“The truth is always something that is told, not something that is known. If there were no speaking or writing, there would be no truth about anything. There would only be what is.” — Susan Sontag
THE EVOLUTION OF VISUAL LITERACY
Visual literacy refers to a group of cognitive and emotional competencies that come into play in the abstract process of connecting ideas and concepts with sensory scenes and experiences communicated visually. Generally, visual literacy has not been formally taught in academic settings; it’s learned organically, through cultural exposure for some parts and the rest draws upon existing emotional coding (the immediate unconscious reading of emotional cues in pictured body language, facial expressions, relational tensions and mood-defining elements such as color and lighting).
Visual language has always been a powerful form of communication, an effective way of exerting influence in a mere glance. The Vatican is a fantastic example of this — stories were communicated to illiterate masses via dramatic paintings, giving shape to integral Catholic narratives while infusing powerful emotional flavors into how stories were to be understood, remembered and acted upon.
AN EVOLVING MEDIA LANDSCAPE
Modern life is saturated with photographic images, constantly disseminated across continuously evolving media platforms. The media landscape is in tremendous flux with the effects of rapid technological innovation reverberating uncomfortably for traditional journalism outlets. The 2015 Pew Research Center poll revealed that nearly half of web-using adults get news about politics and government from their social media feeds, with Facebook being the dominant player. This represents quite a departure from more traditional media constructs in which the news product was clearly defined and uniform, both in how it was presented and disseminated.
The rise of social media has created multidimensional shifts in consumer engagement, ranging from consumer feedback on reportage (often unrefined and caustic), the fragmentation of dissemination and the proliferation of citizen journalism, which does not always adhere to the ethical parameters of traditional reportage. Further, social media encourages the cultivation of a personal brand, giving rise to an acquisitive aspect of news consumption; the simple act of sharing a news story across one’s social media channels becomes an assertion of individual identity.
Given the increased complexity of the media landscape, being visually astute — both in consuming and creating images — has become an indispensable skillset.
EMBRACING THE INEVITABLE SUBJECTIVITY IN PHOTOGRAPHY
One of the more notable characteristics of contemporary visual journalism/storytelling in this evolving media landscape is increasing fluidity between implied objectivity and actual subjectivity. Alongside the emergence of the expansive internet as a dissemination vehicle and rise of the citizen-journalist, we are witnessing an unstructured conflation of the parameters that have given shape to journalistic images and art-based images. Photographers, curators and editors are redefining the relationship with objectivity, which has always been an implicit (if perhaps impossible) requirement in traditional photojournalism. Robert Sobieszek, the longtime curator of photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, summed the phenomenon up with the following explanation: “The postmodern human face in art has become a blend of Surrealist masquerade and melodramatic theatrics; reading physiognomic expression in contemporary facial representation (photographic, videographic, or cinematic) has ultimately become an exercise in surfing between the objective and subjective, and interpreting the fluid and discontinuous selves and states of mind that are signified.”
TRANSPARENCY IN IMAGE MAKING PROCESS
Photography is a fundamentally objective medium in the hands of wholly subjective beings. For years, photographic images have been associated with truth and veracity. Yet, no matter how objective we may think ourselves to be, we can never divorce ourselves from our life experiences, influences, and core beliefs. Our worldview inevitably flavors the images we make. A camera then is no different than a pen; both are tools of expression to be used by sentient, inevitably subjective beings.
In step with increased acceptance of photographer subjectivity in photographic works is increased expectation of transparency in the entire image-making process; deepening subjectivity has cultivated an interest in the photographer’s motivations. A photographer makes deliberate choices in assuming a specific voice within the documentary process, with varying degrees of transparency. In the traditional fly-on-the-wall approach, long favored by traditional news media, the final product gives the impression that the photographer is not actually present at the scene. Rather, the storyline seems to flow around the photographer effortlessly. In truth, this is an effect created in the editing process. In any shooting situation with people as subjects, there is almost always some sort of reaction to a photographer with a camera at some point. Even as the editing process may remove overt evidence of subject/photographer interaction (and is thereby somewhat disingenuous), this shooting style in which the photographer seems to be invisible also implies that great rapport and trust has been established.
Today, the photographer’s role in documentary work remains in flux as subjects increasingly become collaborators with input as to how their stories are depicted and disseminated. Even though subjects are almost always collaborators to some extent, there is increased appreciation of projects in which the nature of the collaboration is presented with collaborative transparency.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND COLLABORATIVE DOCUMENTARY WORK
It is only natural that a shift between how photographers and subjects collaborate on documentary work is underway—manifestations of collaboration are increasingly visible. “Citizen journalism” is made possible by the widespread availability of smartphones and other digital recording devices—yet, the question of what defines a photograph as effective amid the incomprehensible volume of images flooding the world remains. As a result, many documentary photographers are assuming a multifaceted role of collaborator/mentor/curator/director, working with their subjects to cultivate and distill subject-created work and incorporating it in a larger commentary.
Academic and researcher Mandy Rose, who looks at the intersection between documentary and networked culture, has identified four specific areas of collaboration in documentary work:
The Creative Crowd Model: This model includes multiple participants who contribute fragments to a highly templated whole, analogous to the separate panels within a quilt. The units of content may not make much sense on their own, but value and meaning accrue as they come together, producing a distinctive aesthetic that’s about energy and repetition.
The Participant Observers Model: This model utilizes distributed (in differing locales) documentarians who each contribute to a work that’s concerned with contrasting experiences of place. The participants decide when and what they shoot and what story they want to tell, but their role in the final contextualization of that content can vary dramatically.
The Community of Purpose Model: In this model, a group of participants take part in a production with a shared objective around social change.
The Traces of the Multitude Model: The projects that fall under this model introduce a new aspect to collaboration by drawing on social media content—linking to a multitude of potentially anonymous contributors. Here we can start to see documentary that is continually live and updating, with static video linked to live web data.
Every age brings forth its own attendant visual vernacular; the current technology-fueled era is especially defined by a rapidly evolving visual literacy. With the rise of social media—especially visually driven social media such as Instagram—there has been a discernible shift from a professional photographer-led visual vernacular to a new expression that is heavily influenced by the manner in which social-media platforms organize (or rather, disorganize) images. With more than a billion smartphones sold each year, cameras are now among the most ubiquitous technologies on the planet. Reportedly, a trillion images were created last year, more every minute than in the entire 20th century combined. Everyone is a photographer. Everyone has a unique point of view, a story to tell, a version of truth to share with the world. One thing is certain: It’s a fascinating time to be making and consuming images; as a society we are redefining the fluid parameters of objectivity, subjectivity while reframing all-too-human quest for some larger ephemeral truth.
• Adrienne LaFrance, “Facebook Is Eating the Internet.” The Atlantic, April 29, 2015.
• Amy Mitchell, “State of the News Media 2015.” Pew Research Center State of the News Media 2016 by (www.journalism.org). Direct link: http://www.journalism.org/2015/04/29/state-of-the-news-media-2015/
• Everyday Africa: https://www.instagram.com/everydayafrica/