Moving Toward Visual Literacy: Photography as a Language of Teacher Inquiry


During the past two decades in the United States, teacher inquiry has become a dominant focus of contemporary early childhood teacher education programs (Hill, Stremmel, & Fu, 2004; Hubbard & Power, 2003; Burnaford, Fischer, & Hobson, 2001; Moran, 2002; Fosnot, 1989). Teacher inquiry is characterized by "both new and experienced teachers [who] pose problems, identify discrepancies between theories and practices, challenge common routines, draw on the work of others for generative frameworks, and attempt to make visible much of that which is taken for granted about teaching and learning" (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2001, p. 53). Teacher inquirers are classroom researchers who engage in cyclic studies of learning in context, dependent upon the use of tools (writing utensils, tape players, computers, and cameras) and records (audio and videotapes, transcriptions, field notes, children's work samples, and photographs) to help make teaching and learning visible. Through image-based research, "a contemporary form of structured investigation" (Prosser, 1998, p. 3), teachers can learn to observe carefully, screening out nonseminal information as they develop discernment, judgment, and decision-making skills. Teachers who utilize photography as an integral part of their classroom research are positioned to develop competencies for using this visual language, as Whiting (1979) said, to represent, examine, and communicate emerging understandings with others and with self (p. 8). In other words, developing visual literacy through the language of photography is a part of current initiatives on teaching inquiry.

The study of photographs (and video) of children's learning and classroom experiences is fast becoming central to the work of many new and experienced early childhood teachers (Goldman-Segall, 1998; Project Zero et al., 2003). In the first part of this article, it is our goal to slow down and step back for a moment to review selected illustrations from visual anthropology, visual sociology, photojournalism, and media literacy. In these fields where photography has played an integral part in the study of human behavior over time, we can learn how photography has contributed to these researchers' and practitioners' thinking and practice and perhaps use their insights in our own work. In the second part of this paper, we describe the three interrelated functions of photography that may be used as an analytical framework for how photography contributes to the development of teacher inquiry. These are representational, mediational, and epistemological functions. In this second section, we include examples from preservice teachers and a master teacher that illustrate how photography can serve as a language of teacher inquiry in the field of early childhood teacher education.

Historical Perspective: Photography as a Visual Language and Research Method

From decades of research and practice in the fields of anthropology, sociology, and photojournalism, theoretical, conceptual, and practical understandings have emerged that can inform the use of photography as a language of contemporary teacher inquiry. During the past 150 years (since the invention of the photographic process), sociopolitical developments and technical advances have expanded the use of photography from staged family portraits to chronicles of wars and post-war humanism, and from studies of distant and unfamiliar cultures to contemporary everyday life in cities and rural communities (Bateson & Mead, 1942; Edwards, 1992; Whiting, 1979). In these studies, photography has also been used to map geographic terrains and archeological digs; chart societal life; and record, catalogue, and identify developmental milestones and emotional behaviors (Collier, 1995). Moreover, photographs have been used as artifacts that chronicle behaviors, places, and experiences, making photography a part of ethnographic methods (Harper, 1998) and "critical visual methodology" (Rose, 2001).

The notion that photography is a visual language (Kepes, 1944; Whiting, 1979) and a research method (Collier & Collier, 1986; Prosser, 1998) is not new and began to emerge during the mid- to late-20th century. However, what is new is the use of photography as a seminal part of teacher documentation in teacher inquiry. It is an appropriate time, therefore, to take a brief look at fields outside education and learn from them, because teacher documentation, as inspired in particular by the Reggio Emilia approach to early education, continues to dominate and exemplify the power and promise of making visible the learning and researching of teachers (Project Zero et al., 2003; Project Zero & Reggio Children, 2001).

Photography as a Visual Language

Photography is a visual language that shares some important characteristics with verbal language-both communicative and structural. Typically, teachers do not treat photography as a language. Rather, they often see a photograph as a truth, an obvious fact, and therefore a photograph does not require interpretation. Yet, we propose that teachers reconceptualize photographs as more than simply classroom records. Instead, photographs hold the same subjective, interpretive potential as words when teachers "read" photographs from an interpretive view, where photographs are imbued with meaning.

Photography is a dynamic representational system that uses signs to produce and communicate meaning-just as we do when we use words to speak. According to the Swiss linguist Sausserre, a sign has two elements, that of signifier and the signified-with signifier representing the form (in our case photographs) and the signified representing the associated conceptual understanding provoked by viewing a photograph-or its meaning (Hall, 1997, p. 31). For meaning to be constructed, these two elements must exist in relation. Hall notes that it is the relationship between form and meaning that is "fixed by our cultural and linguistic codes, which [in turn] sustains representation" (p. 31).

From this perspective then, photographs are culturally situated and consequently convey different meanings to different viewers based on personal life experiences, knowledge, and perspectives. Photographs, like words, are both encoded and decoded with meaning. The creator first encodes a photograph with meaning or intention when she takes the photograph, and then "it is further encoded when it is placed in a given setting or context" (Sturken & Cartwright, 2003, p. 56). For example, as photographs are viewed, reviewers decode or "read" the meaning. The "reading" of photographs therefore is subjective and partial (Skinningsrud as cited in Edwards, 1992, p. 4; Winston, 1998) and naturally leads to a range of interpretations. Such a variety of interpretations are a positive aspect of photography as a language of teacher inquiry because it is through sharing diverse meanings that new understandings are co-constructed.

The relationship between the signifier and the signified, the idea that photographs are culturally situated, and the co-constructive process whereby interpretive meanings are the result of subjective encoding and decoding are illustrated in the following example of a group of early childhood teacher researchers who collectively explored visual literacy. In a recent research project, the Reggio-Lugano Research Collaborative (RLRC) used photographs as a research tool to discover the capacity of visual images to uncover, provoke, and communicate beliefs and practices related to teaching and learning (Fu, Goldhaber, Tegano, & Stremmel, 2000). This multi-member collaborative was composed of teacher educators and teacher practitioners who spent nearly two years systematically reflecting on selected photographs of each participant's early childhood program in order to answer the question: "How does an interpretative community find meaning in the visual images selected to represent our adaptations of the Reggio Emilia approach?" In the analyses of the data collected in this project, one finding included the participants' discussions and questions concerning the context of the photographs: Whose story was being told-the subject's story, the photographer's story, the viewer's story, or all three? The following questions emerged:

. If it is the photographer's story, then is anyone who views the slides without knowing the photographer's intent at risk for an inauthentic interpretation of meaning?
. Because we are a group of intersubjective viewers (or striving to become such a group), to what degree can we understand the authentic meaning of the image for the children or adults in the picture?
. Are we ever capable of being authentic in our interpretation? Does it matter?
. To whom does meaning belong? Can we lose what is not ours?

These questions illustrate how the signifier (the photographs) and the signified (the meaning) and how encoding (the photographer's intended story, in context) and decoding (the viewer's subjective interpretation, also in a subjective context) are a natural part of the language of photography for teacher researchers. For these researchers, the goal was not necessarily to find answers to these questions. Rather, participants focused on engaging in the discourse that provoked them to reflect on the meaning of context, its role in "reading" photographs, and to co-construct a deeper understanding of the positive, rich potential of shared subjective interpretations. The questions listed above were the result of a joint process of finding meaning in photographs and a shared intersubjective understanding of that process. When photographs are used to stimulate discourse, uncover multiple interpretive perspectives, and evoke questions, then teachers are moved to reexamine and reconstruct pedagogical approaches.

Effective verbal communication includes meaning (semantics), word order (syntax), and interpretation based on context (pragmatics). In other words, the order of our verbalizations contributes to intended as well as understood meaning. Although photography represents meaning, it lacks the syntactical structure of spoken language. Without a similar, embedded "order" within photography, it is up to the photographer to create it. The lack of "explicit relational indicators" (Messaris, 1998, p. 75) in this visual language means that the inquiring teacher must intentionally position photographs (often linked to textual information) to convey a particular message. From this perspective, there is a "double process of construction" (Hamilton, 1997, p. 85) that includes both the "choosing and framing" of a photograph at a particular moment in time and the selection of photographs "from their original ordering and narrative contexts, to be placed alongside textual information and reports in publication" (p. 86). To an extent, some photographs have an implied order (e.g., a chronology of a classroom event, a sequence of learning), especially when a teacher takes a photograph. In this case, she knows what preceded and what followed the click of the shutter. Later, when the same teacher studies the photograph (or a set of photographs), the order (syntax) is juxtaposed against her subjective meaning (semantics) and contextual interpretations (pragmatics). In other words, the syntax, semantics, and pragmatics are not only located in the photograph but, more so, in the mind of the teacher. This does not mean that a photograph cannot stand alone, but it does mean that a single snapshot may not be adequate to portray the complex processes of teaching and learning that occur everyday in children's classrooms.

This point is illustrated by Lawrence-Lightfoot's (1999) description of photographer Dawoud Bey's experience of creating photographic meaning, meaning that is grounded in his curiosity and his need to "go deeper" and discover more (p. 119). As a researcher, Lawrence-Lightfoot describes Bey's process of selecting and grouping photographic images to answer his own artistic inquiry into how to capture what Bey called a "more complex representation of human experience" (p. 136). Lawrence-Lightfoot says, "he soon discovered that the images looked more interesting when he put them together, that with multiple pieces he was able to evoke the 'complex relationship of time and psyche'" (p. 136). One hallmark of Bey's artistry then is the "ordering" that permits the relationship among the photographs to emerge and that allows his photography to convey a particular message. The language of photography then is structural, communicative, and also generative.

Just as speakers search for the right word, teachers who use photography as a language of inquiry search for the right angle or how closely the camera comes to the children or scene being photographed in order to convey a particular message, for example. The camera angle and close shots, among others, have been labeled by media literacy expert Meyrowitz (1986) as "para-proxemics"5 when they are used "as [a] means of affecting the viewer's emotions or attitudes" (Messaris, 1998, p. 74). Para-proxemic devices and related decisions for how to photograph a classroom scene, experience, or behavior are part of the teacher's complex construction of meaning, because they determine what she may intend to elicit in the viewer. These decisions, like the ordering or positioning of photographs, are deliberate acts of selectivity.

In the field of photojournalism, there are strategies for selecting and organizing photographs to create "photo-stories" (Whiting, 1979, p. 34). Photography has many utilities, including the conveyance of (1) emphasis, (2) differentness, (3) motion or action, (4) the affordance of editing out nonseminal information, and (5) the portrayal of time. When teachers understand and skillfully use these utilities, they maximize the communicative and generative qualities of photography as a language of teacher inquiry.

First, particular emphases are portrayed through the positioning of photographs, such as placing the first and last pictures in a series to connote "special prominence," and/or placing a picture "off balance" to attract attention to that one picture (Whiting, 1979, p. 84). Additionally, placing a vertically positioned photograph within (or next to) a grouping of horizontally positioned photographs affects how one reads the photographic montage (by giving special import to a single photograph over others). Second, photographs afford "differentness" such as "close ups," "spotlight effects," and "startling depth" (p. 84) that illuminate details and encode particular meaning. Third, photography is fluid because it has the potential to reveal the dynamic within the static (for example, a photograph that shows the exuberance of children or a series of photographs from which a story-a plot, a developing theme-can be communicated). In photography, it is possible to capture process through the control of motion. Control of motion may be accomplished through freezing action and the deliberate selection of a series of photographs so that "their final use will have motion between pictures, and a pattern" (p. 83).

Fourth, the decisions surrounding the selection of a grouping of photographs involves screening out nonseminal information and creating breakpoints within the photographs. Take the example of a teacher who wants to make visible the relationship between two play scenarios, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The breakpoints she creates across her series of photographs result from her removal of extraneous information that occurred beside and around the photographic scenes. In this way, she communicates her intended story of the relationship between the two play scenarios. Fifth, such breakpoints (the space between the photographs) enable her to manage the complex nature of time (across 10 minutes, 2 hours, or 1 day) that she wanted to represent in photographs. Moreover, breakpoints also permit the "reader" (the viewer) time to sit with the meaning(s) in both communicative (I understand) and generative (I have new understandings) ways. Thus, for teachers, photography is powerful in its ability to portray complex meanings and practical in the ease of manipulation of photographs as a language of inquiry.

The value of photography in teacher inquiry is to make visible our questions, our in-depth study of children's learning, and our challenge to illuminate and communicate discrepancies between theory and practice. It is through continuous cycles of systematically creating, studying, and arranging photographs and making public and visible intended and shared meanings that teachers engage in classroom research.
Photography as a Research Method

Early in the 20th century, the use of photography as a research method by anthropologists was marginalized because it lacked depth, descriptive, and explanatory value (Edwards, 1992). Then, in the 1940s, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, following 10 years of studying and writing about Balinese culture, began to integrate photography as part of an in-depth process of observation. Bateson and Mead's (1942) visual ethnography Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis was created through a method of sorting, categorizing, and cataloguing thousands of photographs in an attempt "to present several perspectives on a single subject, or in sequences which showed how a social event evolved through time" (Harper, 1998, p. 26). These anthropologists repositioned and coupled photographs with two types of text (interpretative essays and annotated details). By juxtaposing images alongside detailed, written descriptions and analyses, Bateson and Mead used theory and knowledge of the field of anthropology to interpret, contextualize, and validate their photographic data. This method made "photography a respected tool in anthropological research" (de Brigard, 1995, p. 26).

It was this intentional linking of photographs to text (informed by key theoretical, conceptual, and contextual constructs) that marked an important shift in elevating the significance of photographs from mere truth-value6 representations toward thoughtful representations with valuable information, albeit data influenced by the subjectivities of the researchers. Even after the publication of this influential visual ethnography, photography continued to remain secondary in importance to the written word and to film in the field of anthropology until recently, when all forms of visual representations from film and photography to visual forms produced by the subjects of study (e.g., weavings, pottery, and art) are now highly valued and studied as "visible cultural forms, regardless of who produced them or why" (Banks, 1998, p. 11).

The inclusion of cultural artifacts along with photography has enabled anthropologists and more recently sociologists (Harper, 1998) to further portray the complexity of behaviors in context. Through the creation of thick descriptions (Geertz, 1973) or the layering of interpretations (Goldman-Segall, 1998, p. 32), photography has emerged as an integral part of the study of signs and symbols that constitute research data and advances our understanding of events, behaviors, and scenes in context.7 For example, when does a specific gesture mean something, or in what ways do particular classroom routines that emerge within a group of children have meaning in that space? The creation of a thick description then is an attempt by the anthropologist, sociologist, or teacher to move beyond surface-level descriptions toward interpretations, informed by more than one way of seeing or illuminating a phenomenon. This can be accomplished through the creation of a series of photographs and/or the coupling of photographs with artifacts, transcriptions, and explanatory text to reveal an in-depth, full-bodied, and contextualized interpretation.

Functional Application: Three Interrelated Functions of Photography in Teacher Inquiry

Photography, as one form of teacher documentation, functions in at least three primary ways: (1) representational, (2) mediational, and (3) epistemological. These three functions often complement one another through the mechanical (taking photographs), the metacognitive (studying photographs), and the communicative (systematically using photographs) aspects of photography as a language of teacher inquiry. These functions act in concert with one another-sometimes at the same time and sometimes across time. They are not intended to be exhaustive or exclusive, rather they constitute an interpretive framework that has the potential for assisting teachers in navigating reflective processes and communicating with self and others.

In this part of the paper, the representational, mediational, and epistemological functions are defined and classroom examples (from preschool and early elementary) are given to illustrate each. Although this discussion is separated by function, the reader should keep in mind that taken together these three form a larger, broader conceptualization of photography as a language of teacher inquiry. It is through this conceptualization and the ability to deconstruct (understand the parts) and reconstruct this framework (use in dynamic, transactional, personal ways) that photography becomes a language, a communicative tool for making visible teacher inquiry. Thus, these three functions have value for classroom teachers as they (1) respond to the problem of moving away from photographs as discrete, prescriptive, factual records that limit classroom documentation and (2) meet the challenge of moving toward a communicative, transformative, and generative process of systematic and intentional study.


The representational function of photography is about creating meaning-to depict and to symbolize-through the use of photographic language. Hall (1997) writes, "representation connects meaning and language to culture" (p. 15); that is to say that representation (to depict or to symbolize) connects the interpretation (meaning) and the photograph (language) to the context (culture). For instance, when a teacher uses the representational function of photography to depict or symbolize children's block constructions, she connects her photograph of block constructions and her own interpretation (that may be based on her intention to observe or on the meaning she associates with the block constructions) to her particular classroom, on a particular day, built by particular children (context).
Photographs are not passive artifacts but instead represent active forms of meaning with layers of potential interpretations. Sturken and Cartwright (2003) remind us that there are at least two elements that contribute to the construction of meaning other than the creator of the photograph and the photograph itself: "(1) how viewers interpret or experience the image and (2) the context in which an image is seen" (p. 45). From the time a teacher first takes a photograph, it has meaning. Photographs are artifacts that "suggest meaning through the way in which they are structured" (Edwards, 1992, p. 8) such as the choices made to select what and how to photograph and, concomitantly, what was not selected to photograph. When teachers share photographs with others, the original meaning may not always remain with the photograph. Instead, it can be transformed or embedded in layers of others' interpretations whose views are influenced by their diverse experiences, knowledge, and the context in which they are viewing the photographs. Edwards (1992) describes the process of building upon layers of interpretation as giving "meaning" for "its original audience and for subsequent generations of interpreters" (p. 12). It is in the actions of taking, using, and interpreting photographs (with self and others) that the range of meaning is expanded, new questions considered and posed, and diverse representations provoked.

There exists, perhaps, a general assumption that multiple perspectives are positive; however, this is not necessarily true. Recall the earlier example of the Reggio-Lugano Research Collaborative, in which teachers and teacher educators met over a two-year period to engage in systematic analyses of photographs. During early exchanges, the members of the group were directed to review and respond to photographs submitted by individual members. In these first exchanges, there were occasions when different viewpoints were perceived as evaluative and even negative by those whose particular photographs were being analyzed. This negative perception emerged from the dissonance between what the photographer intended to represent and the subjective analyses of others. Some members of the group were uneasy about others' perspectives being associated with their pictures, because these multiple perspectives did not match what the photographer meant to represent. In this scenario, multiple perspectives were initially problematic but ultimately (because the group stayed in relation and were committed to the task) became a powerful tool for generating and communicating new ways of knowing. Thus, when teachers recognize that photographs have the potential to represent different perspectives-even generate dissonance-then they reposition themselves to reconstruct their thinking. This position holds the greatest promise for transforming ways teachers use the representational function of photography.


The mediational function of photography serves to link thought to action. It is situated in the act of taking a photograph. The act of bringing the camera to the eye links what is in the mind to what is happening outside, such that the camera is a tool that connects what one aims to record to what is actually recorded in a photograph. Moreover, the camera also provides a lens to focus the teacher's attention-the lens mediates between the mind's eye of the teacher and the essence of the teacher's intention. For instance, when a teacher sees something that he wants to record, he sets an intention. Consequently, the camera becomes a "mind-guided" (Whiting, 1979, p. 28) tool that mediates between (1) his intention and his action of taking a photograph and (2) his focus. In the field of photojournalism, the gestalt of this mind-set is referred to as "picture-thinking"-"the photographer, then, first learns to see with his camera and think with his eyes" (p. 34).

During this process, there are two related and concurrent actions underway. The first is the nonvisible yet deliberate decision to act. This action is informed by what is sometimes called the photographer's "gaze" (Cruickshank & Mason, 2003, p. 7; Sturken & Cartwright, 2003, pp. 76-77) or intent, such as his orientation to the study of children's learning, his interest, or his mental lens. We each have a gaze-shaped by biases, interests, and perspectives-that influences what we most want to photograph as well as what we have in mind to project to viewers of the photograph. Second, this mental orientation directs the mechanical response of taking a photograph. The physical act of holding and aiming a camera on one spot rather than on another, for example, links the head and eye to a particular place or an action in the classroom followed by yet another decision to take one, three, or a even a series of shots.


The epistemological function of photography is the use of photographs as a source of new knowledge. Through individual and collective study, reflection, and analyses of photographs, teachers access the epistemic potential innate to using photography as part of the process of teaching. This epistemological process is propelled through teachers' participation in creating and using photographs. As such, teachers who use photography as a language of inquiry have a chance to continually construct new understandings about children's learning and to better understand what they want to know and "how they come to know it." For example, photographs freeze-frame moments in time so that teachers can later study them more closely, ponder their original intentions, and construct new knowledge as they return again and again to challenge old ways of knowing.

Through the language of photography, a disposition of inquiry is developed-to observe, to see and see again with discernment, and to construct meaning. These epistemic processes are initially and intermittently dependent upon the aid of tools (cameras, lenses) and signs (photographs). Yet the language of photography does not remain solely on the external plane. Instead, over time, it is likewise appropriated and used mentally on one's personal or internal plane. From this perspective, the construction of meaning develops both in the head of the teacher as well as in her hands; that is, in the manipulation of the camera and in the adjustment of her lens as well as in her rationale for what to record. At these times, the teacher's conceptual constructs developed from so many photographs taken, so many conversations shared, and so many new understandings inform her decisions and beliefs about what is important to photograph to her. She is not only photographing for the moment but also for broader purposes: her particular interests, her need to know more, her developing focus of inquiry. And these purposes are simultaneously re-informed by an individual teacher's conceptual constructs.

The epistemological function of photography contributes to teachers' knowledge about and processes of learning through inquiry. Photography makes visible the metacognitive processes of teaching and learning. The acts of focusing attention to capture images of classroom moments, manipulating photographs, studying transcripts, and developing interpretive meanings and text are processes that encourage the development of metacognition in teachers. These processes are made visible through the act of documentation and are appropriated by teachers when inquiry becomes a habit of mind, even without the presence and manipulation of tools and documents.

Concluding Remarks

Photography as a language of inquiry is therefore generative and communicative-generative because through photography teachers construct new understandings and are more prepared to engage in subsequent similar activities and communicative because photography conveys and provokes meaning. Thus, photography can be a powerful research tool for educating students and teachers in the construction and co-construction of knowledge about the processes of teaching and learning; and as well, photography is one way to make visible these same processes.

In this article, we attempt to situate photography in teacher education within the broader frameworks of visual anthropology, visual sociology, photojournalism, and media literacy. For educators in the digital age, photography is an effective and rich resource that expands both the tools (writing utensils, computers, tape recorders) and the records (field notes, work samples, transcriptions) that we use in our classrooms to include cameras and photographs. We present descriptions and examples of three functional applications of photography in classroom investigations. The representational, mediational, and epistemological functions of photography are useful in explaining how teachers use photography as a language of teacher inquiry. The use of photography as a functional language of inquiry in education is portrayed as a means for moving the field of education toward visual literacy.

Finally, early childhood education is a field in which visual documentation techniques are emerging, and as such, the functional categories of photography presented here are one means to give substance and clarity to our burgeoning understanding of praxis in a visually literate world. In this article, we chose specific examples from preschools and early elementary schools to illustrate each of these functions. Although the examples are taken from early childhood classrooms, we believe that the information presented here has application to the broader field of education, precisely because of its inherent adaptability to cultural contexts. As educators learn to use photography to construct new understandings and to convey meaning in classroom contexts, it is our hope that this article provides one means by which they may begin to articulate their use of photography as both a generative and a communicative language of teacher inquiry.

- Mary Jane Moran & Deborah W. Tegano
University of Tennessee

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