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Developing Visual Literacy

Dadès Gorges, Morocco. April 2017. Photo by Rachel Ligairi.

When I was in Morocco this spring, I took pictures of all the usual things, like stunning geometric architecture, carefully piled spices for sale, and lines of camels walking among majestic Sahara dunes. But this image, of no great photographic value, turned out to be one of my favorites because it suggests a story.

If you “read,” or understood,  a story from this photo the first time you glanced at it, that’s probably because you’re visually literate. At some point, you developed the skill of analyzing visual clues related to subject, framing, angle, light, focus, composition, and context in order to understand an image’s purpose and perhaps even something about the place or people it represents. You have probably been using this skill long enough that you do it without thinking, but that won’t be true for someone less experienced. And according to Common Core and McRel national standards, having such strategies on hand to interpret the content and style of visual media is a must for today’s students.

So how might you guide students to help them move from a passive viewing of this photo to a well-supported reading of it? One way might be to lead them through this exercise, available from the National Archives. Let’s work through the exercise’s steps together, using the photo featured here.

  • A quick scan of the photo reveals that it’s a candid documentary type image. The caption offers the location, date, and photographer’s name.
  • An observation of the photo’s parts reveals a man dressed in traditional clothing squatting to take an action shot of a man in athletic clothing climbing a rock face. On or near the rock face itself is graffiti and some kind of cable or line.
  • In trying to make sense of the photo, students may look at the caption to see who took the photo, where it was from, and when. With a little bit of research, they would learn that I am not a native of Morocco, that the Dadès Gorges is a dramatic mountainous landscape popular among rock climbers, and that spring is a common time for climbing enthusiasts and tourists alike to visit the area.
  • Based on all of this information, students can make some inferences as to why the photo was taken and what story or stories this photo is telling. To help them make this final leap, you might ask questions like the following:
    • Where would you guess each person in this photo is from? What might their clothing tell you about them?
    • What might their relationship be?
    • Why might the man in blue be taking a photo of the man in orange?
    • Why might the photographer have chosen to frame this image to include both the climber and the man photographing him? What is the effect of giving each figure equal focus and space in the image?
    • What might this photo tell you about tourism and environmental protections in Morocco? What sources could you find that would deepen this knowledge?

Students should now be able to write a paragraph about this photo. And the story they suss out will likely be something similar—at least in broad strokes—to the one I experienced and intended in taking the photo, which might be fun to share at the end of the exercise. And if the paragraph a student wrote is not close, that’s fine too, as long as the student can muster visual and contextual evidence to support their interpretation.

Here’s my story:

The man in blue was a local Moroccan guide who had been hired to lead my small tour group through the Dadès Gorges. The area is quite dependent on tourists, both those that come to climb there and those passing through on their way to the sand dunes of Merzouga. One of the men in our group was an Austrian mountaineer. At one point, after we had passed several foreign climbers, the mountaineer started to scale one of the walls we were walking by. This delighted our tour guide, who grabbed the mountaineer’s camera and excitedly started taking several shots, despite the Austrian’s protests that the climbing he was doing was utterly basic and not worth photographing.

My purpose in taking the photo was to document this unusual moment of a Moroccan photographing a tourist, since it’s nearly always the other way around, and to explore the idea of what people choose to photograph when they are confronted with foreign people or places. All day, we tourists had been taking photos of things that were utterly ordinary to the locals, including food, clothing, and transportation methods that seemed unique compared to our home countries. And now our guide was doing the same—with the difference that his photos were not on his own camera. Delighted though he was by what to him was a rather novel sight, he was still an employee catering to the satisfaction of one of his employers, a mountaineer accustomed to the Swiss Alps, who he assumed would want a photo of himself a couple feet off the ground. So the photo is also meant to turn on its head the usual power relationship between the subject and creator of travel images. 

For more visual literacy resources, see the CultureGrams Teaching Activities and extensive Photo Gallery.

Rachel Ligairi

Rachel Ligairi

I'm a CultureGrams editor who covers the Americas and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Rachel Ligairi

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