Visual literacy: A place to start when writing about your photovoice or photography project

How to support your photo’s storytelling with visual literacy and some activities you can use to help increase your visual literacy.

Youth and adults at the 2016 Michigan 4-H Youth Leadership and Global Citizenship Spectacular participating in an entire session on visual literacy. This photo is a representation of the activity mentioned in this article.
Youth and adults at the 2016 Michigan 4-H Youth Leadership and Global Citizenship Spectacular participating in an entire session on visual literacy. This photo is a representation of the activity mentioned in this article.

In “Composition tools for taking photographs – Part 1” and “Composition tools for taking photographs – Part 2,” you learned six new photography composition tools to add to your visual storytelling tool kit and tell the best visual story possible with your photographs. Now we're going to talk about supporting your photo's storytelling when you're not physically with it, and it all starts with visual literacy.

What is visual literacy? Let's start with a basic definition. While literacy in general is used to describe our ability to make meaning from written or printed text, "visual literacy" is our ability to do the same from images. It's how we gather information, and interpret the story, of images and photographs we see.

While it is most commonly described when talking about art or visual creative work, visual literacy is important in our day-to-day lives. If you're still hung up on what visual literacy is or why it is valuable to cultivate, watch Toledo Museum of Art’s 15-minute video, “What is Visual Literacy,” describing visual literacy in greater depth along with adding some context as to why visual literacy is important for more than just photographers.

While it is important to understand what visual literacy is, it is equally important to cultivate our visual literacy skills. Just like learning how to read and apply written information, we have to practice and exercise our visual literacy skills to make meaning of images. The following is an example of an activity you can do to help yourself or others increase your visual literacy skills.

  1. Found photographs. As a facilitator of this activity, it is great to have a collection of "found" photographs. A found photograph means a photograph that none of the participants in the activity have taken themselves. These could be photos the facilitator has taken or photos they found online or in books or magazines. If you choose the latter, be sure to note on the back of each photograph a citation of where it was found and who took it.
  2. Create a list of non-tangible words. Have a list of non-tangible words, or words that aren't things that can be touched or are commonly identifiable. A great place to start is with feeling words, such as hope, joy, fear, anger, surprise and lonely. Other examples might include inclusion, community and separation. Make sure the list of words is appropriate for your audience of participants. Participants should know the definition or a connotation of each word without any explanation from the facilitator.
  3. Small group breakouts. Divide the participants into smaller groups – three to six participants per group if possible – to start the activity. Give each small group a random set of found photographs. Then, ask each group to collectively select a photograph they think best represents one of your non-tangible words. Ask each small group to share with the rest of the participants why they chose that photograph.
  4. Debrief. After you've gone through your list of non-tangible words (about 10 words depending on the amount of time you have with participants), it is important to help the participants process the activity. Because we each have unique experiences and perspectives, the photos we might select to represent a non-tangible might each be very different. It is important to recognize there are no right or wrong answers, and that our unique worldviews influence how we make meaning of the photographs. Asking participants why they selected specific photos also helps them verbalize their interpretation and thus practice their visual literacy even more. This makes "Why?" a very important question, so don't take "I don't know" for an answer. Some additional follow-up questions include:
    • Who wanted to select a different photograph than your group for one of the words? Why?
    • Did anyone want to select the same photograph for multiple words? Why?
    • What did this activity show us about photos and visual literacy?

Being skilled in visual literacy is very helpful when you're looking at found images, as well as very valuable when you're planning your own photos. It's also a great skill to utilize in the reflective writing phase of photovoice activities (see all the steps in “So you want to take a selfie? Use photovoice to tell your story”). More on reflective writing can be found in the next article of this series.

There are a variety of exercises and activities you can do to increase your visual literacy, so if you're looking for more options, please contact me at

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program help to prepare youth as positive and engaged leaders and global citizens by providing educational experiences and resources for youth interested in developing knowledge and skills in these areas. To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, civic engagement, citizenship and global/cultural programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.”

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