Using Images in Course Materials


The photo shown above came from the site Unsplash and was edited in Picmonkey (to add the text to it and to resize it).

I feel like that might be all I need to tell you about adding photographs to course materials. If you use these two sites as your go-to resources, you almost can’t go wrong.

Unsplash provides gorgeous, high quality images for free. They are licensed under Creative Commons Zero, which means that you are free to use them however you want with no fears of copyright violations. Unsplash is the best thing that ever happened on the Internet. I see their photographs on websites and in advertisements and on book covers all the time. I just can’t even express how much I love them. I use their photographs on a regular basis in my Canvas course shells and in my classroom handouts. A great photograph can turn a blah set of instructions into something visually exciting, and sometimes that visual appeal is the little nudge that is needed to lure students in to reading the instructions.

Picmonkey is also full of awesome. It is just a basic photo editor (with pretty and creative filters), but it is very easy to use, and it is free. There is a paid version of Picmonkey, but it is very affordable, and the free version does almost everything you might need. Most often I use Picmonkey to do just what I did with the photo above. I took a large file and resized it to something more suitable for sharing in a blog post, and I added my own text to the photo in order to use it to send across a message.

Keep it weird. Keep it real.

And keep it visual.

That’s a good basic philosophy for making class materials engaging.

Other sites of interest for accessing free-to-use photographs are Morguefile, rgbstock, and Flickr Creative Commons.

It’s always better to assume that photographs we find online are copyrighted and should not be borrowed for our own purposes unless we are specifically told otherwise. These are just a few sites that do tell us when and how it is okay to download and use their images. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be borrowing the heck out of these images to bling out our courses.

Photography and Literacy

Great talk on “how photography connects us” from David Griffin and TED. I watched it for the first time a few days ago, and I’ve been thinking about what this all means for the teaching of visual literacy in classes like college writing where the focus isn’t necessarily in the visual arts.

One thing Griffin says that stands out to me is that great photojournalists know how to create a narrative.

That’s true of great communicators in any medium. We want students to synthesize information and make meaning out of it.

I’ve heard a lot of good arguments for having writing students do photo projects, but the idea that photography is narrative is among the best.

We talk about visual rhetoric so often in the negative. We talk about how we’re bombarded with visual stimuli in our digital lives, about how visuals so often are attempting to manipulate us. That they are. But this isn’t always bad. Visuals help us to understand so much of the world around us.

The point I think is that our lives are saturated with images and that those images are shaping meaning as we know it. If we want to be part of that conversation, if we want to contribute our own way of seeing and thinking, we have to respond in kind–with images. We have to know how to make narratives out of images.

And so, while I do appreciate visual analysis assignments in which students find images created by other people and write about how those images convey meaning, how they manipulate emotions and opinions, I’m even more interested right now in visual creations, in the writer as the image maker.

Writers have always been concerned with how to create pictures with words. It’s another kind of communication to create meaning with a combination of words of pictures. This is the kind of communication that influences us in the most profound ways, yet we have to think up ways to justify teaching it in writing classes.

Photography helps us to freeze the moments of our own understand of the world around us for further study. It gives us time to reflect on a scene without losing that scene in our minds. Time spent reflecting is one of the primary ways that we retain information and deepen understanding.

Put a camera in the writer’s hands. Through it and the close observations it affords, powerful narratives are born.