The process of gaining visual literacy needs to be explicitly taught and refined; it is not an inherent ability. All of us bring a certain instinctive knowledge to viewing images, yet more sophisticated modes of critical thinking are skills that develop over time. These involve the use of a visual metalanguage (specifically the ‘language’ of photography), providing the tools to critically describe, interpret and evaluate all kinds of images.
The concept of ‘visual literacy’ lies at the centre of methodology used by visual arts and photography educators to teach young people how to ‘read’ visual material and understand how meaning is constructed in both still and moving photographic images. In NSW secondary schools, multiple strategies are used to teach the historical and critical component of the Photographic and Digital Media Syllabus (Years 7-10) and the Photography, Video and Digital Imaging Content Endorsed Course Syllabus (Years 11-12).
Over my 25 years as a visual educator, I’ve seen major shifts in visual arts educational philosophy. The approach to art education has shifted from child-centred and process-oriented to a conceptually centred practice which provides a new framework for meaning and value in art. One revolutionary structure in the current syllabus is ‘The Frames’, a powerful tool that teachers use to help students gain visual literacy:
‘The structural, subjective, cultural and postmodern frames operate as a basis for understanding artistic practice in photographic and digital media. Each frame represents a different belief and value system and provides the grounds for addressing questions related to meaning and significance. The frames provide different and alternative ways of exploring and examining the world as content for photographic and digital media.’
Image by Leo Wieland
To apply these ideas to the classroom is a constant challenge, made more complex with 21st-century learners, with a shift in student attention span and concentration - brought on by technological advances and social media. The human eye is now used to scanning at an ever-faster pace as it constantly scrolls through images on Instagram, YouTube, Tik Tok and other platforms. To hold students’ engagement in order to build critical discourse, we allow photography to be slowly revealed - from its fundamental purpose as a tool of documentation to an instrument of personal expression. Initially, we use the ‘Structural and Subjective Frame’ to interpret the formal and emotive elements of an image.
To deepen this knowledge, art educators need to teach students the necessary skills to see beyond the superficial descriptive stage, begin making relationships within an image, and analyse the socio-cultural contexts of photographic images.
Photography is now experienced online rather than as physical, printed material, which means students can access vast amounts of complex visual material. This is both a blessing and a curse. It means the way we experience photographic media has to accommodate the complex coding that comes with visual material - first embedded by the artist who introduces the intended narrative, framed by context, sex/gender, geopolitical and economic factors, and power structures. These are the ‘Cultural and Postmodern Frames’.
Images by Zoha Parvin, Emily Keith, Olivia McLean and Shaylen Mawbey
Photographic representations are never ‘neutral reflections of reality’ like a mirror, but an interpretation of all the conditions that shaped the moment the shutter was released. The art world and the audience then add another layer of meaning. This is the ‘Conceptual Framework’. Students don’t know this implicitly. They don’t question media, they believe what they see. To them, even digitally altered images appear real or hyperreal. Here is where visual literacy kicks in and provides the skills needed to conceptually discriminate between images.
When individuals receive information passively and indiscriminately, especially when there’s a glut of images, it desensitises them from thinking deeply and critically. With teaching methods such as ‘slow looking’ to ‘make thinking visible’, by purposely slowing down the process of engaging with images to ‘look, see and wonder’, young learners can build curiosity and develop the level of independent, analytical thinking they’ll need to fully participate in a predominately technological, visual future.
Header image: Emma Smith
About the author
Jenny Papalexandris is a visual artist based in Australia. Her photography has been exhibited widely in the United States and included in various publications, including Harper’s, Black and White and Shots Magazine. In 2016, The New Press (NYC) published her photography book, Five Bells: Being LGBT in Australia. She holds a Master of Art and a Bachelor of Education (Art) from the University of NSW.