Active learning is key to the development of visual literacy skills. While students learn best through creative hands-on projects, discussing and reflecting on images deeply informs their image making and builds their understanding of how images communicate. Discussing images is an opportunity for learning interactively with peers and teachers and for making clear one’s ideas by talking through them.

To hold active discussions, educators need to develop their own questioning strategies. Posing questions invites viewers to consider and assimilate information more actively than if they were just receiving information. That is, questions keep the thinking going, whereas statements tends to undercut new observations. By questioning and seeking answers, viewers at all levels become engaged in the act of seeing, and they are empowered to trust their own interpretations of art.

The goals of the questioning strategies are:

- to advance students’ knowledge of visual art in general and photography in particular
- to develop students’ critical thinking and communication skills
- to help students discover the pleasure and power of finding multiple meanings in art

How can you tell what questions to ask when? The following framework is a useful starting point for developing questioning strategies to generate a class discussion about visual images. Strategies and sample dialogues are grouped by level, relating to Housen’s five stages described above. In addition, while any age group can be at any level, the framework draws some generalizations about audiences for the sake of clarity. However, it is important to note that visual literacy is a fluid process, and these levels and stages are neither fixed nor fully capture the complexity of interpretation. Even within a class, different students will have varying levels of visual literacy. Educators face the challenging task of adapting their teaching to the needs of each student as well as to the movement of the group. Therefore, the strategies are the most important tools to remember.

Level 1: Personal connection to the photograph

CHARACTERISTICS - Storytelling and recounting personal associations, which may or may not relate to the photograph.

For example, the viewer might quickly look at the photograph, then turn her back to it and say, “My aunt has a dog just like the one in the picture.”

Relates to: Housen’s Accountive Stage; beginning viewers; commonly, elementary or middle school students

Beginning viewers often come to photography with several false assumptions:

Assumption 1: Photographs are snapshots; taken quickly, they do not involve much thought or technique.
Educators can address this assumption by defining what a snapshot is and introducing other types of photography, such as portraiture, documentary photography, fine art, and conceptual photography. (Of course, if what they are looking at is a snapshot, then that is what it is! Educators can discuss how a snapshot is like a quick sketch or a visual notation that captures a personal moment.)

It is very important to discuss the choices that photographers make, the techniques used, the planning, creating, editing, and printing.

Assumption 2: Photographs show reality, like documents, and when used in newspapers and magazines they represent the way things are.

Educators can address this complicated assumption by focusing on point of view. Discuss the idea that just as two people in the class see things differently, two photographers create different images of the same event because of the way they use technique to convey their individual responses to the event.

Assumption 3: The school or the museum is the authority and knows something they, the viewers, do not or cannot know.

It is essential to help viewers understand that their interpretation of the artwork is just as valid as a teacher’s or a curator’s. The curator or teacher may have more information beyond what can be seen in the artwork, but this invisible information (e.g., research on the artist, art historical context) adds to the experience and does not invalidate a viewer’s interpretation with or without that information. Art truly lives when viewers interact with it; art is designed to communicate and express to an audience. The idea is to build students’ interpretative skills, so that they can approach artwork with less fear and greater confidence and find the value inherent in the artwork.


Understand that beginning viewers may be intimidated and are trying to find a personal connection to the artwork.

Make a personal connection to their lives: Try to find something in the picture that relates to the audiences’ experiences and knowledge base to help them enter into the picture. If the picture is from a different time period, ask students to compare the past and the present.

Redirect them to what they see IN the picture: Allow them to find a personal connection but also continually remind them to respond to what they see IN the picture. Say: “That is an interesting observation, what in the picture makes you say that? Describe what you see in the picture.”

Focus on people: If there are people in the picture, focus on describing and reacting to them. Viewers connect easily and reflectively to people, their expressions, moods, actions, what they are doing, and why.

Keep it fun: Viewers respond to the story that the photograph tells. Bring out any narrative, or any mysterious, surprising, or puzzling elements in the picture. Have viewers guess what might have happened before the picture was taken and what might happen next, to discover the many possible stories. If you are dealing with young viewers (elementary school students) try to create a game out of seeing. “Can you find… Can you guess… How many circles do you see?” You can design a treasure hunt activity, which encourages students to look in the picture for visual information.

To progress to the next level:

- begin to define terms like focus and point of view
- describe formal elements such as composition
- ask students to describe the formal and technical choices that the photographer made

Educators can tell when students are ready to move on by how much they retain of these terms. When students start to inquire about why and how the photographer created the image, then they have “put together” the formal and technical elements and are trying to understand the choices that photographers make.


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?

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. (Think of ways to demonstrate these concepts. Use your fingers to create a frame, for example. Or have some students crouch down and some stand tall to illustrate how you see things with different points of view.)
- Describe the composition. What shapes do you see? What other patterns do you notice?

Level 2: Technical connection to the photograph

CHARACTERISTICS - An interest in determining what it is and how it is made; building definitions of formal composition, techniques, and aesthetics

At this stage, viewers commonly ask, “How did they do that?” and “Why is photography art?”

Relates to: Housen’s Constructive Stage; beginning viewers in transition to intermediate; commonly, middle and high school students, and adults with little exposure to art.

At this stage viewers are beginning to see that the photograph is more than a snapshot. They are appreciating the thought and craft that go into creating an image. They are beginning to formulate their ideas about art, what it is, how it works, and what its value or impact is. They want to know more and more, and they want to feel impressed by technique at the same time that they want to feel like they can do it, too. They need lots of formal and technical information, and hands-on activities if possible.


Focus on the choices photographers make. Pose questions and deliver information about the technical and aesthetic choices photographers make and why. This builds an understanding of photography as an art form.

Keep students interested: Continue to build knowledge of technique and aesthetics, and tell any behind-the-scenes anecdotes of how the photographer “got” the shot. However, don’t forsake a personal connection to the artwork for technical discussions. Continue to keep it relevant to their lives.
Ask them how they might photograph this person or topic. What choices would they make in film, time of day, color, angle?

To address such a complex question, Why is photography art?, discuss the choices photographers make to show how photography is an art form. Discuss how art is essentially a communication, and ask students what and how this artwork is communicating. Turn the question back to them and ask them to define art. Acknowledge that the question, What is art?, has been puzzling art historians, philosophers, and artists for centuries; it is important for each person to develop a working definition. You could share your personal definition, as well.

To progress to the next level:

As intermediate viewers become more comfortable about techniques and process, they begin to ask for more information about art history, artists’ intentions, working methods, and so forth. At this level, visual literacy is promoted through asking why. Why did the photographer make these choices in technique and aesthetics? What is the photograph saying? How? Why?


Note: The starting point is always with questions from Level 1, such as What do you see in the picture?, to engage students in looking at the image for visual information.

Level 2A Building technical knowledge

- What techniques did the photographer use?
- What is the point of view?
- How is the picture framed?
- Describe the quality of the lighting. What direction is it coming from? Point out the pattern of light and shadow.

Level 2B Building an understanding of the choices photographers make

- What choices did the photographer make?
- Why did the photographer choose to use that technique?
- Why did the photographer choose to compose the picture this way?
- What is the photographer’s point of view? What effect does it have?
- Why did the photographer choose to frame the picture this way?
- What does the composition emphasize?
- What does the lighting draw your attention to?

Level 3: Contextual connection to the photograph

CHARACTERISTICS - Placing the artwork into the context of history and culture

Further assembling of knowledge about formal composition, techniques, and aesthetics
Also characterized by the personal, emotional reaction going underground—putting the artwork into a scheme and making it “safe”

For example, viewers become overly reliant on the art historian’s viewpoint and might say, “What makes this photograph good?”

Relates to: Housen’s Classifying Stage; intermediate viewers; commonly college students and adults partial to art history.


Keep students interested by providing more information about art history, aesthetics, cultural history, artists’ intentions, working methods, and career paths. Help them to build definitions and classifications relating to genre and other topics.
Encourage personal or emotional associations with the artwork so they don’t fixate on categorization or value judgments. The danger of this stage is that the original spirit of the artwork and emotional connection can get lost, as can confidence in the validity of a personal interpretation of art.

Discuss the subject matter, the people in the picture, concerns relevant to this audience, or point of view. Ask them if they have any questions about the subject to encourage them to think for themselves.

If viewers ask “What makes this photograph good?”, turn around the question by asking them what they think of it, and how they define good and bad. Discuss the limits of personal judgments such as good and bad, or “I like this/I don’t like this.” It is more appropriate to discuss the elements of the photograph and how well they work together to communicate meaning.

To progress to the next level:

Encourage them to talk about what the photograph is saying, what it means, and how technique and craft are used to forward that meaning. Soliciting and discussing varying interpretations calls attention to the subjectivity of artistic interpretation, which helps take them to the next level.


Note: Subject matter and visual information are always the starting point. Then, you can use other questions on composition, technique, etc.

Level 3A Understanding the context and intended use of the photograph

- What was the photographer’s purpose or the intended use for this image (e.g., a magazine assignment, photo essay, fine art exhibition)?
- Can you tell what genre of photography this is?
- What do you know about the time period in which this photograph was made?
- What does the photograph communicate about this time period?
- Can you make comparisons to other photographers or artists working in this time period?

Level 3B Relating context to subject and meaning

- What choices did the photographer make? Can you guess why?
- What is the photographer drawing your attention to? How is this accomplished?
- What is the photographer’s point of view? What effect does it have?
- What do you notice about the subject? Or the people in the picture?
- Do you have any questions about the subject? Or the style of the picture?
- What is the photograph saying? Does anyone have a different interpretation?

Level 4: Meaningful connection to the photograph

CHARACTERISTICS - Ability to find meaning and to combine formal, technical, and aesthetic knowledge with subjective reactions

The understanding of how personal experience, stylistic and formal analysis, the knowledge of technique, and the impact of context all shape meaning.

Relates to: Housen’s Interpretative Stage; advanced viewers; commonly, art educators.


Discussing art at this point is fun because the group can quickly cover different aspects of the image and compare various conclusions. It is important to encourage varying interpretations of art to keep their eyes and minds open.

To progress to the next level:

With time and encouragement of the creative impulse, viewers will define in the final stage their personal relationship to art, perhaps a lifelong interest. The most common creative blocks are the admiration for other artists and the “I can’t do what they do” syndrome. The point is not to do what others do, but for each individual to do what he or she is uniquely capable of doing at each stage. Encourage students about where they are and where they are heading; remind them that it is a continuous, gradual process.


(Use a variety of questions; relate the questions to discovering meaning.)

Level 4A Finding meaning

- What choices did the photographer make?
- Does this element contribute to the photograph’s meaning, or is it distracting?
- What was the photographer’s purpose in creating this image? What was the intended use of the image? How well does it work in this context?
- What is the photograph saying?

Level 4B Relating meaning to creative choices and larger issues

- What is the impact of this image?
- What are some issues it raises?
- How might you approach this topic matter?

Level 5: Creative connection to the photograph

CHARACTERISTICS - A fluid movement from the personal, technical, contextual, and meaningful stages of interpreting the photograph, and using that experience to create art

Relates to: Housen’s Re-creative Stage; advanced viewers; commonly, artists.


Deepen the understanding of the medium by fostering dialogue among students. Compare and contrast the photograph to other artworks and media. Ask what questions the work raises for them.


(Note: In this stage, you can use any variety of questions. Choose a salient quality of the photograph to get the discussion going or raise issues.)

Level 5A Discussing what the image shows, means, and influences

- Which technical or formal elements work well in this photograph?
- What do these elements draw your attention to?
- What is the photograph saying?
- What is the impact of this photograph?
- How does the photograph make you feel?
- What does it make you think of?
- Does it inspire you to work creatively in any way?

- Cynthia Way for the International Center of Photography
© 2006 International Center of Photography

Views: 30


You need to be a member of THE VISUAL TEACHING NETWORK to add comments!


© 2021   Created by Timothy Gangwer.   Powered by

Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service