Visual Literacy – Advertisement or Visual Poem?

December 25th, 2011 Author: Sebastian Buchner

If you want to be a good photographer, you have to be visually intelligent and literate. What a writer does with words, juggling and dancing with them, subduing them, making them do things that they ordinarily do not, that you have to do with images.

But what does it mean to be visually literate? It means to be able to read an image; to understand that in a good image things might be coincidental but never meaningless; to be able to gather information from clues, hints, gestures – in short from all wordless things.

An image may tell you a story and in fact a simple hint for beginners is to make sure that there is a thread, a story, a visual movement in any image that you take. Imagine your subjects as actors of some sort of self-chosen and spontaneous drama. The image becomes a representation, something removed from the actual subject.

This may sound awfully philosophical, but it is true and very unwieldy. To see a picture of your dog on a cell-phone is not seeing your dog, even if the instinctive reaction inside yourself tells you different. It represents your dog, either in an act, or in a state. You have chosen to depict that moment because you want to achieve some purpose with it – the image is, for example, a squeal of remembered delight or a bittersweet reminder of your pet. This is very different from your actual dog who may be – in the very moment that you look at the image – looking entirely different in reality than on your image.

We are inundated with images, flooded with them, yet the fewest of us are actually visually literate and able to differentiate between them. Differentiation means a clear awareness of the intent and the information conveyed by an image, the active, conscious part as well as the subconscious part. Visual literacy means not only a quick ability to separate advertisement from information – a necessity in an age that gave birth to something as insidious as infotainment – but to be able to access the deeper layers of information contained within an image.

Look at a couple of portraits of people and attempt to describe their state. Can you do it in a word and is it utterly clear what their expression conveys? In that case it’s a bad image or an advertisement. Human expression is varied and always contains more than one emotion at a time. A clear expression might be good for propaganda, journalism and advertisement, but when it comes to actually depicting a human being, complexity is necessary. Apparently simple expressions like wonder, joy and frustration – how often do they appear clearly on a person’s face? Is it not more usual to see them mingled with other expressions?


Think about watching an actor or an actress that you admire. Are those the people that clearly and unmistakably show one emotion on their faces or is it people who stimulate discussion and wonder because the expression is multi-facetted and unclear? Because it needs more than one word to describe it?

Come away from thinking that every images needs to be entirely clear in composition or meaning. Juxtaposing different meaning, misleading the viewer, offering them to make their own interpretations…those hold much more fascination than a clear, easily readable image. It’s the difference between reading an instruction manual and a poem. Sure it’s nice to know exactly what’s going on, but wouldn’t you rather engage your imagination?

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