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Visual rhetoric in environmental documentaries Ahn, Claire

Abstract

Environmental issues are a growing, global concern. UNESCO (1997) notes the significant role media has in appealing to audiences to act in sustainable ways. Cox (2013) specifically remarks upon the powerful role images play in how viewers can perceive the environment. As we contemplate how best to engage people in reflecting on what it means to live in a sustainable fashion, it is important that we consider the merits of particular rhetorical modes in environmental communication and how those approaches may engender concern or hopelessness, engagement or disengagement. One form of environmental communication that relies heavily on images, and that is growing in popularity, is documentary film. My study examines visual rhetorical modes in environmental documentaries and the types of impact they have on viewers. This study first identifies some dominant visual rhetorical modes through an extensive literature review and discussion of a variety of environmental documentary films. The resulting taxonomy of dominant visual rhetorical modes include: apocalyptic, jeremiad, hopeful, environmental nostalgia, sublime, and environmental melodrama. To explore how viewers react to visual rhetoric, eleven research participants were asked to view a sixty-minute compilation of video clips from various environmental documentaries that employed, to varying degrees, each of the dominant visual rhetorical modes. Using video annotation software, participants were asked to comment at points they felt to be particular striking or evocative. Follow-up interviews were conducted for clarification of participants’ annotations. The data collected and analyzed from participants’ annotations and transcribed interviews revealed that viewers were disengaged with messages of ecological doom. The most powerful rhetorical effect was observed when participants drew personal connections to content of particular video clips, which raised their awareness about certain environmental issues.

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