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Discovery 1001: How to choose killer related material

Part 2. Visual Texts: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Analysis of these visual texts is good practice for Section 1 of the AOS HSC paper, and can also double as a second related text.

For texts 1-6, describe how the image depicts ideas of discovery and evaluate its effectiveness.

1. Stock Photo


2. Courbet, Self Portrait (The Desperate Man), 1845


3. Michael Leunig, Cartoon for The Age newspaper, date unknown


4. Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818


5. Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, 1939


6. David Moore, Migrants Arriving in Sydney, 1966


Keys to analysing a visual text

– Subject matter/content – what is depicted? What does it mean? Are there any symbols or significant imagery?
– Purpose of the author – to amuse, inform, shock, persuade, etc
– Context – the title of the work is usually a handy hint. Does it comment on human nature or society at the time?
– Text (if any) – text is especially eye-catching in an image; it is usually the first thing that the viewer sees. Thus it is important.
– Visual qualities – vectors, camera angles, colour scheme, shapes and sizes, composition, style – eg. realistic, abstract, painterly. What is the effect of all these? What kind of atmosphere is created? Take note of contrasts.
– Connection with viewer – is there a connection through eye contact, body language or composition? Or does the viewer feel like a voyeur?
Many written techniques can also be applied to visual texts – eg. symbolism, imagery, metaphor, pathetic fallacy, allegory, etc.

When analysing a visual text as related material in an essay, you must always remember to describe the visual qualities and subject matter of the work – more so than for other mediums – in order for the marker to be familiar with it, especially if it is a lesser-known image. Specify the medium (eg. oil painting, graphic novel, photograph). Description and analysis can go hand-in-hand. Here is a paragraph from one of my Belonging essays for example:

…Counter to the interplay of individual relationships to form a collective is the abolition of individuality in order to conform to a group. Zhang’s oil painting “Bloodline: Big Family No.3” illustrates the fragmented Chinese identity and family structure in the turbulent wake of the Cultural Revolution. It depicts three identically androgynous monochrome figures. The formalised quality of old passport photographs is emulated in this triple portrait of a Chines father, mother and son, whose absent gazes are distinguishable only by the son’s dwarfed stature. Dressed in Mao suits and red army uniforms, there is a destabilised sense of belonging within the family: while Zhang evokes notions of filial piety and honour through the ubiquitous red thread, the “bloodline” connecting the family, their vacant and tragic expressions display their innate isolation in a milieu where cultural heritage is but a vestige, and the history and memories that constitute a sense of place for the individual is institutionally repressed. The ironic title “Big Family” – a nod to the notorious Chinese one child policy – communicates the communist collective anonymity that has replaced the intimate, relational bonds within the traditional Chinese family.
How to choose an effective visual text
– As a rule of thumb, I don’t like stock photos. They are tacky.
– Children’s books run the risk of not having enough depth and sophistication to analyse. Graphic novels intended for a mature audience are better choices – ie. Shaun Tan’s work.
– Be careful when using fine art. Some, like Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, can work really well for Discovery, however others like the Mona Lisa or any of Pollock’s works will not, either because the connections to Discovery are not literal enough (abstract expressionism = non-representational lines and colours everywhere), or there is not enough of a narrative that is able to be interpreted from the work (ie. Simply a portrait does not show Discovery). Don’t pick a painting just because it is famous, but identify suitable subject matter and techniques for Discovery.
– Iconic photographs can also be really effective – see Migrants Arriving in Sydney. It portrays discovery of a new life, new identity, etc and the grief that comes with losing the past in the process.

More good stuff from Leunig


Cartoon by Michael Leunig, Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, 17 Mar. 1984


Michael Leunig, The Age newspaper, date unknown

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