The Power of the Gaze: An Introduction to Visual Literacy by Janne Seppänen
The nature of today’s communication is overwhelmingly visual. Images, as modes of communication, play a dominant role in our daily activities and are especially prominent in the lives of young people. Today’s students were born in image-saturated environments, the era of internet, digital technologies and touchscreens. Their communication practices are mediated visually, including photo and video creation and sharing, video chatting, and the visual language of emoticons, GIFs, and emojis. However, the moment students enter university classrooms, they are thrown into almost a completely textual world. Such highly textual context may cause an alienation from the course material and content. In consequence, contemporary millennial and post-millennial generations, although usually technologically savvy, are often visually illiterate.
Competency in visual literacy (VL) is crucial for effective visual communication, and thus for living and working in a visually saturated environment. However, VL across disciplines is still marginalized in higher education curricula. This tendency is partly caused by the lack of knowledge and agreement on what it means to be visually literate. This study juxtaposes and evaluates 11 VL definitions, selected as the most relevant for higher education practitioners and coined from 1969 (the first one) to 2013 (the most recent one).
Due to the progressive visualization of everyday communication, it has become increasingly
important to understand images and think and learn in terms of images. Tere should not
be any surprise, therefore, that educators express a need to introduce visual literacy into the
curriculum. However, the concrete tools to address this need are still missing. Te variety
of visual methods and approaches provided by visual studies’ literature does not seem to be
particularly useful when applied to education. Terefore, I suggest that a focus on teaching the
interpretation of journalistic photographs is a crucial component of contemporary education,
because it develops students’ visual literacy skills while addressing current requirements
in Higher Education, which expect students to be able to interpret, use and create images.
Images are produced, used and distributed on an enormous scale. However, the skills of understanding, interpreting and using images as well as thinking and learning in terms of images are taken for granted, and thus, they are not sufficiently taught and developed, especially in higher education. The need for introducing visual literacy into the curriculum was identified in late 1960s, but no concrete guidelines have followed. This study proposes to apply interpretation of journalistic photographs as an instrument of visual literacy education. The main focus is on the image interpretation process and the kinds of meanings viewers apply to a photograph in the interpretation process. In each of the four articles included in this study, a model or approach to photography interpretation is proposed.