It’s a strange fact but true that when we have a camera in our hands we see the world differently. We look for ‘subjects’ to photograph. Looking becomes seeing. We identify things that are in some way memorable or which, for whatever reason, we wish to preserve a record of. In so doing we select a mere fragment of the panoramic scene before us, detach it from its context, and make it available for the attention of others as well as ourselves. People and scenes that would previously have faded from the memory with the passage of time are given permanent status in a digital file or as a print.
Of course, removing the scene (or image, as it becomes) from its original context changes its impact. It also makes the picture vulnerable to a range of interpretations and susceptible to modern techniques of photo editing. For photojournalists, newsroom editors and commercial advertisers such ‘creative’ possibilities are basic tools of the trade.
Some years ago there was a media studies pack used in schools which comprised a dozen or so photos of an industrial strike. Students were asked to select two or three pictures to support articles either (a) sympathetic to the strikers or (b) against the action. Interestingly a photo would frequently appear in both the ‘for’ and ‘against’ selections, its message being transformed by the context in which it was placed. It may be true that ‘the camera doesn’t lie’ but the person in control of the image has the ultimate power.
In recent times we have witnessed the growth of the paparazzi and have been sickened by the consequences of their intrusive practices. We have seen the development of digital imagery through compact cameras and mobile phones and are no longer surprised by the speed with which the pictures are transmitted to our TV screens. Recent uprisings in the Middle East and riots in the UK have been available for viewing even as they were happening. Shady or improper behaviour has been exposed by the long lens or hidden camera.
Then, too, we experience the impact made on our lives through film, television and glossy magazines. We are transported to other lands and, indeed, to other worlds. We are introduced to a life of affluence and glamour beyond our immediate reality with a veiled promise that this could be ours. In the world of TV advertising, psychological strategies and seductive music are added to the visual image to create a potent persuasive cocktail.
We are constantly bombarded by images, many of which are not of our own choosing. We persuade ourselves that we are not influenced by advertisements, but is that really so? When we next make a purchase of a fabric cleaner or toothpaste, a car or an exotic holiday, do we, perhaps, recall something we have seen on TV? Are we honestly equipped to filter fact from bias or opinion when we watch the news?
My concern is that we are too easily seduced by the pictorial image. We tend not to question an image in the way we would challenge a verbal explanation. We know that the person behind the lens or the person who directs the shot has a purpose, but we still incline towards the opinion that what we see is true.
In an age when the ‘picture’ has greater impact on the lives of most people than any other form of communication, I would wish that more prominence be given to visual literacy in our schools. This is a thorny problem because visual literacy does not sit conveniently within a single subject area and, as a consequence, can very easily slip between the cracks. Sadly, it seems that in most schools the problem is not even recognised let alone resolved.