Video Diaries: A Visual Literacy Case Study

Maria Cristina Santana
University of Central Florida


Postmodern technology has made possible a total union of media that some call hypermedia. Hypermedia is a powerful combination of tools such as computers, videotape and photography. In a modern communication world, hypermedia is as common as morning coffee. Most people are exposed to it daily by means of advertising, television programming and other publications. Such audiences experience ideas containing complicated visual messages. Those messages have a visual literacy that enables the audience to understand their meaning.

Language and images both involve a certain degree of learning. A code of meanings is necessary to interpret both areas. Language has a certain defined system of representation and meaning while pictures and visuals are still lacking a universal code of definition. Messaris and other scholars see this code as not always necessary since certain conventions of visual representations are "transparent" to the inexperienced viewer. Messaris, (1993) Gibson (1982) and Hochberg (1984) studied still images and found that an impressive variety of visual conventions seem to require hardly any previous experience on the part of the viewer. Furthermore, in television viewing no relationship was found between video comprehension and the amount of television viewing. It seems that the partial views are integrated mentally in an edited sequence similar to how people see the real world (Hobbs, 1988). The "real" world has a stronger effect on viewers than an arbitrary set of conventions. The audience better interprets and associates images and sequences seen or experienced in real life. Therefore, camera angles and movements that recreate reality seem to convey a sense of real life versus artificial script.

The author experienced such audience trends in a one-year course for non-production students. In the class "Exploring ISMS: Gender, Race and Visual Communication" a group of 20 interdisciplinary students learned to critically analyze issues of race, culture, sexual orientation, age and gender. Their main assignment was to make a short video diary of an element of their identity in relation to an ISM. Their experiences making these videos are fascinating. For most of them this class was the first time they had the freedom to create using a new technology.

Video Images

Texts have been the sole instrument by which the media are analyzed. In reality, production and reception should also be part of the analysis. According to media literacy an image by itself is able to promote an idea without the need for a text study. It is the image and its reception that defines its meaning. Media literacy gives the audience the tools to create media messages through self-expression skills. The author was interested in allowing her students to select the images and video clips needed to create a 5-minute personal video diary. The students had absolute freedom of choice doing so. No topic was rejected as long as it portrayed a side of their identity, since the video diary was to illustrate who they were.

Most of the students used their own image as part of the video. Some used their friends and families and others used video clips from the media. Collage was the format of preference. Most students used old family snap-shots and home videos with a voice over of their personal account. Two of the group of 20 students used straight interview techniques to illustrate their ideas.

The requirements on the images used in the video were simple. The video had to be in focus and it had to have clear audio. Technical requirement aside, the student had to use five minutes to show and discuss one or more parts of their identity. Preferably the discussion should be related to an ISM. Many of the students continued conversations from their private written journals as the foundation of their video dairy. The written journal was another demand of the course.

To help them visualize their concept the class used storyboards to explain events that contribute to their identity. This was an exercise done during a class retreat that later was repeated during class to aid in organizing their video. By using each frame to visually represent their thoughts, the students were able to convert text into visuals in a faster way. The storyboard exercise helped them to later select the images for their video and was also instrumental in creating group dynamics.

Case Study

During the academic year 1997-1998, the author was involved in a national project sponsored by The Institute for Public Media Arts. As part of this grant, a two-semester course was designed for upper class undergraduate students. The class, interdisciplinary in nature, was team-taught by one Communication professor and one Sociology professor. The essence of the class was to use video diaries to express ideas on race, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation and multiculturalism. The class enrollment was of 20 students, same students each semester. The video diary was the core of the studentís assessment for the first semester. Each student was required to work individually on a 3 to 5 minute video exploring a topic dealing with some ISM.

The focus of the instruction in the class had been before that on Visual Communication and Visual Literacy. The students were stimulated to think of the verbal messages in symbolic ways. As an educator, the author thought that student's involvement in production was crucial to their understanding of the media. Students cannot become truly critical consumers of the mass media until they have had experience making videos (Hobbs, 1998b). "The power of technology is unleashed when students can use it in their own hands as authors of their own work and use it for critical inquiry, self-reflection and creative expression" (Goodman, 1996, p.2)

While students were obsessed with the technological details of a video production, the class time was divided between practical and theoretical discussions. To help the students progress at the necessary speed, the class had two student helpers that served as video editors. Both student helpers were seniors in Radio and Television and had vast knowledge of equipment, organization and techniques on video production. Together with the students they did their final editing. The video editors only helped organize and edit the raw footage into its final shape. They did not shoot the film for the students.


Media experience becomes the framework by which people perceive their world and make interpretations by which they attain a perspective for judgment. (Brown, 1998) An individual creates meanings that can relate only to the personal level or can combine to relate on other social levels. Ethnic, religious and moral ideas are part of the code of meanings created by the individual to understand the visual world. For that matter, members of one family or group may differ from each other in comparison to the rest of society.

The students were a diverse group. Their initial exchanges of opinion in the classroom setting were guarded. As the semester progressed some of their phobias became clearer. The students were more understanding as a group than on the personal level. At the personal level there were more conflicting perceptions. On two occasions the class discussion was heated. One instance was when a fraternity brother fraternity proclaimed loyalty and love toward his fraternity. The other was a discussion on the essence of ethnicity and if there is an ethnicity for white people.

The media literacy discussed in class for ethnicity was associated with Black, Hispanic or Asian people. Groups that were white were not associated with ethnic themes and were not associated with dark skin color. The perception of ethnicity as only the right of a minority group was a hard notion to fight against. Through the discussion and the personal stories of the class, the students started to see that ethnicity defines any group of people regardless of color or culture. The established perception level here was strong and resistant to change.

Another perception discussed in the personal and media level was homophobia. Although none of our students identified themselves as homosexual, two of them had homosexual siblings. This was not revealed until the second semester of the class. The rest of the group was homophobic to some degree. Their insights and reflections on the topic were clear in their journal's entries. Since Sexual Orientation was part of the class's discussion of Co-Cultures, the students were required to reflect, discussed and participate in that argument. None of their video diaries dealt with the topic, perhaps following the level of discomfort for most of them. Three out of five groups dealt with gender roles but none discussed Sexual Orientation. The visual materials and documentaries used for class purposes did not change their perception on the topic. The use of such documentaries brought the topic up for discussion even when the students themselves did not want to include Sexual Orientation as one of their ISMS.


Meaning is situated in what audiences bring to their media experience through selective perception. Research trends in the last decade reflect an increasing attention to the television audience and less to the television producers (Brown, 1998). Viewers exercise selective perception instead of accepting forced meanings. The media message is individual by nature and interpretation. Each person brings their own definition or code, thus making the media's content complex and personalized. The media is massive by production but no longer by perception.

How can an educator identify what students already know about the media? How can an educator evaluate evidence of their learning? These and more questions posed by Buckingham relate to the importance of dealing with the audience's prior experiences. (Buckingham 1998) How can a student be a critic of a medium he or she has not studied yet? They can and they do know about their experience with that medium in a more informal and less critical manner. As a member of an audience, that student already knows what "works" for a certain group. The key for the educator is to explain to the student why that technique or camera angle works. A sophisticated audience member can relate to producer's styles and preferences in production, while still not knowing the how things are done.

As a producer, each student is also an audience member and that experience will shape his or her video dairy. Consider the case of what is called "MTV Style" camerawork and editing. (Messaris, 1998) Jump cuts, camera jiggle, swish pans, tilted framing and the like characterize MTV Style. The students wanted to reproduce these techniques in their video dairies. What they have experienced as audience members became the rule later (as video producers). Educators at times forget the importance of prior experience, even if it is not academic or critical-thinking oriented.


My major premise in this essay was that media literacy, when combined with video production, could quickly make believers of any interdisciplinary student. The joint venture of two or more disciplines to explore theoretical and practical aspects of video production is the best possible combination. In the author's case, diversity was the core argument and incentive for the video production. This case scenario can be duplicated with other disciplines and video production. The video diaries were an effective, reliable, and accurate way of assessing how the students progressed into a critical portrayal of their identity. Such discussions are hard and slow. Diversity is a topic worth studying through the media. After all, the message can be as powerful as the messenger. By studying the media and learning to produce media the students gained a unique experience of controlling their final projects. It is much more dramatic to see five minutes of their lives than to read five minutes of their lives. Their generation, more so than the author's, is accustomed to transferring ideas into visuals from an early age. Therefore, their learning speed was fast. The experience was positive for the educator as well as for the students. The year helped to change a small part of how they see and respond to the media.


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