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The Importance of Visual Education

The world we live in is increasingly visual. We are surrounded by images on a daily basis: social media, online, news articles, billboard, advertising – the list is endless and, according to photography site Mylio.com:

‘It is predicted there will be 7.5 billion people in the world in 2017, and about 5 billion of them will have a mobile phone. Let’s say roughly 80% of those phones have a built-in camera: around 4 billion people. And let’s say they take 10 photos per day – that’s 3,650 photos per year, per person. That adds up to more than 14 trillion photos annually (14,600,000,000,000).'

I can’t cope with figures that large but it does bring home to me the importance of USING IMAGES as a way of connecting with and understanding the world around us, as well as CREATING IMAGES as a way of expressing our thoughts, hopes and fears in a way that is unique to ourselves in a totally unconstrained way.

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The term ‘Visual Literacy’ was first coined by the writer John Debes in 1968 and has been described as the ‘ability to construct meaning from visual images’ (Giorgis, Johnson, Bonomo, Colbert et al 1999). In the same way that pupils need to be numerate and literate it is important that, as we live in this increasingly visual world, they can interpret and read images. For example, can your children detect manipulation and bias, as well as look for the clues within the images themselves that add to our understanding of people, history and the world around us? Visual literacy involves being able to ‘read’ photographs with reference to social and cultural contexts. It is about looking for the meaning and inference within photographs and going beyond the obvious.  Can your pupils understand the difference between technique and aesthetics? Are they able to form their own opinions about images based on clear analysis and evaluation skills?

The Thoreau quotation, ‘It’s not what you look at, it what you see’ is right at the heart of a love of photography and using it for learning.

Look at your phone, how many photographs do you have on there? I would guess that some are imported from your computer, some are taken specifically on your iPhone or iPad (as Photo stream now syncs the two), some may be screen shots of things that you’ve found whilst browsing the Internet or recommendations from Twitter. All of this is at your fingertips and immediately accessible. Photography has changed so much it is almost a different art form to what it was several years ago. The immediacy of photography is obvious in world events – according to the Press Association:

‘Photographers working for the newswire agencies supplied the BBC with more than 4,000 pictures of the funeral of Baroness Thatcher, each one arriving minutes after it was shot.’ April 2013

However, we need to be aware that there is a flip side to photography, just as important but deeply emotional in nature. We live in a digital age where images are beamed almost instantaneously into our homes.  As an example, horrific images were shown of the bombs at the end of the Boston Marathon (2013) – heart wrenching, graphic but they told the world what was happening. If we had just been told that there had been a bomb would we have understood in the same way without the images or were the images too graphic and too upsetting to have been shown?

One image which sums up this debate is The Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Kevin Carter which has been described as ‘a picture that stunned a somewhat complacent world’

In interviews, Carter stated that he waited about 20 minutes for the vulture to spread its wings. When it didn’t, he took this image and chased the vulture away. The image was first published in the New York Times and prompted many enquiries as to the fate of the child. The newspaper subsequently ran an editorial in which they claimed that the child ‘walked away from the vulture but that her eventual fate was unknown.’

The questions raised from this are manifold but the image itself portrays a stark reality - children were dying due to malnutrition so did the world need to know and was this an effective way, or the best way, of conveying that?

If you look at the gallery of winners of The World Press Photo Awards many of the titles themselves give you an insight into the violence contained within; ‘Gaza burial; Collaborator; Battle to death; Pepper spray; El Salvador gangs’. Some of the images are graphic, some are moving, all are incredibly sad. Do we just accept that the world in the 21st Century is violent or do we still have a reaction to these, often horrific images? And what of the photographers who often risk their lives to show us these images?

As a child growing up in the sixties and seventies we were aware of starving people, we were shown images of ‘Biafran children’ and told not to waste food, there were adverts on TV and in magazines showing seriously ill children with distended stomachs. Eventually you become almost desensitised. Almost.

In her book, Compassion Fatigue subtitled ‘How the media sell, disease, famine, war and death’, Susan Moeller talks about the ‘power of images’. She says the first time we see an image on an ad campaign about starving children we are ‘arrested by guilt’, the second time we would linger a while but then turn the page whereas the third time we turn the page quickly. Finally the image or advert is viewed with cynicism as ‘an attempt to manipulate’.

One way of conveying horror is to use symbolic images. Images of piles of shoes and glasses from the Holocaust are not violent in themselves but the horror that they imply is almost much worse than seeing the actual violence. Walking around the Holocaust memorial museum in Washington, you cannot help but be moved but an image that moves many greatly. It is the one at the entrance, a huge smiling photo of one of the security men at the museum. He had been shot and killed in the buliding itself a couple of years previously by a group who denied the Holocaust. The image itself was a positive one. It was of a smiling young man looking straight at the camera BUT what it represented was shocking beyond belief and it was that representation that made the image powerful and shocking.

Images such as the rescue of Reahma Begum 17 days after the collapse of a factory in Bangladesh in April 2013 showed the horrific conditions that people found themselves in. These images have a positive side, the triumph of the human spirit, the fortitude of the rescuers, raising awareness of factory conditions – do all of these factors balance out the pain and suffering, the images of death and injury being placed alongside a more positive aspect?  Images of the rescue of the Chilean miners in August 2010, all bring hope after disaster. Do we need to keep seeing positive images to avoid our own ‘compassion fatigue?’

The power of photography – to move, to shock, to inspire but always to provoke some reaction.

If we keep our pupils’ outlook too narrow and focus just on our own school and our local community we will miss out on so much and run the risk of pupils not understanding and empathising with other cultures. We want our young people to think and examine their own ideas, beliefs, standards, the world around them and the way that they interact with others.

One of the ways in which we can harness the power of photography is to encourage young people to use it as a way of exploring their own area, their own beliefs and being able to express their ideas in a way which allows them complete freedom. Photography doesn’t have ‘rules’ – yes it has guidelines –for instance the ‘Rule of thirds’ can help with composition but it’s a guide not a rule and one that can be ignored or used at will. By engaging in the world around them, by looking at this ‘through their own lens’ young people can connect with nature, think about the future, examine beauty, look beyond the obvious.

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I want to introduce you to the concept of ‘noticeability’ and yes I know it’s a made up word but it does the trick nicely. How aware are you, and the young people in your care, of your immediate environment and its hidden treasures? How often do we miss amazing sights that are right under our nose because we are too busy or too used to the scene in front of us? Because we simply stop noticing what is actually there? Think about a route that you walk regularly – it becomes the norm and mundane. Now walk that same route with a young child. It will take you three times as long but you will be amazed at what they notice. They will pick up and scrunch leaves, stare through spiders’ webs, climb trees (or whatever is there) for a better view, smell berries, jump in puddles, see if feathers float… it’s a whole new world to them. By looking through their eyes we can recapture that sense of magic, that ‘noticeability’, that joy of seeing nature in depth. Nature and art are key elements of our identity and noticing what is around us helps us to regain our sense of connection with nature.

It’s Autumn here as I write this and the leaves are starting to fall. A leaf on the floor adds a dash of colour so pick it up and hold it to the light and suddenly amazing patterns and colours are revealed. Use your camera to capture some of these sights – fill your frame with details, use your lens as a way of seeing wonder again, NOTICE what is there and yes if no one is around go and climb that tree!

"To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” Elliott Erwitt 1928

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Jane Hewitt is an Associate and self-styled Granny with a Camera. She is the author (and photographer) of Learning Through a Lens and has provided photographs for a number of Independent Thinking Press titles and for this website. 

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