Worth More Than a Thousand Words: A Visual Rhetorical Discussion of Virtual Reality by Examining “Clouds Over Sidra”

Alexander Morton, author
Dr. Elif Guler, faculty advisor


Jony Ive, Senior Vice President of Design for Apple Inc., once said that “a truly great product is ultimately defined by the integration of its hardware and software” (Hajry). In September 2014, Mr. Ive was referring to the advent of the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 PLUS to the global market. Both devices received the usual public relations treatment from Apple: millions of dollars poured into an advertisement campaign to sell more smartphones. The central message was ‘bigger than bigger,’ and in a lot of ways the new iPhones lived up to the hype. They featured a larger “LED-backlit widescreen Multi-Touch display with IPS technology” (Apple). Improved processors and other fancy gizmos were also placed on the gourmet platter. But what ultimately sold the new iPhones was the promise of an enhanced software experience. Appealing to the Western ideal of progress and innovation has always attracted new consumers. The idea that a new smartphone camera might lead to more cherished captured moments is a potent motivator for consumer action. ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ remains a very invaluable adage to bear in mind in this technology-driven world. It is a marketing formula that Apple and its competitors have clung to closely: if you buy my product, you can expect it to improve you daily life in noticeable ways.

Other consumer industries have been built from the notion that the visual message, or the software, can be a powerful rhetorical device to behold. As of late, several companies have begun to speculate into the newly invigorated virtual reality field. VR, as virtual reality is more popularly referred to, has been touted as the next generation of the consumer visual experience. What companies are realizing is that a strong marketable experience can win over a score of new followers and customers, presumably. They are recognizing the intricate role that the audience, or the consumers, play in influencing progress and innovation. This knowledge has already been theorized within the field of visual rhetoric where experts have said that the audience is an important factor to consider when creating visual artifacts. Several commercial entities have already shown the possibilities of VR to open the dialogue between the rhetor, or the companies themselves, and the audience, and no example has done so more famously than Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s VR documentary, Clouds Over Sidra. By taking a further look into the field of visual rhetoric, a better understanding of how this concerted effort was successful in provoking an empathetic response from an educated Western audience toward the Syrian Refugee Crisis.

Contemporary Theory on Visual Rhetoric

Rhetoric is the study of how effectively humans communicate to each other through different mediums. A core principle of visual rhetoric is the effectiveness at which humans deliver their rhetorical messages to a specific audience. Visual rhetoric expert Richard Buchanan summarizes that the goal of all communication “is to induce in the audience some belief about the past,…the present,…or the future” (Tyler 21). Following alongside this work, Ann C. Tyler continues by delving into what extent should the audience be allowed to manipulate the rhetorical message. She insists that effective visual rhetoric treats all participants as more than a captive audience; it must also persuade the audience to adopt a certain belief system.

According to Tyler, the purpose of persuasion is “to encourage the audience to take action, to educate the audience, and to provide the audience with an experience that they can accept or reject” (Tyler 21). She defines the relationship between the rhetor and the audience in the communication process within four different perspectives. Most rhetors treat their audiences either as passive readers or ignorant bystanders completely removed from the interpretation process. A step above these two perspectives is semiotics which “recognizes the specificity of the audience” (Tyler 22). Here, rhetors acknowledges the audience’s belief systems and allows them to alter how a visual artifact is interpreted. The audience’s leverage in the communication process reaches its culmination in the fourth perspective which Tyler calls a rhetorical analysis of design. At this stage, the audience becomes “a dynamic participant in argument” (Tyler 22). The rhetor utlizes the audience’s established belief systems to persuade them to adopt additional well-aligned values. The purpose of visual rhetoric shifts from a mere collection of information to a powerful social change agent.

This fourth perspective places an additional burden upon rhetors as they create their visual artifacts. Beforehand, rhetors held the sole responsibility of attaching meaning to visual artifacts, but the balance of power has slowly shifted to favor the audience. This transition should not be too surprising when taken into consideration recent sociocultural trends. As a global community, we are becoming increasingly indoctrinated into the Western consumer culture. The old cliché holds true that the customer is always right. Audiences are merely a rhetorical manifestation of consumer culture. Most rhetors are not accustomed to ‘selling’ their rhetorical message to an audience. This discrepancy separates effective visual rhetoric from the washouts.

Chris Milk is one of the few contemporary rhetors who possesses the ethos to create truly persuasive visual artifacts. Milk carries an impressive background in the music industry. He has worked with countless artists including Arcade Fire, U2, Kanye West, Green Day, and others. He won several of the top industry awards for his music videos as well. Milk has recently turned his attention to virtual reality (VR) and how it can be utilized for social change. His most recent work in VR includes the short film about the Syrian Refugee Crisis called Clouds Over Sidra. This documentary explores the typical day of a young Syrian girl named Sidra who lives in one of the refugee camps erected by nations around the world. Milk wants to bring awareness to the urgent needs of these distressed people, but he understands that any effort needs be able to be able to survive on the ‘market.’ The world is pressed with countless worthy issues and to make the Syrian Refugee Crisis stand out, Milk knew he had to humanize it with technology. The documentary Clouds Over Sidra incorporates Tyler’s principles to create a unique visual experience.

Persuade the Audience to Act:

The first step in creating a rhetorical analysis of design is persuading the audience to act. By its nature, Tyler’s visual concept involves equal interaction between the rhetor and the audience. As the rhetor proceeds to persuade, an action must also be completed by the audience. This exchange of energy can look like the following: “if one attends A, one will feel B; if one goes to C, one will see D; if one uses E, one will become F” (Tyler 23). A shaking trust is then formed between the rhetor and the audience surrounding this promise. The rhetor must now gauge if the audience is responding this persuasive deal in the appropriate manner.

In some cases, this evidence can be assessed by looking at the audience’s prior knowledge of the visual artifact. In the documentary Clouds Over Sidra, Chris Milk chronicles a small chapter within the course of the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Since its start in March 2011, “more than 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives, with over 11 million people becoming refugees thanks to the fighting between President Bashar’s forces and his opponents” (Rodgers). Contempt over the ethos of the Syrian government ran by Bashar escalated from peaceful demonstrations to outright civil war. Fighting has been widespread, taking place primarily in the countryside and in key centers, like the Syrian capital in Damascus. This conflict has received substantial news coverage due to reports of atrocities committed by both sides. The use of chemical weapons in major population centers has caught the West’s attention in particular. As hundreds of thousands of Syrians are fleeing the encroaching violence, countries around the world have to decide how to handle this new migration of people. Scholars have already begun to consider the Syrian Civil War as the cause of “one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history” (Rodgers).

When these events are considered, Milk has the following game plan for his documentary: if one attends A, one will feel B. By its very nature, the tragic events that are occurring in Syria should provoke kind of visceral response to human suffering. Virtual reality offers Milk a unique opportunity to figuratively place his audience onto the same dirt floors Syrian refugees stand on. The VR film director is relying upon the empathy of his audience to convince them to respond accordingly toward the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Of course, Milk took several risks when he first produced Clouds Over Sidra. He had to work with the assumption that his audience would be familiar with the progress of the Syrian Refugee Crisis. This factor may suggest that Milk intended to influence a certain kind of audience. To coalesce with this assertion, Milk later sent his short film to a small group of representatives from the United Nations after production was complete. The raw emotional reactions from these UN officials were heart-wrenching. These responses show that Milk wanted to influence a highly acculturated audience when he produced his short film.

Educating the Audience:

The next phase in creating a rhetorical analysis of design is to actually educate the audience. This is the moment when rhetors could often experience the most heartache. What Tyler means here is that rhetors should offer the audience an opportunity to accept or refute the presented information. This task returns to the notion that the rhetor and the audience are equal participants within the visual communication process. Rhetors often make the mistake of simply telling the audience how to react to a visual artifact. Real education requires the rhetor to step aside and allow the audience to reach a satisfactory conclusion on their own. Tyler advises rhetors to choose visual artifact components that facilitates the most efficient transfer of knowledge.

With his background in the music video industry, Milk has overtly chosen several key visual design implements to enhance the viewing experience of Clouds Over Sidra. Virtual reality offers producers a unique advantage over traditional two-dimensional film. It allows the audience to choose whatever perspective they want to view a visual artifact. VR films are essentially a 360-degree panorama of visual images that are stitched together to form a nearly seamless display. With the aid of app producer Vrse, Milk utilizes smartphone technology to bring the VR experience to the hands of millions of viewers. Once immerse within the experience, users can freely navigate the visual artifact by tilting their smartphones which exposes a different angle that was not previously in view. This feature transforms a simple two-dimensional visual artifact into a mind-boggling three-dimensional visual experience.

This unique feature opens new doors of comprehension for the audience. The real world often proves itself to be a wild, dynamic place. Humans are naturally curious creatures, and they would want to fully explore new environments before presenting a response. Virtual reality makes good use of this trademark of human evolution. It removes the constant need in the motion picture industry to find the perfect ‘shot.’ VR allows the audience to learn more about a visual artifact by utilizing learning strategies they acquired from the real world. The audience can explore new environments by focusing on the features that interest them. This freedom can produce the illusion of choice within a pre-recorded film, which empowers the audience.

Virtual reality has become widely popularized due to the strong appeal of creating an immersive experience that the audience can control. This desire is due in large part to the slow emergence of state-of-the-art virtual reality headsets. Oculus Rift has become virtually a household name due to its huge acceptance from the Western consumer market. With this acceptance has brought along some concerns about the potential of virtual reality technology. VR advocates have already voiced the need of new additions to make the whole experience more authentic, that “really good, immersive augmented reality feels even harder to achieve” (Stein). Within the academic setting, scholars have already discovered what the next ideal state of immersion should be: presence. Psychologists Bruno Herbelin, Frederic Vexo, and Daniel Thalmann developed a better understanding of this allusive term by stating that presence occurs “when the participant forgets that his perceptions are mediated by technologies” (3). VR technology should be capable of creating a convincing artificial experience that threatens to overtake our acceptance of reality. At the moment, current VR headsets still rely upon visual and oratory cues to immerse its audience, along with a healthy dose of faith and good humor.

Producers, like Chris Milk, have a tough hill to climb in the future in approaching their audiences with VR techonolgy. Soon, it will not be enough to produce a really good virtual reality ‘film.’ VR audiences will start to demand more autonomy with their learning experiences. Scott Stein, a journalist for CNET, had the opportunity to play around with VR headsets. When asked to reflect on his experience, Stein remembered it as a “passive experience; I was a virtual ghost” (Stein). Current virtual reality technology is a step above the classic 1990s TV monitor and documentary film, but it still has a long way to go to fully unlocking the gates of learning for the audience.

Providing a Valuable Experience:

That being said, the next phase in creating a rhetorical analysis of design involves recognizing that a true visual rhetorical experience is not entirely about the ‘visual’ experience. In fact, Tyler expressly states in her article that “experience is rarely the primary communication goal” (Tyler 28). As mentioned from the beginning, rhetors should be realizing that visuals, or hardware, alone may not provoke a rhetorical response from the audience, let alone persuade them to uphold hidden virtues. The function of visuals or experiences is to serve as the bridge to connect the audience to the subliminal messages. Tyler continues by proclaiming that “if the goal of a design is experiential, then it is often interpreted as a focus on the esthetic moment” (Tyler 28). In other words, rhetors should construct an experience to serve as the ultimate manifestation of the desired values to be absorbed by the audience.

Rhetors make a bad habit of placing too much emphasis on presenting an interesting experience rather than focusing on delivering a meaningful message. Audiences often suffer through this incompetence in multiple facets of their lives. Television commercials naturally become an oft cited example. Have you ever found yourself encapsulated by a suspenseful TV drama only to be interrupted by those dreadful thirty-second commercials? This brief lapse in scheduled TV programming feels like an eternity because you are watching these flashing, melodramatic commercials and thinking what is the point, really? TV commercials are trying to sell a product, of course, but sometimes manufacturers get carried away with the special effects and forget about what they want the audience to take away from the insanity. The focus of that half minute rests on the performance rather than the message per se.

Chris Milk could have easily fallen for this same consumerist trap, but he makes a conscious decision in narration that changed the whole VR experience. It was no mistake that Milk chose a twelve year old girl to become the main protagonist of the story. Sure, Milk and his producers could have allowed the audience to explore the refugee camp through the eyes of some notable personality, such as Morgan Freeman. Children, on the other hand, possesses a unique ethos of their own that is worth considering when creating an experience fueled by empathy. In Western culture, innocence is typically personified in a child, an individual that has not been corrupted by worldly views. Being an apolitical creature, children can serve within the crucial function as the spokespeople for humanitarian efforts. Children can offer a nonbiased perspective on a situation where no such viewpoint may exist otherwise. When a child feels pain or sorrow, no Western audience could easily confuse Clouds Over Sidra as a tool to advance some political agenda. In fact, some may argue that the presence of children within a story like the Syrian Refugee Crisis humanizes the event and makes the audience feel empathy toward the topic.

Shaping a New Belief System:

The final phase in creating a rhetorical analysis of design involves persuading the audience to adopt a new belief system. When developing an argument, the rhetor must be deliberate in what cultural beliefs are upheld with a visual artifact. Success hinges on how well the audience responds to the subliminal messages that are present. For this reason, rhetors must choose virtues that can easily be adopted within the existing belief system of the audience. Tyler reminds rhetors explicitly that all “communication is directed toward a specific audience and that audience comes to the argument with particular cultural beliefs and understanding” (Tyler 29). Misinterpreted messages can distant the audience from the realizations that the rhetor wants them to reach.

Chris Milk acknowledged these risks and made deliberate efforts to sell his VR experience to a Western audience. Throughout the short film, the audience is introduced to several key scenes to get the audience ‘acquainted’ with the refugee community. The virtual tour took visitors to see Sidra’s home, her school, the playground where her classmates play soccer, and to her family’s dinner table. All of these scenes were carefully chosen to introduce Western outsiders to a world that they only read about on online articles or saw on television, perhaps. By using social institutions that are familiar to Western eyes, Milk grants the audience an opportunity to relate to some of the struggles of refugee life. The audience can then imagine what it would be like to attend school or arrive home for dinner with such overwhelming uncertainties hanging over their heads. Setting is then used as a powerful rhetorical device to push a Western audience to adopt emphatic feelings toward the Syrian refugees, which may later lead to further activism by the Western world.


In short, Clouds Over Sidra is a fantastic example of a rhetorical analysis of design at work. Chris Milk and other VR producers are pioneers on a journey to flesh out the rhetorical intricacies of their craft. Sure, virtual reality still has its kinks to be worked out, but it has come a long way since its inception in the 1960s. During the latter half of the twentieth century, virtual reality technology was limited to expensive room-sized VR machines that left enthusiasts with less than stellar experiences. Virginia Hefferman, a journalist for the New York Times, recalls talking about the advent of virtual reality with “rank-and-file gamers [who] said it was a nice old sci-fi idea but too expensive and far too stomach-churning to pursue seriously” (Hefferman). Now, with Facebook buying Oculus Rift for over $1 billion, Hefferman has changed her tune with much of the Western world by acknowledging that “virtual reality [was] an abject failure right up to the moment it wasn’t” (Hefferman). Current VR technology is bringing the old sci-fi fantasies to life in convincing high-definition resolution. VR producers, such as Chris Milk, have already recognized the potential of this emerging technology in an increasingly technology-dependent world. In this current age, virtual reality possesses the rhetorical exigency to impact the minds of millions of iPhone-wielding masses. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is a virtual reality experience that tapes together thousands of still images to create a three-dimensional environment worth?

Works Cited

Buchanan, Richard. “Declaration by Design: Rhetoric, Argument, and Demonstration in Design Practice.” Design Discourse: History Theory Criticism. Ed. Victor Margolin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. 92. Print.

“Chris Milk: Bio.” Vrse. Vrse.works, n.d. Web. October 14, 2015.

Hajry, Hassan Al. “iPhone 6 Trailer-iPhone 6 PLUS Official Trailer-iPhone 6 Official Video by Apple.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 9 Sept. 2014. Web. 11 Jan. 2016.

Hefferman, Virginia. “Virtual Reality Fails Its Way to Success.” New York Times. New York Times Magazine, November 14, 2014. Web. October 14, 2015.

Herbelin, Bruno, Frederic Vexo, and Daniel Thalmann. “Sense of Presence in Virtual Reality Exposures Therapy.” Virtual Reality Laboratory, Federal Institute ofTechnology (EPFL) (2003): 1-17. ResearchGate. Web. 14 Jan. 2016.

“iPhone 6 Tech Specs.” Apple. Apple, n.d. Web. 11 Jan. 2016.

Milk, Chris and Gabo Arora, directors. Clouds Over Sidra. Vrse.works, 2015. Film. Web. October 14, 2015.

Rogers, Lucy, et al. “Syria: The Story of the Conflict.” BBC News. BBC News, October 9, 2015. Web. October 14, 2015.

Stein, Scott. “Virtual Reality Will be Huge in 2015, But It Won’t be Perfect for a While.” CNET. CNET, January 12, 2015. Web. October 14, 2015.

Tyler, Ann C. “Shaping Belief: The Role of Audience in Visual Communication.” Design Issues 9.1 (1992): 21-29. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

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