Pundits within the photo industry often talk about visual literacy and its importance in combating image theft and maintaining sustainable image pricing. This is bunk, and here’s why.
The term “visual literacy” has a broad and slippery definition, but we can go with a common definition of a skill which allows a person “to understand and use visuals for intentionally communicating with others” (Ausburn & Ausburn, 1978). Ain’t that boring.
Visual literacy is necessary for reading a map, which is a complex exercise in spatial intelligence, visual representations, and scale. Infographics and graphs require even more nuanced visual intelligence to parse and comprehend meaning from abstract shapes. But when we talk about photography, these types of intelligences have nothing to do with extracting meaning or assigning a monetary value to a photo.
If comprehension of a scene within a photo was so obvious, we would never need captions. And as Christie’s Sara Friedlander so eloquently explained, the price of a photo is based on an amalgamation of uniqueness, provenance and scale, where uniqueness and provenance have nothing to do with the characteristics that usually define visual literacy.
What visual literacy do we need to understand why Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II sold for $4.3m? Not only is the image not visually distinct, it’s also Photoshopped. And what visual literacy will prevent someone from stealing an image? And even that says nothing of inherent culture bias and aesthetic in determining “literacy.”
Perhaps this is a semantic argument. Visual literacy and visual appreciation are two distinct entities in the same way that music appreciation and the ability to read or play music are very different. While we would all agree that an increase of both within the general population would be beneficial to the photo industry, this daydream is akin to parents wanting more P.E. classes and orchestras in our schools. There’s no will, no money, and thus, no way.
But rather than be a total Debbie Downer, let me offer an observation that might fly in the face of common perception. As more people become “photographers,” the more they will come to appreciate photography through regular (often daily) consumption. Flipping through Facebook or Instagram immediately reveals “good” and “bad” photos. And as a consumer devours more photography, they will ideally start to discern between “good” and “great” and all the shades in between. They will also learn by rote how composition, lighting, and filters can be additive or subtractive. Like almost any creative endeavor from cooking to writing to music, the act of doing usually gives the actor a greater appreciation of the craft. Photography should be no different.
This has already led to some interesting behavior in my own world. Within my group of friends (both virtual and real), I’m known as a photographer. And more often than not, people have asked for my permission when using a photo, and always provide a linked photo credit. More significantly, many people have approached me to take their photo, making it very clear that they have every intention to pay. So simply by consistently posting my photos, advocating for photography, and networking with people, I’ve already helped myself against theft and for monetization.
The Internet and digital photography has already made us much more visually literate than the generation that preceded us. So advocating for more visual literacy to stave off the decline of an industry is not likely to produce the desired results. Instead, professional photographers should 1) encourage people to take and consume photos, and 2) they should directly interact with as many consumers of photography as possible so that people feel connected to the creators of photography. Feeling connected to a creative expression leads to advocacy (think Yelp review of your favorite restaurant), appreciation, and buying behavior. What more could we want for the industry?