these can render information and hypotheses on who lived there, how and when the castle fell into ruin (if it, in fact, had), how the family lived, what type of warfare took place (if, in fact any had), how long the castle had been decomposing (if it is, but then again, everything is), what kind of bacterial microbes were/are at work on eating away at the structure, whether or not buried items are there to suggest, say, the social caste of previous residents, etc. Images alone cannot garner this information, at least not well-linked like strings of pearls, but when they are accumulated, such as in the case of Lambertville High School, add dimension and depth to the story behind the subject. This is why field research is necessary, with the inclusion of video, to bring forth that realism that is crucial when studying said subject, because that sense of realism allows the researcher to go behind the collection of mere data to get to know the actual being inside and out, to become an integral part of it, and to make connections so that gaps are filled in regarding both physical composition and the essence of the subject.
Is video, then, better than photos? The answer to that question is: no, not at all. Videos capture a subject in ongoing panoramic form, where viewers can see it in flowing movement, not to mention how multiple features tie together, without end; stills, on the other hand, though offering limitations in vantage point of the subject, provide viewers the opportunity to study one point in minute detail without motion or other disruptions to interfere. Such is the case with art, like Dali’s work, much of which is complex in meaning due to the myriad of details, brush strokes, hue tones, contours, and shadows. In light of this, videos and photographs are symbiotic in nature and rely on one another to ‘paint the overall picture’. The subject is presented in all its depth, showing many dimensions, while, at the same time, is saved in suspended animation for ongoing study.
The advancement in technology, too, has contributed to the efficacy of imagery as a source and component of research. The aforementioned video is a relatively new development as far as visuals are concerned. Although the first photographs ever taken date to a time prior to the American Civil War, motion pictures (meaning those depicting actual movement) quite possibly existed as early as the 1870s. To many, that might seem like an eon ago (over a century), but when one contemplates how long human beings have been learning about their world, that amount of time is comparatively miniscule, the virtual blink-of-an-eye. Needless to say, the motion picture has captivated audiences since its inception. Editing machines, too, have allowed researchers to control and, yes, even manipulate the visuals captured. This is not necessarily a deceptive thing; this technology provides researchers the ability to enhance and selectively focus on certain aspects of the subject over others, depending on the concentration of study and/or showcase. This is quite often important with regards to education where lessons require attention to particular points. Subjects are so vast that the knowledge and information would otherwise overflow and much of which would go either missed or unrecognized.
Further possibilities have come through the advent of computer technology, which allows compilers to be dynamic in visual presentation. Now software programs and various applications, such as Paint Shop and Adobe™, offer a means to create or add to imagery. Such enhancements provide viewers an opportunity to see visuals in different ways to either entertain and/or challenge perception and to think about the subject in different ways. This is contestable, of course, but such added effects drive people to learn, as in the case of artwork. Computer software programs can, for example, alter the mood of a painting so that, perhaps, views may draw something new from it, a means of creating knowledge through expanded understanding. The subject of visuals, then, takes on a life of its own and continues to grow as viewers continue to conceive it differently. With computer technology, subjects of research virtually become living, breathing beings with which anyone can engage on many levels—intellectual, emotional, psychological, personal, professional, cordial—just as s/he would with other human beings.
Simply put, imagery adds that ‘face’ to information that one would need when getting to know a new friend. Without that ‘face’, a major piece of the overall puzzle is lost, and learning about that subject, or that ‘new friend,’ is limited. In the end, images probably tell a greater story than texts do.
Next: Movies and why researchers and general viewers should not and cannot rely on them for ascertaining or confirming factual information.