It’s up to photographers, editors, designers, archivists, and publishers to monitor and recognize changes and diversity within visual literacy. The changes are due to evolving media technology, distinct visual cultures, access to archives, varied viewer experiences, virality of information, and the ease of removing visual media from context.
Visual literacy has gained prominence as communication becomes more visual, which is sometimes attributed to the glut of media on the internet. However, visual literacy may have been more sophisticated in the 1960’s when photography was emerging and studied in the context of postmodernism. Photography was deemed a representation of the real-world that could be interpreted. Picture magazines ran photo-essays captured on film (images were harder to manipulate) that were contextualized with text and often reflected contemporary themes. A viewer was more likely to study a still image on paper than today online.
There seems to be a slide towards simplification in visual literacy, perhaps due to the ambiguity around the manipulation of digital media. Also, the ability to search on the web presents visual media in the context of commercial results (whether in a commercial search engine like Google or an archive) rather than surrounded by supporting documentation and relevant facts like a magazine story. Visual media was traditionally targeted to the audience, such as the foreign editions of a newspaper or magazine. That specificity took cultural norms into account, which is impossible due to the new volume of information on the web. Archives were also targeted to local audiences through representatives and weren’t visible publicly, rather only to professional researchers. Now, archives are on the web and generally more available. With more eyes on the media it now becomes clear that images can trigger emotional responses that may not be intended nor anticipated.
Imagery has always evoked emotion, which is why it is such an effective way to change popular opinion. However, it may need to be moderated when it has a detrimental effect on emotional health. Instagram has taken such steps to warn viewers. The ability to screenshot, presumably under a fair-use accomodation, allows criticism but also removes the intended historical, geographic, and societal context.
The visual communication field is taking steps to restore trust in the media, but it will take time and efforts. Efforts to prove veracity in digital media are underway. Viewers must also develop the skills to self-moderate consumption of visual information, rather than catastrophizing or spiraling into despair at the sight of realistic scenes. Viewers should be aware of the tendency to reinforce fallacies and presumptions based on decontextualized imagery, particularly in social media conversations. Security technology may be necessary for limiting images being taken out of context. Archivists must continue to monitor the sophistication and experiences of viewers and their responses to imagery in order to maintain relevance and protect historical and cultural value.