Candle power

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This rhetorical analysis of a photograph was the final project for my Rhetorical Analysis class. It explores the concept of visual rhetoric and evaluates a photograph of the candlelight vigil held on the Virginia Tech campus after the 2007 massacre.

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Candle power

  1. 1. IN RETROSPECT BY FRAN MCKAIN sense of unity. Those most closely connected toCandle power the event would no doubt find the most meaningThe healing effect of visual rhetoric in this image, but even those whose only connection was in watching the news canThe Collegiate Times published a photograph of appreciate its healing message.the candlelight vigil at Virginia Tech after the2007 massacre. This image illustrates the power Of the three Aristotelian rhetorical appeals,of visual rhetoric to create virtual experience, to the strongest in this image is pathos, but logoscreate an emotional enthymematic appeal, and, and ethos play a role as well. The definitional ordespite one ethical challenge, to successfully logical content in the image is subtle. Theappeal to a broad audience. caption, “Tech begins healing process” explains something about what is happening in the photo. The virtual experience begins with a sense of Of course, the accompanying article does as well.warmth. The people are crowded together in the But in the photo itself, the logos comes primarilychilly night air, holding their glowing candles, from the reality it witnesses: The myriad of lightsseeking mutual comfort after the horrific event of communicate the fact that a large number ofthe previous day. They stand before a building people participated in this candlelight vigil onthat is reminiscent of a cathedral which, with the behalf of those slainlights, conveys a spiritual aura. The mass of litcandles suggests a feeling of unity among the The ethos of the image is derived from itscrowd. Knowing that they are all feeling intense being a photograph of the actual event—seeing isemotion about the recent event magnifies that believing—and from its being published by the Collegiate Times, a Virginia Tech campus Figure 1 (“Tech begins healing process,” 2007). July 2011 | Rhetorical Review 1
  2. 2. journal, which carries the traditional authority emotions associated with the concepts (Hill,inherent in newspapers. The credibility of the Helmers, 2004). Because of this relationship, onenews journal lends authority to the message experiences the associated emotions when onecommunicated by the photo (Campbell, Huxman, sees the symbol (for example, feeling patriotic2009). The fact that it is published by the when one sees the American flag). The image ofuniversity’s own media, as opposed to another the candlelight vigil demonstrates thisjournal, suggests that the Times is in solidarity relationship on at least two levels. First, forwith the school, despite the fact that the students current and former students and faculty athad become weary of media attention, as they Virginia Tech, the administration buildingindicated by a sign they posted on the campus represents the school, their experiences while in(Cahill, 2007). As a result, the ethos of this attendance, and the aspirations that they pursuedjournal was probably stronger with the students there. Seeing it beautifully lit would naturallythan that of an outside journal would have been. evoke whatever emotions they may feel about their school. Seeing it thus depicted after an event Additional ethos is gained by including the that brought harm to it and its people wouldadministration building in the image. This ethos heighten that emotion and add a sense of grief forhas two causes. First, the administration building those whose similar aspirations and experiencesrepresents the school and its authority. Including were so tragically cut short.it in the picture conveys the idea that the vigilportrayed in the photo is authorized by the school. On a different level, whether associated withSecondly, the building bears a strong architectural the school or not, the visual allusion to a place ofresemblance to a cathedral. As such, it acts as a worship brings to play another symbol with itssymbol of God or church and lends divine ethos own set of emotions. For many, the symbol of ato the story depicted. At some level, this church is related to emotions about spiritualresemblance suggests the authority of church or comfort. This is why movies often portray theGod over the gathering—perhaps that the vigil is typical act of entering a church to pray duringholy and authorized by God. Like a news reporter times of distress. The gathering of the crowdpictured in front of the iconic White House or before the lighted church-like building suggests aCapitol building, the association with the symbol gathering to God for spiritual comfort—an actmakes the story more credible. But this nod filled with emotion for many people.toward a religious symbol does more than suggestcredibility. It has an emotional impact as well. This emotional impact is heightened by the analogy of the candles. One senses an The book, Defining Visual Rhetoric, makes enthymematic response to this visual. Candles inthe case that a three-way relationship exists the dark convey deep emotion. They arebetween concepts (such as spiritual comfort), associated with hope during trouble, with insightsymbols that represent the concepts, and the when confused or when seeking knowledge, with 2 |
  3. 3. finding one’s way when the path is hard to see. in the photo, which bears such a strongThe candle in the window has long been a symbol resemblance to a Catholic cathedral, suggests thatof home and safety. Candles are also associated the religion involved is Christian. For some, itwith romance and with prayer and spirituality. may give an impression that all these hurtingEven a single candle can symbolize these people are flocking to a Christian church in theiremotions. If a person is holding the candle, or is hour of need. For many that may have been true,gazing at it, the emotion is heightened. But but certainly not for all. It is possible that somebringing together thousands of people, each may resent this Christian implication. One way toholding a candle, vastly magnifies the effect. The avoid this visual suggestion would have been toprayer of hope is no longer a whisper, but a shout. frame the photograph differently. It need notThe path forward is illuminated not by one feeble, include the entire building. Shooting from aflickering flame but is bathed in the golden light different angle might have diminished theof myriad flames. There is still darkness all resemblance. Of course, that choice might havearound. The anguish of the tragedy is not erased reduced the iconic power of the administrationby this night of vigil. But despite the pain, in the building as a symbol of the school, so the tradeoffmidst of the dark wound, there is comfort and might not have been successful for the immediatehealing in the gathering of the lights. audience. It is worth noting that this act of gathering This immediate audience obviously includedtogether with candles in the dark might be the students and faculty and others closely relatedemotional under any circumstance—a wedding, a to the school. An extended part of the immediatecoronation, a worship service—but in the wake of audience includes the rest of the nation. Onethe week’s terrible happenings, the emotions target audience may be others who hold viewsconveyed seem stronger and more layered. It is such as those of the gunman, to show to them thenot just beautiful. The dark is strongly present. solidarity of the school in the face of the attack.The light is necessary. For this audience the rhetorical purpose of The spiritual connotation of the image raises the photo, and the event it depicts, seems to be toone possible ethical issue. Candles are used in create a virtual experience—to help the audiencemany religious acts by many different religions. experience something of what those who wereThey do not have the same meaning in all such there that night may have felt. As explained incases, but for many the candle conveys a Defining Visual Rhetoric, the goal of a rhetor is tocomforting message in the face of death (Foster, “increase the presence of elements of the2004). Thus, this candlelight vigil would have rhetorical situation…[because] elements withhad a positive emotional appeal to most people in enhanced presence will have greater influencemost cultures. It would have evoked some sense (Hill, Helmers, 2004, p. 29). This photographof comfort, hope, or peace. However, the building increases the presence of several elements: the July 2011 | Rhetorical Review 3
  4. 4. administration building, the lights, and the crowd. food. “If that is true, …then it is not persuasion,These enhance the sense of actually experiencing but unconscious causation, and so not rationalthe vigil event—standing in the huge crowd on persuasion, and so not argument, visual orthat chill dark evening, holding a candle, united otherwise” (Hill, Helmers, 2004, p. 57). Thein grief. The image also seems intended to candlelight vigil image seems to have thismaintain action—to encourage people to characteristic. When one views the photograph,remember and honor those who were slain; to knowing what it depicts, one feels irresistiblyencourage the unity of the survivors in support of drawn toward the warmth and comfort ittheir need for healing. Thus, it has a suggests. It is not a matter of being convinced toconsummatory purpose. join the crowd or accept what they are doing. It is an involuntary reaction—a reaching out for The purpose does not seem to discriminate comfort because of the pain. If the image makesagainst anyone except perhaps those not in an argument at all, it is a ritualistic one in whichsympathy with the victims. One possible appeal the participants express, by means of the candleto consumer interest may exist in the purpose of analogy, that they are seeking healing.this image: it may be attempting to communicatethat Virginia Tech is still a good school—still a No doubt the Collegiate Times had a largegood place to go to college—despite this tragedy. number of images of the events of the massacre.Beyond that, it seems to be primarily intended to They could have chosen to publish any of themhonor and support the hurting Hokies. instead of this one. In fact, they did publish otherConsidering the purpose in terms of the cognitive photographs. But certain topics do not appear indissonance theory, no one aware of the situation any of the photos on CollegiateTimes.com. Theywould have questioned that a problem existed. do not show any of the dead or dying victims.The question would be whether a remedy could They do not show the perpetrator. And they dobe found. This image suggests that the Hokies not show terrified students cowering in fear.have a potential remedy in their mutual support of These choices seem very appropriate. Suchone another as they seek healing. sensational images would have exploited everyone affected by this terrible event and would In support of this purpose, the photograph have been very emotionally damaging to studentsseems to use no real argument beyond the and faculty and their friends and families.enthymematic appeal to the common need forhealing in the aftermath of the massacre. In The success of this rhetorical act is hard toDefining Visual Rhetoric, one writer asserts that measure, but the following evaluation suggestsoften visual rhetoric makes no argument at all. that it was successful. First, artistically, it seemsInstead, it creates causative influence that the to do well at creating the virtual experience ofaudience cannot resist, much like a person that candlelight vigil. It is easy to imagine oneselfinvoluntarily salivates at the thought of a favorite present among the crowd and sense how they felt. 4 |
  5. 5. It combines two common elements of good visual does, the spirit of hope in the face of this terriblerhetoric: pleasure and pain. It captures the addition to a series of attacks on Americanmoment of this memorial event, helps people to citizens, the image reminds us to unite for mutualidentify with those who were there, and requires healing and not to give in to fear and hate.them to understand the impact to that campus.The effect of this image is probably the hardestaspect to measure. Virginia Tech has since takenmany steps to remember the fallen, including an Fran McKain applies rhetorical strategy toannual repeat of the candlelight vigil. But writing books, designing websites, and creatingwhether the photograph helped to encourage that presentations.cannot be known. There is no question, however, Referencesthat the photograph tells the truth about the questfor healing. It shows that thousands gathered and Cahill, P. (2007, April 19). Signs of media discontent. MSNBC.com. Retrieved September 5, 2010 fromlit their candles and stood together in their grief. http://onthescene.msnbc.com/vatech/2007/04/studeFinally, by the ethical standard, except for the nt_reax.htmlpossible religious bias, the image seems very Campbell, K. K., Huxman, S. S. (2009). The rhetorical act:supportive of the needs of society in this dark Thinking, speaking, and writing clearly. Belmont,time—the needs to be comforted and supported. CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. Foster, R. (2004). Capturing the light. Natural Health, 34(3), 66-68. Retrieved from Academic Search The Virginia Tech candlelight vigil image Premier database.probably will not become one of Hill, C. A., Helmers, M. (Eds.). (2004). Defining visualphotojournalism’s iconic photographs. Such rhetorics. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaumphotographs are “(1) recognized by everyone Associates, Inc.within a public culture, (2) understood to be Lucaites, J., & Hariman, R. (2001). Visual rhetoric, photojournalism, and democratic public culture.representations of historically significant events, Rhetoric Review, 20(1/2), 37. Retrieved from(3) objects of strong emotional identification or Academic Search Premier database.response, and (4) regularly reproduced or copied Tech begins healing process. [Online image] Availableacross a range of media, genres, and topics” http://www.collegiatetimes.com/april16/4-18-07/,(Lucaites, Hariman, 2001, p. 37). Many people September 5, 2010.probably recognize this image and understandwhat it represents, but everyone may not. Closeup photographs showing the students in theirVirginia Tech sweatshirts weeping and holdingcandles are probably more recognizable and moreemotional. Among the many images on theinternet depicting the campus tragedy, this imagedoes not frequently appear. Still, capturing, as it July 2011 | Rhetorical Review 5

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