Building visual literacy

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.

People are busy and may not have the time to make a longer comment; no problem. But why not just ‘favourite’ the picture? Some people can’t speak a lot of English. Fine with that too, although I would suggest learning two different words and not just ‘great capture’.

Am I over-reacting? It’s possible. Flickr is ‘just a website’ after all. Am I being a twat? Maybe. Am I a photo snob? Definitely not.

I like trying to improve people’s understanding of photography and instead of launching a rant at people repeatedly saying ‘great capture’ or ‘nice bokeh’ on my photos, I decided to try and improve people’s visual literacy.

What is visual literacy?

The word photography comes from the Greek words for ‘light’ and ‘writing’. So when we take photos we are ‘writing with light’. Writing suggests a language. A language has vocabulary, sentences, phrases, paragraphs: you put them all together and you can tell a story. You can also read the stories in images… providing you are literate.

No visitor to a website about books or story-telling would have had a go at me for suggesting that a little literacy might help people enjoy the writing more. So why did my suggesting that it would be nice if people improved their visual literacy to the point of having more than a two-word vocabulary incite such venom from some on Flickr and the wider web?

I don’t know and I care less.

My point about all of this is not to create a bunch of people who are more capable of standing in a wanky art gallery to stroke their beards or fiddle with their strings of pearls and wax [wank] lyrical about what they see on the walls: ‘Oh, Tarquin, daaaaahling, the depth in this photo, the emotion, it’s so… so……’

Give me a break.

This is my point: lots more people are taking photos. Sure, some do it for fun and some just do it for themselves and there are million other reasons why people take photos which don’t necessarily mean that they need a PhD in talking arty-farty shite about photos. But, imagine how cool it would be if by learning some of the vocabulary, some of the meaning – learning how to READ a photo – that you could improve how you TOOK your own photos as well?

This is my mission: Not to simply expand the average Flickrite’s vocabulary, but to help people improve how they ‘write’ with the camera by improving how they ‘read’ other photos they see.

With this mission in mind I have launched some classroom sessions at the Gotanda Cultural Centre and we’ll probably be having some in other places too. Last week I gave the first class. Only a handful of people attended but that’s OK. I believe in starting small and building things up. I pretty much know for sure that the people who came left with more of an understanding of how to read an image. I would like to think they now have a little more of an insight of the palette of opportunities available to them when they write with the camera too.

One thing I absolutely know for sure is that none of them had sat down [in some cases ever, in others not for a long time] and spent 15, 20, 45 minutes talking about ONE photo.

How is this possible to do in a structured way? Here’s how….

We start with the basics. Then we expand on the type of analysis we subject the photo to, each time peeling back another layer of the work until we can see or at least guess about exactly how and why the photography may have shot it the way he or she did.

Level 1A: Building observation skills

  • What do you see in this picture?
  • Can you describe it more?
  • What else do you see?
  • What is going on in this picture?
  • What information in the picture makes you say that?

Then we take things a little deeper….

Level 1B: Building vocabulary

  • Can you guess where the photographer was standing when he or she took the picture?
  • Above the subject, looking down? Or below the subject, looking up? This is called point of view.
  • What is included in the picture frame? What is not included? This is called framing.
  • Describe the composition. What shapes do you see? What other patterns do you notice?

And so on, and so on…

There are seven more levels to this process and you can find them all laid-out in a PDF you can download here:

The Basics of Building Visual Literacy and some simple excercises to do with photos to get you started.

Whilst we were waiting for the classroom to become available, we’d sat together and each picked a photo from some books I’d brought along, subjecting the picture to an analysis based on the worksheet you can download below. This built a good foundation for what we did later and I would suggest you all grab the sheet, print it out, choose a photo from a book or from the web and give it a go.

Basic Photo Analysis Worksheet

Lastly, I made a presentation in Open Office’s version of Powerpoint which included a bunch of pictures we subject to various of the stages and levels of analysis. That presentation, all the PDFs and OpenOffice documents I used for the the class are in a RAR file at the link below. Together with a profile piece on photographer Paul Strand, who we looked at in a bit more depth as part of our initial foray into ‘the history of photography’.

Download the visual literacy and history of photography RAR file here. [7.2mb]

[You will require WinRAR or similar RAR extraction software to open the file. 7Zip is very good and it’s free. You will also require OpenOffice to read the documents, although some are also in PDF format. If you don’t know OpenOffice, you should…. it’s a free alternative to MSOffice and has a built-in PDF creator: awesome bit of software].

I am announcing and starting a 15hr course in basic photography next week. There will be a 15hr advanced course coming very soon after. In addition there will add-on modules and optional classes people can take for a more thorough learning experience. We’ll be scheduling exhibition vists and the classroom sessions will be expanding. All of this is working towards a point where I am able to offer a proper, certified course in photography. You study hard, you get a certificate at the end of it all which means something.

To find out more about our classroom sessions, the curriculum or just to book some private one-to-one lessons, drop me a line via the contact page.


About Japanorama

Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

We also welcome submissions of photos and articles for this site, so please get in touch via our contact page. Thanks. © 2015 All Rights Reserved

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