Technology Changes Place New Importance on Visual Literacy

[by Tom Kennedy]

In an era of  maximum image saturation, where every iPhone is a camera and no aspect of human activity goes undocumented, no matter how mundane, new questions emerge as to the value and utility of photography as a means of understanding human experience.

As someone who began as my career as a newspaper photographer and then worked for a number of years as a photo editor and developer of editorial systems to support photojournalism, I have always held the view that professional photojournalists and documentary photographers are in the business of using visual communication to bear witness and create information that can be used to better the human condition.  Our photography can build bridges of connection, make memories, and create a desire in people to have empathy for those things that are beyond the boundary of their immediate life experience.

Our primary publishing tools for much of my career were in print, controlled by media companies, and subject to the vision of editors and publishers and editorial systems that would define the context in which our images were being presented.  On our best days, we produced work that truly informed and offered the possibility of creating awareness in our audiences that enabled them to act in more self-enlightened ways.  At the same time, other skilled professionals have worked in a different arena, creating forms of photography used to incite consumerism, and build brand awareness as fundamental underpinnings of business activity, economic progress, and entertainment.

Today, our world is moving rapidly from print to a screen-based culture equal in weight and prominence.  The tools of technology have changed both the capacity to document the world and to distribute the fruits of photographic observation, as well as the likelihood that most of life will be recorded in a visual image.  The output of skilled professionals who have spent years mastering tools, and craft practice, sits amidst a tidal wave of amateur imagery propelled by some of the same technology.  Further, technological progress is creating the capacity to let photographers of any stripe to evolve visual language further, by enabling the mixing still photography and video together to further abet story-telling.   That story-telling is now fundamental as means to the end of attracting attention, creating brand awareness and loyalty, inciting various forms of social, political, and cultural activity, and fueling the potential for change in all spheres of human activity.

As this refinement of visual language occurs, I think we have to consider the implications of new tools that will further refine photographic vision.  Clearly, some of these tools will make it more difficult to discern the differences between images intended to portray the realities of human experience playing out before a camera, and those fictional images intended to incite human activity on a different basis.

I see room for both types of imagery to coexist as valuable photography, but I think the challenge will be to communicate the differences to our audience so they will continue to be able to discern fact from fiction in the photography that is shared on screens and in print.  We have the obligation to establish new norms for visual literacy, and to ensure our audiences are in fact literate in our language of the visual image.

Formerly with National Geographic and the Washington Post, Tom Kennedy,, now serves as the Alexia Chair for Documentary Photography at Syracuse University.  A Keynote Speaker for ASMP’s SB3 conferences, his seminar, Understanding the Changing Media Landscape, is traveling to ASMP chapters around the country.


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