Unlike ever before in human history, our world is ‘visually saturated’. Our culture is increasingly captured by and reflected in visual and audiovisual materials primarily accessed via the Internet. It is more important than ever to be critical – to think about what you are really seeing and ask questions about what it really means. Just because you see it in the context of news media does not make it true, the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ has taught us that.
This is also true for visual images like photographs. A compelling historical photo can be powerful. However, we need to be careful not to assume that these pictures tell a complete story. How can we learn to ‘read’ historical photographs? Answer: By employing ‘visual literacy’.
Visual literacy involves analyzing photographs by taking into account the photographs’ provenance, the technology of photography, conventions of visual expression, and the viewpoints of both the photographer and the intended audience. Reviewing any textual information available with photographs is also important for deciphering visual meanings. — Helena Zinkham, Reading and Researching Photographs, p. 59. Photographs: Archival Care and Management, 2006.
The basic definition of visual literacy is the ability to read and use pictorial images. Just as words take time and effort to read and think about what they mean, so do photographs. Curiosity is the best quality that you can bring to a source from the past. Asking questions will help you interpret the many and sometimes hidden meanings in photographs and any captions accompanying the photographs.
Take for example the photograph from MONOVA’s archival collection at the top of the page. What do you see when you look at this photograph? Maybe you see the same thing I saw when I looked at it for the first time – I thought it was a typical, old-timey photo depicting an early North Vancouver grocery business, the variety of products they sold, the shop owner and his family.
Looking at the image more closely I noticed that the photographer could be seen reflected in the store window. Curious, I ‘zoomed’ in to get a closer look and I noticed a sign in the store’s window.
It reads in part: “WE INVITE our customers to view our back. Open for Inspection, White help only employed.”
Seeing a sign like this is shocking and disturbing to us today. But it is important to remember that there was a time, not so very long ago, when a racially discriminating sign like this posted in the front window of a business may not have raised eyebrows, much less be challenged. Words contain great power and words on signs represent the status quo. A photograph like this one is important historical evidence of the kind of systemic discrimination that Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) faced in the past. As a document of the past it is evidence of their mainly untold story.
It’s quite common for many of us to look at images like this one and think fondly of the past, that it was somehow a better, simpler time. But was it really? If you look closely and critically at images, things aren’t always as they seem. Visual literacy enables us to consider both the content and context of an archival photograph and gain a deeper, more complex understanding of past people, places, and events. By doing so, our curiosity can give voice to past silences and bring untold stories to light.
Like any skill, visual literacy takes time to develop but it gets easier with practice. For more information about visual literacy and how to read historical photographs check out these resources:
- Helena Zinkham, Reading and Researching Photographs. Photographs: Archival Care and Management, 2006.
- Michael Gonchar, Bottom of Form. 10 Intriguing Photographs to Teach Close Reading and Visual Thinking Skills. The New York Times, February 27, 2015.
- Visual Literacy Today. Visual Literacy Today is published by The Curved House and has been developed with the support of a Carnegie Whitney Grant from the American Library Association and a teaching resource development grant from the International Visual Literacy Association.
– Christine Hagemoen, 30 April 2021
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