Photos in the Foreign Language Classroom

For quite a while it has been generally acknowledged in foreign language pedagogy that the vast majority of communicative acts is no longer solely verbal; rather, most of our communication and most cultural discourses are characterized by multimodality, using a broad range of semiotic modes, and visual languages in particular. In his book on multimodality (2010, p. 102) Gunter Kress therefore states that

multimodal production is now a ubiquitous fact of representation and communication. That forces us urgently to develop precise tools requisite for the description and analysis of texts and semiotic entities of contemporary communication.

This is why at the beginning of the 21st century  multiliteracies pedagogy has developed a theory of and for school education which, among other literacies, proposes to foster the students’ visual literacy since it equips them with one of the most important abilities for participating in cultural communication and discourse.

Visual literacy specified

However, visual literacy is also a very broad and unspecific concept that does not really account for the large number of visual languages and symbolic systems that is available. It is quite obvious that the cartographic mode of the map, the language and design of comics or the photographic mode of representing the world are substantially different. This also pertains to their communicative purposes, their affordances and constraints as much as to the respective social and cultural contexts in which they are employed.

For all of these reasons it is high time to approach the various semiotic modes that can be drawn into cultural communication in a more specific manner so that, in a multimodal approach to language teaching and learning, they can be taught

  • as symbolic languages in their own right; thus, photographs can be read and created in the very same manner as any other ‘text’, relying on mode-specific rules and codes of producing and communicating meaning. Photographs often replace more complex messages since they have the capacity (affordance) to communicate complex content instantly;
  • as one of the modes in multimodal communication that is part of larger multimodal discourses and communication, not least in the digital age. In social media, short text messages are often illustrated by photographs, and photographs are complemented by captions or other short texts, or they are one of the elements in storytelling, along with verbal text and possibly other, e.g. graphic elements. Such an interplay of the photographic with various other modes has great cultural normality, if it’s only a digital photo on a smart phone that is shown to somebody and thus drawn into acts of everyday communication.
Systematizing photographic communication

In order to develop the field of photographic communication in foreign language learning more systematically and substantially, Roswitha Henseler and I have conceived and edited a special issue of the German teacher journal Der fremdsprachliche Unterricht Englisch (FUE) in which we attempt to systematize the role of photos in the FL classroom, propose methods of teaching them and present practical examples and teaching units to open up ways of teaching photos in various grades, from the early years of language learning to the upper secondary classroom

Here is the table of contents of the special FUE issue Bilder lesen / Reading photos – Photography.   Find a free download of a select bibliography here ; also see the FUE blog post on photography.

The photo cycle

For this special issue of FUE, I have also devised a systematic approach to reading photographs since the ‘how to’ is the biggest challenge for language teachers who are (often) not experts of teaching visual languages, and the language of photography in particular. The model that I propose is a photo cycle that is explained in FUE on the focus-on-method pages of this special issue.

In the model, I propose to approach photographs in four stages or four different ways.

1 Punctum: According to Roland Barthes this is the stage at which very instant impressions, feelings and responses to a photograph are articulated, communicating how and in what manner the photo strikes or impresses (‘hits’) the viewing person.

2 Cultural viewing: This stage (or approach) is devoted to a detailed study and description of everything that is represented in the photo. The underlying assumption is that we decode beings and objects in the photo by using the same codes as in our cultural reality.

3 Aesthetic viewing: Every photo is a composition, an arrangement of visual signs, based on selecting, organizing and presenting that which is shown in a specific manner by choosing a vantage point, placing persons or objects in a certain position in the photo, creating geometrical deep structures or making use of colour and light. This aesthetic arrangement needs to be decoded.

4 Contextualization: It is a common and almost natural practice to assign a photo to a certain situation, a photographer who authored it and to a larger cultural context in which it was (or is) circulated.

Even in this rather concise blog entry it should have become clear that integrating photographs in the FL classroom in a more systematic manner is a very rewarding endeavour. As a rule, photos don’t speak for themselves, but they are always part of, and integrated into, larger discourses, inspiring our thoughts and imaginations and initiating conversations and communication, in the lifeworld as much as in the FL classroom.

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