Visual Studies Research Institute

Funded through Dornsife College’s 20/20 Program, an initiative established to encourage faculty to work across existing departments and programs to identify research problems of great social relevance and importance in the years to come and building on the success of the Visual Studies Graduate Certificate, we focus on the nature, analysis and evaluation of visual evidence in order to interrogate the relationship of seeing, believing, and proving from Antiquity to the present.


As active and alert citizens and scholars, we have learned to unpack the rhetoric of speeches and of journalism, and to treat written and spoken claims and assertions with appropriate skepticism.   But images of protests or pollution or poverty that are flashed around the world very often seem to offer unmediated truths.   The growing role of the Internet and the World Wide Web over the last fifteen years has been to facilitate the transmission of visual information whilst simultaneously removing many of the traditional structures of knowledge that have claimed authority when it comes to interpreting an image.   This research initiative takes as its starting point that we learn to recognize and debate the implications of what we think that we see.


“Evidence” is something that underpins the basic concepts and methods that shape the terrain of the humanities and the sciences alike.   It invites the exploration of “objectivity,” “reliability,” and “bias.”  To focus on it as a topic is to open up issues to do with problems of hypothesis, modeling, and experimentation – and their representation and sharing.  The degree to which visual examples, diagrams, charts, and animations serve to communicate knowledge and understanding is central to the construction – and potential modification – of the intellectual landscape of today’s university.   Examining the implications of visual evidence leads us to assess the foundations of individual disciplines, the criteria that matter the most in developing their arguments, and the advantages – and problems – of interdisciplinary connections.    How do the social sciences, the humanities, and the natural sciences employ visual evidence to produce plausible explanations about the workings of social, imaginative, and natural worlds, now and in the past? 


This initiative addresses these timely questions in a three-year project organized around two on-going seminars, each associated with invited speakers, a team-taught graduate seminar, undergraduate and graduate research fellowships and a conference and publication project. The seminar topics are “News Pictures” and “The Materiality of Visual Evidence.”