What does it mean to be visually literate?


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We should close the debate over the concept of visual literacy and do something about its implementation in education. I draw this conclusion by actually coming back to the roots of visual literacy movement and Fransecky and Debes’s (1972, p. 5) call: ‘If you really want to understand visual literacy, you will have to do something about it’.

In my recently published article: “What does it mean to be visually literate? Examination of visual literacy definitions in a context of higher education”, I intended to avoid either compiling a corpus of visual literacy definitions or advancing its theory. Instead, I selected several visual literacy definitions that can be useful for education practitioners, particularly within university education. The selection includes both the more established as well as some recent definitions. I further aimed to translate them into concrete learning and teaching objectives. As a result, I constructed lists of skills (abilities, competencies) that a visually literate individual should be able to demonstrate.

The figure below shows three categories of visual literacy skills with thematic groups of skills, based on the review of eleven visual literacy definitions published between 1969 and 2013.

Figure_VL skills




Persistence and patience in academia


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Academia is a kind of place (institution/job) that teaches me persistence and patience. You have to wait. You constantly wait for something. You might be crazy busy with your current work and deadlines, but you still wait for something to come. You wait for the article revisions. You wait for important emails from people that you hope to collaborate with. You wait for the decisions upon your conference abstracts submission. You wait for meetings. You wait for your collaborator to finish his/her own deadlines to be (finally) able to work with you. You wait, often with fear, for the first contact-class of the course that you have been teaching already for some years. You wait even with a greater fear for the very new course o come that you have just created working overnights. You may even wait for some holidays if you are lucky enough to have them at some point. In my context, you also wait for “pikujoulu” (Little Christmas Party) that happen to be the nicest  event with your departmental colleagues.

However, foremost, you wait for the funding decisions to come. Already for eight years my calendar is organized along the deadlines for various funding opportunities. There is a time during the academic year when you know you are not allowed to approach your colleagues, because they are working on grant applications. And then you wait for the decisions to come…

I am personally very terrible with waiting. Maybe this is a cultural thing. I have never learnt to wait patiently in a queue. I am also not going along well with a growing number of rejections. Thus, when the grants and opportunities come to me, they always come all at the same time. To challenge my attitude. And so I got a year-long grant and the two-year post-doctoral position in the Academy of Finland project “WhatsInApp” with Asa Palviainen as project’s PI. Right in time when my persistence run away… along with my patience.

Visual Pedagogies – Helsinki Photomedia Workshop


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Photography can be taught as a vocation or as an art. It may focus on digital possibilities and challenges, or provide retrospective view on analog images. It may look for balancing in acquiring technical skills and developing creativity. Nevertheless, teaching about and foremost with photographs has productive possibilities across all disciplines and subjects, although it may take various forms. In this sense we can say that the photograph is post-disciplinary and as such merits discussion across different areas of interest.

At the Helsinki Photomedia Conference, 26-28 III 2018, we organized the workshop titled Post-disciplinary pedagogical routes through the photograph. The aim of the workshop was to inspire participants to reflect on their pedagogical visual (photographic) practices, to think what they can improve, and foremost, to learn from each other. As such, participants would have gained new motivation and ideas by sharing and collecting across disciplinary divides for various kinds of photography-inspired activities in the classroom and beyond.

The workshop I co-organized with my colleagues, dr. Carolina Cambre from Concordia University, Montreal, and dr. Edna Barromi-Perlman from Haifa University, Israel. As one of the modes of participation I applied collage, asking participants to present visually their challenges related to visual pedagogy and, in particular, to teaching with and about photographs. Below are some pictures from the collage making process (photo credit: Edna).

CFP: Developing visual pedagogies in university classrooms: What, why and how? (Journal of Visual Literacy)


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With this special issue we attempt to fill the gap by encouraging prospective authors to reflect on visually oriented teaching practices in university classrooms. We want to compile this special issue along the argument that visual literacy should be the basic educational requirement for both undergraduate and graduate students. Therefore, we welcome theoretical, and foremost, practical papers on visual education in university classrooms. Being aware of the palette of various definitions applied, we understand visual literacy as a group of abilities (skills or competencies) in visual reading (interpreting or meaning making), writing (creating or using visuals), and visual thinking. As such, submissions across disciplines are welcome.

Types of submissions:

  1. full theoretical or empirical papers discussing the need for visual literacy, visual education and relevant visual pedagogies in university education, or
  2. innovative teaching ideas intended for university classroom that employ visuals of any kind or form and which have a potential to develop students’ visual literacy skills.

This call for papers is open until 30th June 2018, the special issue is expected to be published by the end of 2018. Please address questions, inquiries and letters of intent to the editors of this special issue.

Full text call and guidelines: Journal of Visual Literacy special issue CFP

Special issue editors:

Joanna Kędra, PhD, Postdoctoral Researcher in the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä, Finland, joanna.kedra[at]jyu.fi

Rasa Žakevičiūtė, Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of Jyväskylä, Finland, rasa.zakeviciute[at]jyu.fi

Model for interpretation of journalistic photographs


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This is an article that first got stuck in one journal due to the “lack of reviewers specialized in visual literacy”. I was determined, so I kept it there (too) long. After (my first ever) withdrawal, the manuscript was accepted with only some minor revisions in the “Media Education Research Journal”. And it is finally published under the following title: Acquiring visual literacy skills: Interpretation of journalistic photographs as a tool for contemporary education (abstract).

This study presents the final version of the model for interpretation of journalistic photographs that I worked on through my doctorate. Thus, after a year from my doctoral defense, this publication officially ends all my duties related to that process (I actually promised my supervisor to publish all the papers). And although I keep coming back to some ideas from THE book, it has been very refreshing  to finally being able to close this chapter of the so-called my academic career (for which, I still have hopes…).

Rethinking contextual interpretation


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I have just found out that my article Does the journalistic photograph need a context? Rethinking contextual interpretation was published in the “Studies in Visual Arts and Communication – an international journal”. This article was initially, as a manuscript, part of my doctoral dissertation. As such, this one article taught me the most about academic publishing. I have reviewed it almost endlessly over a number of years. It has evolved along my own process of learning. I struggled (both with reviewers and advisors) to keep the main argument alive about the role of context in the interpretation of journalistic photographs. This manuscript was actually the only part of my dissertation that external examiners heavily criticized (after thousands of journals’ reviewers comments it was not new to me any more). Nevertheless, upon my struggle to publish it, I met a wonderful journal editor who even wanted to create a special issue including my text. However, reviewers in her journal have also rejected the manuscript. And, now, finally, after at least ten different submissions, hundreds of revisions and years of patient – it is published. Based on my current learning, I may not necessary consider it as a very smart text – but for sure – as a very important one that taught me a lot of the process.

Visual Literacy Assessment – postdoctoral research grant


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Starting from January 2018, I will work on the postdoctoral research grant from the Alfred Kordelin Foundation from Finland. I received this grant for six month, and during this time I will be affiliated with the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Thus, I will change working environment from communication studies into education. Although I will carry out my postdoctoral project independently, I will also become a member of one of Institute’s research teams — Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, lead by Professor Päivi Tynjälä. The title of my project is: Assessment of Students’ Visual Communication Competency in Finnish Higher Education and is initially planned for three years.

Why Visuals Matter? Using Images as Data



On 30th of May, during the two-day Methods Festival (30-31.05.2017) at the University of Jyväskylä I organized the seesion Why Visuals Matter? Using Images as Data.

By organizing this session, I aimed to create a space to discuss the importance of using visuals and visual research methods in contemporary scholarship. Visual research methods are those that incorporate some kind of imagery into the research process. Images can be used as data or as a tool through which data is analyzed or collected, or finally disseminated. Using visual research methods has recently become even fashionable in some way (just to mention be-annual Conference on Visual Methods, or the so-called post-disciplinary journal Visual Methodologies, and a number of recently published handbooks). Thus, the session aimed to get closer to the question Why Visuals Matter?

The session was possible thanks to my three colleagues that presented their approaches to working with images or using visual research methods. I am really greatful for their input and interesting discussion that followed, including really a lot of questions from the audience!

Presenters within the session:

  • Asko Lehmuskallio, Senior University Researcher, Docent, University of Tampere, Chair ECREA TWG Visual Cultures. Title of his presentation: It’s not about the looks, but about the look.
  • Jenni Mäenpää, University of Tampere, postdoc researcher. Title of her presentation: Photographs as research tools in studying photo-journalistic work practices.
  • Mari Pienimäki, University of Tampere, postdoc researcher. Title of her presentation: Informant generated photographs as research data.

I am always very happy when events like this can take place, esepcially when visual studies get its place within broader streem of research. It is also very encouraging seeing such interest in the image-based research among the audience. I think that there is an urgent need to bring together scholars within Finnish academia to discuss their appraoches and experience in visual methodologies.

Visual Pedagogies Workshop at IVSA Conference


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On 19th of June 2017 I am going to run a workshop on Visual Pedagogies. The basic idea for this workshop or a roundtable is to meet fellow academics that this time will focus on their teaching practice. In particular, we are going to share our teaching experience in using images and/or visual methods in teaching.

The workshop is organized during the 35th IVSA 2017 Conference in Montreal, 19-22 June, Concordia University, “Framing/Reframing Visual Sociology, Goffman and the Everyday”. The link to my and other visually driven workshops can be find here.

At the same conference, I am also going to present a paper Assessment of visual literacy skills: Towards more visually oriented higher education?

Doctoral dissertation defence


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Dissertation: 10.12.2016 MA Joanna Kędra (Faculty of Humanities, Journalism)

Start date: Dec 10, 2016 12:00 PM

End date: Dec 10, 2016 03:00 PM

Location: Seminaarinmäki, H320, Historica

MA Joanna Kędra defends her doctoral dissertation in Journalism Interpretation of journalistic photographs as an instrument of visual literacy education. Opponent Professor Emeritus Terence Wright (Ulster University, United Kingdom) and custos Professor Epp Lauk (University of Jyväskylä). The doctoral dissertation is held in English.

Contemporary culture is increasingly visual. Images are everywhere: private and commercial photographs, news images, billboards, leaflets, diagrams, road signs, pictorial instructions, drawings. However, the everyday encounter with images is not a sufficient condition for becoming visually literate, but any kind of visual training can help to develop visual literacy skills.

Thus, in her dissertation, Joanna Kędra designed teaching guidelines that can be used for visual training in higher education. The visual training that she proposes is based on the interpretation of journalistic photographs.

Why we need visual literacy?

– My study was driven by personal observation that the more images people create and disseminate – the less they are able to see. And seeing is crucial in the times when high volumes of information are mediated to us visually, Kędra says.

The visual literacy skills of reading, understanding, and interpreting as well as thinking and learning in terms of images are essential skills for the 21st century. Yet, contemporary higher education often takes them for granted. Therefore, students are usually poorly equipped to smoothly move in a visually stimulated environment and efficiently and effortlessly communicate visually.

– The need for visual literacy education is urgent. Visual literacy is important for all students, irrespective of discipline or major, because studying images teaches the skills to think critically and creatively, Kędra underlines.

The joy of seeing

In her dissertation, Kędra proposes four different models and approaches that can be used for exercises for interpreting journalistic photographs. Models can be used both in an individual or group-work assignments and are aimed to facilitate training in visual literacy in higher education.

– In my approach to visual education, I mostly favour the joy of photography interpretation, rather than any final result of such interpretation. Thus, my models are based of viewers’ personal experience, cultural background and knowledge. They also use journalistic photographs as images of multi-level meanings, Kędra explains.

More information:

Joanna Kędra, joanna.kedra[at]jyu.fi, tel. +358 40 7753 614
Viestintäharjoittelija Katja Ketola, tiedotus[at]jyu.fi, tel. +358 40 805 3638

Joanna Kędra obtained her diploma of Master of Journalism and Social Communication in 2009, and Master of Comparative Studies of Civilizations in 2010, both from the Jagiellonian University in Poland. Kędra worked as a grant researcher in the Department of Communication, University of Jyväskylä in 2010-2016.

The study was funded by the Kone Foundation, Department of Communication at the University of Jyväskylä and VITRO Doctoral Programme.

The dissertation is published in the series Jyväskylä Studies in Humanities number 297, 56 p., Jyväskylä 2016, ISSN: 1459-4323; 297 (nid.), ISBN: 978-951-39-6796-3 (PDF). It is available at the Soppi University Shop and University of Jyväskylä Web Store, tel. +358 (0)40 805 3825, myynti[at]library.jyu.fi. E-publication: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-951-39-6796-3


Images are produced, used and distributed on an enormous scale. However, the skills of understanding, interpreting and using images as well as thinking and learning in terms of images are taken for granted, and thus, they are not sufficiently taught and developed, especially in higher education. The need for introducing visual literacy into the curriculum was identified in late 1960s, but no concrete guidelines have followed. This study proposes to apply interpretation of journalistic photographs as an instrument of visual literacy education. The main focus is on the image interpretation process and the kinds of meanings viewers apply to a photograph in the interpretation process. In each of the four articles included in this study, a model or approach to photography interpretation is proposed. The first method is the model for press photograph story analysis, immersed in visual semiotics. This model was simplified and improved and became the model for the interpretation of journalistic photographs. Both models were created as a synthesis of some of the visual research methods, including classical theories (elements of visual semiotics, visual rhetoric, Barthes’ concept of studium and punctum), approaches having their roots in the analysis of paintings (Barrett’s principles for interpreting photographs, compositional interpretation, iconological context analysis), methods dedicated to analysis of photographs in the press (quantitative content analysis). The concept of context of journalistic photographs is also critically discussed, indicating a context of production, context of medium and page context, and arguing for the decontextualized interpretation of journalistic photographs (proposing an intertextual approach) with a context limited to the caption. In addition, the study compiles the genre typology of journalistic photographs as an instrument for visual education. The study calls for changes in a largely textual higher education curriculum towards a more visually oriented one, which can serve as a start point for future research on the assessment of visual literacy skills.