Thursday, July 22, 2010

Visual Literacy

I'm not too keen on the invention of new forms of 'literacy', because it always seems to devalue or break down the significance of the term 'literacy' as applied originally to reading, writing and understanding written text. We have a proliferation of terms that incorporate 'literacy' including 'financial literacy', 'musical literacy', 'multimedia literacy', 'driver literacy', 'environmental literacy' and 'computer literacy'. But of all the possible new forms of literacy we have seen, surely 'visual literacy' has some legitimacy.

What do I mean by the term Visual Literacy?

My definition is simple - The application of our visual senses to understand, create and use images for varied purposes.

By images I mean pictures, photographs, created objects (e.g. sculptures, architecture etc), advertisements, art, signs etc. These may incorporate words, but the dominant sign system that is used is the image (whether in space, on screen or on paper), not the word.

The photograph on the left of Indigenous Totems in British Columbia I would classify as an image whether represented in a photograph or when observed in situ (although interpretation is altered when viewed in their full context). Understanding what the totems might mean and their purpose, requires visual literacy skills as well as some background knowledge used in concert with visual skills. This will include historical knowledge of the varied forms of totems, their purposes, common images used and so on, and information on their location and the people group that created them.

Why is Visual Literacy important?

The most obvious reason is that our world is filled with more representational images than ever before. As well, these images require different skills to understand and use them. I don't accept the view of some that the book and the written word are less valuable than they once were.  Images aren't the key to the future, but they are very important, and frankly always have been. Indeed, our earliest forms of representational meaning used images not words. What has changed is that images are now more evident in our world, and the use of digital images and modern technology has increased, adding complexity and new possibilities. Understanding and using images is probably more important today because of their:
  • pervasiveness;
  • sophistication;
  • ease of production; and
  • power to inform and persuade.
Children and adults need to understand images and have well developed visual literacy skills to learn from them and to communicate with other people. In particular, children are increasingly subject to the use of images to persuade them to buy things, value things, imagine their futures, and understand the present and the past. This has positive and negative consequences.

In their excellent book, 'Interpreting the Visual', Helen de Silva Joyce and John Gaudin (available in teacher and student workbook editions) outline the varied approaches that we can use to understand images, including:

Critical social theory - this considers how art and media are used to empower and disempower people.
Cultural studies - this looks at how images are implicated in the social and political concerns of the day (e.g. racism, gender equity etc).
Media studies - this approach uses art history and literary criticism to consider how the image is used to communicate.
Quantitative approaches - these use a form of content analysis to analyse the topics or content privileged in newspapers, advertising etc to detect bias and intent.

'Visual literacy' is essentially an educational rather than a research tool. It seeks to offer children the tools that they need to understand the many visual images they meet each day. These are the skills that will allow them to understand why I took the photograph below of a roadside sign in Athens. What is the content? How have I used juxtaposition? Why have I done this? What am I seeking to communicate? More on this later. 

Today there is the added necessity of helping children to interpret images to determine not just their intent but whether they represent truth or a distortion of it. My post on 'Truth and the internet' explored the inability of children to interpret a story about the 'Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus'. Images are used to inform, warn, amuse and so on, but they can also be used to manipulate, distort, coerce and mislead. Visual literacy skills help children to understand the purpose and meaning of images. How can we help our children to be more visually literate?

A simple grammar of Visual Images

There have been a number of frameworks suggested for teaching visual literacy skills. One of the earliest was developed by Kress and van Leeuwen in 'Reading Images: Grammar of Visual Design' (1996).  They suggested that any form or communication simultaneously fulfils three functions. I have inserted some questions below based on generic questions derived from Kress and Leeuwen to help make plain what each of these are. I have based the questions on the above 'Be You, Be Cooper' image.

Representational - Any image conveys meaning and some view of the real world. 

What can you see in the image?
What type of image is it? How was it created?
Where might the image be situated (where is it from)?
When do you think it was taken?

Interpersonal - Images aim to engage the viewer in some way. 

Why might the person have taken the photo?
How do the parts of the image relate to one another?
What is the relationship between the people and the things in the image?
What makes you want to look at this image?
How does it make you feel, or what emotions does it lead to?
What is the image-maker trying to say?

Composition - Images are made up of elements that are arranged or reproduced in a particular way to achieve an intended effect.

How are the elements in the image arranged to make their point?
How are the elements arranged to make you look at certain things?
Why are some elements in the image given less prominence and others more?

A simple example

Parents might apply the above framework in very basic ways when their children confront images. Perhaps to simplify the framework you might simply use questions that seek to focus the child's attention on:
  • What can we see?
  • Why has it been created and how does it work on us?
  • How has the image been constructed to achieve the above?
Even an image as simple as my photograph above has much to discuss. I took it in Greece in 2002. The image was taken because I was struck by the juxtaposition of the sign promoting smoking, a practice that increases your chances of dying from cancer, a car, and the small white shrine below the billboard. The small shrine is typical of thousands erected all over Greece at the site of car accidents. In a nation where smoking is very prevalent and it has one of the worst road tolls in Europe, I was stopped in my tracks. The alignment of the white car, a potential cause of death, the cigarettes, another common cause of death (and a habit being glamorised), and the shrine that commemorates the sadness of death or thankfulness for a near miss, spoke very powerfully to me. I had to take the photo.

As with the interpretation of any image, if children were to consider this photograph they may need help. Simply applying the above three-step framework will demonstrate how.

What? If children were to consider this photograph they may need help to identify the shrine as an element but the others are self-evident. They might also need help to identify the foreign language on the sign (the clue to location).

Why? Once the children know the elements they are part way to understanding why I took the photo. They will need some knowledge. You could tell them about the purpose of the shrines, or you could offer a web link for them to explore.

How? Once the 'what' and 'why' are known even many younger primary school children will be able to look at my purpose as a photographer and how I achieved it is pretty straight forward with this image.
Other resources for teachers

If you're a teacher you might want to go further. I'd suggest that you look for a good resource book like 'Interpreting the Visual' that will help you to identify the many ways that images can be 'read' and used.

There are also good web resources around. For example the Curriculum Corporation in Australia has an excellent website devoted to Visual Literacy advice, complete with examples of images that teachers can use - 'Visual Literacy K-8'.  This site also lists other resource books and how to get them in the USA and Canada.

You will also find many helpful links on the EDNA website in Australia (HERE).


Samax said...

Good post. As a visual artist and father of a toddler, this is an interesting one on multiple levels!

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Samax, nice to hear from you. Regards, Trevor