How are images used to make a political point? How are our ideas about events shaped by iconic images in the media? And has the visual culture of protest changed over the last century?
Last week, Dr Lara Pucci and I were joined by a group of 20 school pupils and 2 amazing UoN student ambassadors to consider these issues during a session called “Visualising Protest”, part of a Sutton Trust summer school here at the University of Nottingham.
The Sutton Trust is great: it improves educational opportunities for young people from non-privileged background and helps increased social mobility. Their summer schools allow bright Year 12 students from state-maintained schools to get a taste of life at university and to gain an insight into what it is like to live and study as a first-year undergraduate student.
Our session was one of five in the summer school’s historical strand and our topics related closely to things the pupils were studying in history lessons at school.
The students analysed examples of protest posters from the Spanish Civil War and the America Vietnam War, looking at the combination of word and image, and identifying visual strategies such as hyperbole, visual metaphor, and caricature. One iconic artwork came up time and again: Pablo Picasso’s vast painting Guernica was painted in 1937 in response to the bombing of a Spanish Basque village, but while hanging at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1970, it was the backdrop for protests against the war in Vietnam. In 2003, figures from the painting featured on placards protesting the war in Iraq. Some works of art, it seems, are so powerful that they become symbols of protest through the ages.
The group worked with more contemporary examples, too, in some hands-on activities. Thinking about how images can be used to present very varied viewpoints, they devised their own front page headlines to accompany a range of images from the student fees protests in 2011 – definitely some budding journalists among them! Finally, pens, scissors and glue at the ready, they applied what they had learnt from observing historical examples in order to collage their own protest posters. The results were impressive, aimed at a range of issues including educational reform (very dear to their hearts), supermarkets on the high street and the current NSA surveillance scandal.
It was a really fun and rewarding day for all concerned. Lara and I were super impressed by these students’ enthusiasm, intellect, and engagement. We hope that some of them might be inspired to pursue a degree in art history. Perhaps we’ll even be welcoming some of them back to the University of Nottingham some time soon…