What Is Visual Literacy? 3 But there’s more that gives an image meaning than just the actual picture itself. Take a look at the image caption. The title, date, and credit add valuable context to this picture. This isn’t just a picture of a desolate landscape, it’s a photo taken on the moon. This context transforms this image from bland to something quite extraordinary. The landscape somehow becomes even more barren, now that we know there’s no life hidden among the rocks and ridges in the picture. Though it’s grainy compared to the high-resolution images we’re accustomed to, it marks the very height of technological advances dur- ing the time in which it was taken. It’s easy enough to derive meaning from images, but visual literacy as a concept is more focused on navigating the many different layers of meaning that are attached to each image. Let’s look again at our moon photo. If this photo were being used to illus- trate a narrative describing the moon, the viewer would need to decipher why this photo, over the millions of other photos of the moon, was selected. Usually pictures emphasize the narratives they illustrate they’re a conscious choice made by a creator. If this photo accompanied an article that described the moon as totally unsuitable for any future colonization efforts a country might attempt, this photo would echo and amplify those ideas. The moon here appears bleak and unfriendly, and the photo emphasizes the idea that it’s an unsuitable landscape for human life. This is due, in part, to the use of artistic principles in the image. In our example, the use of color makes this photo appear lifeless and almost foreboding—the landscape is mostly dark, and the sky above the crater is an endless black, unbroken by any celestial objects. If a writer wanted to say the opposite—that is, that with the right tools a colony could flourish on the moon, they would certainly not select this image to accompany their article. A photo such as the famous Earthrise from NASA could be a better choice. With our planet rising in the lunar sky, this image makes the moon feel not quite so far from home. Though the sky is just as dark, there are also a lot of lighter colors in this image, which ulti- mately serves to emphasize the lighter lunar surface and the gleaming Earth. Even a photo of a full moon hanging in the night sky as a source of light in the middle of the night would look more inviting and optimistic. This intent in image selection is yet another meaning-layer that can be interpreted from visual materials, and any visually literate viewer should try to determine what kind of story the image is trying to tell the viewer. The visually literate individual doesn’t just investigate what an image depicts or why an image is used, however, particularly when using images for their projects. Knowing the copyright and other ethical considerations is yet another type of meaning-layer that needs to be navigated when using images. Though it’s easy to find images, not everyone gives credit for the images they use in their assignments, nor does everyone know what images can be used for what purpose. Much like how an information literate writer knows how
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