Literacies and photographies

Steff’s use of (and preference for) the term ‘photographies’ (rather than photography) in the introductory webinar brought to mind the genesis of the use of ‘literacies’ rather than literacy. It also resonated with my concern (expressed in earlier posts) about the tendency to abstract the idea of photography from the contexts of production and circulation of images, with the effect of treating very different practices (for instance, casual mobile phone images of events on the one hand and commissioned photo-journalism on the other) as the same (in the sense that they are both ‘photography’). This tendency is particularly marked (and unproductive) in debates about the threat posed to professional photography by the ubiquitous production and circulation through social media of high resolution images, and the development of AI systems to select and edit images.

The dismantling of a singular view of literacy began with the exploration of social literacy, through social anthropological style studies of how, and where and for what, people use literacy, or engage in ‘literacy practices’ (see, for instance, Grenfell, 2012; Heath, 1983; Street, 1995). The study of literacy in practice brings to the fore the multiplicity of forms of literacy, each distinguished, and shaped, by the social context and the purpose of reading and writing. The study of literacy in different cultures and contexts not only raises questions about the extent to which a single term adequately describes a multiplicity of forms of practice, but also makes clear that these (literacy) practices involve engagement with and production of more than just text (sound, image, video, media, gesture and so on). So we have multiple literacies both in relation to the uses and contexts of literacy and in relation to forms of literacy (beyond just text). Hence, literacies, not a singular (cognitively defined and culturally invariant) literacy (commonly called the autonomous model of literacy, see Street, 2003) .

Likewise, photography is used in a variety of ways, in different contexts and for different purposes (culturally, socially and economically). Forms of photography (in terms of modes of production, technology and circulation) have also diversified. Hence, photographies.

This immediately raises the question of the relationship between different photographic forms, contexts and practices, the establishment and maintenance of hierarchies within and between these forms and the need for critical visual (photographic) literacy (for both consumers and producers of images). The point of this post, though, is to reinforce the idea of multiple photographies, and to form synergies with the study of the social basis of other areas of practice, such as literacy. My project proposal involves three forms of image making, which in themselves constitute three different ‘photographies’ (as social research tool, as advocacy and as art) and therefore provides a context for further exploration of these relationships.

Grenfell, M. 2012. Language, Ethnography, and Education: Bridging New Literacy Studies and Bourdieu. London: Routledge.

Heath, S.B. 1983. Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Street, B. 2003. ‘Autonomous and ideological models of literacy: Approaches from new literacy studies’. Current Issues in Comparative Education. 5. 1-15.

Street, B.V. 1995. Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy in Development, Ethnography and Education. London: Longman.