Improving the visual literacy of law and criminology students

In January 2022, the CLI awarded several new fellowships to lecturers at Erasmus University Rotterdam who wish to develop, apply and research new teaching methods. One of the newly appointed fellows is Associate Professor of Criminology Gabry Vanderveen of the Erasmus School of Law, whose fellowship will be devoted to seeking to improve the visual literacy of law and criminology students.

“For several years now, I’ve focused on the role played by visual materials in the legal system, particularly in criminal law. It’s fascinating to me, but also important. In recent decades, the use of visual materials has become much more widespread, and parties such as the Public Prosecution Service consciously focus on the use of images, e.g. in TV shows about criminals who are wanted, but also at hearings. However, the defence often doesn’t have the same resources, or isn’t granted easy access to the images. Also, the parties involved aren’t properly trained yet in assessing images. I’m concerned about the lack of frameworks for the use and assessment of visual materials. The way things are being done at the moment, one might wonder whether the principles of fair trial and equality of arms are being upheld.

Image ≠ reality

Professionals in the field of law (particularly criminal law) often lack the skills required to be able to deal with images. Although we give our students very thorough training in reading and interpreting written texts, we don’t really do the same thing yet with images. But we should be asking questions about images as well, and we should know what kinds of questions to ask too.

Many people think that images, such as photos and videos, are objective, or ‘true’. They’re not. Images do not directly represent reality, and they don’t speak for themselves. It’s the viewers who do that, by interpreting the images and making sense of them. In other words, many people are not distinguishing between sensation (becoming aware of a stimulus) and perception (assigning meaning to a sensation). People may detect the same stimulus (such as a light wave), but assign different meanings to it, and make sense of them in different ways. It’s crucial that the police, the Public Prosecution Service, judges and lawyers be aware that they must ask critical questions about images as well.

Crime Stoppers

One important lesson I wish to teach students is that every image is the result of certain choices – what do you include in your image, and what do you leave out, and how? Critical questions should be asked about statistical charts too. One shouldn’t just assume they’re true. When that graph was created, someone decided which data were to be included and what kinds of units were to be shown on the axes, what kind of title and what colours were to be used, et cetera. A title or caption under a still taken from a video that says ‘victim getting kicked by suspect’ may guide us in how we interpret an image – after all, can we really see that someone is being kicked? A still doesn’t show us any movement, does it? Our perception may also be guided by adding a circle around a particular part of a photo – let’s say a police photo of a suspect, as shown on TV. By adding a red circle around a person, you influence how people look at the photo, and how they will interpret it.

Getting serious work done

I hope that the government will pay some attention to, and possibly implement new rules regarding, the way in which visual materials are used in the legal system, but these things generally take years. One respect in which we could improve things right now is by discussing the role and influence of

visual materials in legislation and criminology more often and more in depth in our courses. I’d like to help do that, partly through my CLI Fellowship. Thanks to the CLI, not only do I have time to conduct research on this subject now, but I’ve also been able to appoint a teaching assistant (Jordi Booij) and hire a legal design specialist, who is also the chairwoman of the Legal Tech Alliance (Ilona van Opdorp-van de Kooi). That’s extremely valuable. Thanks to this financial support and the added manpower, I can get some serious work done and make some actual progress. In addition, they motivate me to do my work properly, both for myself and towards others. One day of my week is kept free from distractions and completely dedicated to this project.

CLI Fellowship

I conduct research on what kinds of teaching materials and didactic methods are most likely to improve students’ visual literacy, and I hope to develop these for practical application to the criminology and law curriculum. At present we’re taking stock of what types of visual materials are already being used. Some lecturers think that they don’t use any visual materials, until they realise that flow charts, maps and timelines are visual materials of sorts, and that choices were made in their creation. Helping them realise this is a first step in the right direction.”

Announcement and call for input

Over the next few months, Ilona, Jordi and Gabry will contact several lecturers in relation to this CLI-supported project. If you’d like to receive more information or provide some input, we’d love to hear from you! Please contact me at


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