Assignment two (Illiteracy idea and how it developed)

Photographing the unseen


My ideas for this illiteracy assignment changed and developed over quite a few weeks until I actually confused myself with the actual message that I wanted to give. I seemed to have too many facets to the project, too many tangents, and the outcome was threatening to become confusing.


I spent quite a bit of time considering illiteracy as a theme for the assignment; I read somewhere that one in five adults in the UK struggles to read and write. Personally, I gain much pleasure from being literate and numerate and find it difficult to imagine what life would be like without the skills that I take very much for granted. I am interested in what life would be like if I couldn’t read, but also in the idea of the many different literacies and how none of us are fully literate in all disciplines.

Those who have skills in reading, writing and arithmetic may not understand French or German and they may not be able to read music. And what about technical drawings? Knitting patterns? Sign Language? Morse code? Braille? Mathematical formulae? Photography? All these things are ‘languages’ and all need skills to understand them. I considered portraying the alphabet system as being just one of many forms of communication as well as portraying the life difficulties of being illiterate. I think this is where it became confusing.

I experimented with an idea where I wanted to show how difficult it would be to recognise grocery items and follow a recipe if you couldn’t read any labels. I covered the labels so you couldn’t read them but I chose to cover them with other languages; so I printed out a knitting pattern and braille etc. I hoped to show how hard it must be to not be able to read (by covering the labels) but also to show the importance of other languages (by choosing carefully what to replace the labels with).  I liked the ideas but felt they confused each other so, with a bit of disappointment, ultimately I rejected the idea.

But not before trying it again in a different setting …

However, though I was pleased with my composite skills and thought that this simplified version (with only one alternative language (music), rather than the several included in the food image) worked better, my mind had already moved on to something else.


When considering images that may represent illiteracy I thought of the ways in which words have importance and become ‘essential’ to enable a person to function successfully in society. For someone with low reading skills what does the world look like? I considered, not replacing words with music etc. but with blanking out the words altogether. I tested two images, one, by turning the books on a shelf backwards, and two by actually blanking out the words on a road sign. The aim was to imagine a world without words and the blankness that must be experienced when faced with a book title you cannot read, like I would feel if faced with say, an Arabic text.


image 1 books

Image 2 road signs

This didn’t quite work either. I felt the road sign to be too clichéd and simple and the bookshelf not very engaging.


Confusion. In my sketch book I have included sheets of music, extracts of knitting patterns,  examples of shorthand, Chinese writing, etc. to show an alternative to English words and try to imagine how it is to be faced with a ‘language’ that you cannot read. I also created a document of text and blacked out the words of three syllables or more (below) because someone with a low reading ability would not easily understand the ‘longer’ words.

Below I have tried to capture the confusion someone may feel when faced with a notice board (in a school, doctors waiting room, etc) by using images of ‘other’ languages, both written and visual.


I thought about the everyday, like Kaylyn Deveney did with ‘The Day to Day Life of Alfred Hastings’ and decided to take images that actually showed the alphabet but I included narrative to add context and details, like Devaney did. Instead of having a subject like Mr Hastings to add his own comments underneath the images I researched some of the ‘excuses’ that people use to hide their illiteracy and used their types of words to add relay narrative to my images. An example is below.

I know my way’

The closed road map is a symbol to suggest something unread(able) and the caption is a typical excuse that someone may make for not using it. Together the image and the narrative allows a viewer to relate to an everyday activity and the problems illiteracy may present, as well as giving an insight in to a personal response to the difficulty.

I continued in this way and produced seven images for my assignment that work together to create a ‘day in the life’ photo story based on my impression of what it could be like to not be able to read.


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