This morning I was reading an article that referred me to Japanorama and found this quote from Alfie Goodrich: “It’s about a year and a half or maybe a little longer ago that I snapped after visiting my Flickr stream and read – for the 1000th time – the words ‘great capture’… and it pissed me off.”

Alfie’s issue is that a photograph and its content are probably more deserving than just a click on the like button or some two word comment such as “great shot, great capture, too cool, “or some other minimal sobriquet. His hope is that by learning how to “read” a photo, to see the meaning of a photograph and express it, one can improve their own photos. Sort of makes sense, doesn’t it? I had the same issue when I was teaching photography classes that involved critiques. I had one word that was not allowed. Students could swear or curse or use any sorts of vulgarities regarding some aspect of the photograph, but they must not like it. I always told them if they liked it then after class they could speak to the photographer and arrange to purchase it.

Roberto Muffoleto who used to teach at ASU in Boone, NC, and now resides in Italy, organized a program in 2009 referred to as the VASA project. Not sure I recall what the acronym strands for, but it is an interesting site that has grown with time and much hard work. It states its vision as: “The VASA Project is an online media studies workshop connecting individuals and communities on a global scale who have interest in media studies, photography, digital media arts, and sound.” I have done two education workshops through VASA and they were both worthwhile. This month VASA launched its on-line magazine “Journal on Images and Culture.” The first two articles 1) The Future of the Image by Alan Shapiro and 2) Views on Visual Literacy by Rune Patterson are both intriguing reads.

Visual literacy is not a new topic, in fact it is quite rich in its history. There are rock art images that date back more than thirty thousand years. There are multiple definitions of visual literacy but it is clear that it consists of a group of competencies a human being can develop. According to the International Visual Language Association these include:
a. a group of vision competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same
time having and integrating other sensory experiences,
b. the learned ability to interpret the communication of visual symbols (images) and to create messages using visuals (symbols),
c. the ability to translate visual images into verbal language and vice versa; and,
d. the ability to search for and evaluate visual information in visual media. (Yeh HT and Lohr L. Journal of Visual Literacy, 2010. volume 20, number 2, 183-197.)

The importance of this ability, this concept, and its importance to their education has been difficult to impart to undergraduate photography students. In teaching History of Photography classes I would ask students why they took the class. Only a few liked history or thought that History of Photography would help them in their careers. Obviously all the photo students took it because it was required, the others because I had a reputation as an easy grader. I tried, I had them compare and contrast the photos of Grand Central Station made by John Collier and Annie Leibovitz in her Jones New York ad campaign. I tried to get them to appreciate the images in The Americans. Each time one or two would see the light. I learned a lot more about teaching than they did about visual literacy, but I have convinced myself that the effort was worth it. Many photography students complained that they were visual people, not verbal and the expectation of writing about a photograph was unreasonable. I think not unreasonable at all. In the article by Rune Patterson the relationship between visual and verbal information is stressed. Both are essential components of intentional communication. The study of the History of Photography, learning to “read” photographs, and to verbalize the analysis is an essential skill for the budding young photographer.

One of the most interesting aspects of this experience was that I tried to teach similar concepts to my history class and to a First Year Seminar class of non-photography students. Among the students not so anxious to go make images, the concepts were more easily grasped, more quickly assimilated into a construct of critical thinking, and then applied in a final digital story project. Perhaps in our zeal to teach the technology of modern photography we create a prejudice in our students that limits their interest in learning what their images mean. Reviewing images from Workbook or other sources, studying the history of photography, looking at the work of established documentary photographers and discussing it rather than just liking it will definitely make better, smarter, and happier photographers.