Liz Orton / Queens Park Community School / Visual Literacy activities

Activity: Looking at Images I

This activity developed by Liz Orton introduces students to looking at and discussing photographs and their subjects

I start with an exercise in observation and description. I put pupils in pairs and give each of them a closed envelope with an image inside. I have chosen images that are relatively complex in terms of the number of different visual elements. I give an example of how to describe an image, moving around the visual elements, thinking about foreground and background, the key colours, the position of things in the image, their relation to each other and the frame.

One pupil closes their eyes, while the other takes out the image.  They have a few moments to consider the image, and then 2-3 minutes to describe it as thoroughly as they can. The ‘listener’ is asked to imagine a blank space, slowly filling up with the image. Once the description is complete the image is revealed.  The listener gives feedback, comparing their expectations with the actual image.  The pupils swap round roles.

Afterward we have a discussion about the activity. I ask them about the challenges of describing and listening to an image in the form of words.  Images, which can be seen in an instant, all the visual elements simultaneously seen, take a long time to translate into words. It’s a way to emphasise how sophisticated our sense of sight is, taking in huge about of visual information very quickly. I explain that many of us tend to remember a lot more of what we see than what we hear.

We also use the activity to think about the idea of a visual language – words which enable us to communicate about pictures.  We brainstorm a number of useful words (such as frame, portrait, angle, landscape, colour, composition, background, foreground, subject) and write them up on the whiteboard as a shared list.

Liz Orton at Queens Park Community School

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