Photography is one example of a visual text that can be used to teach media literacy and critical thinking. When students interpret or create photographs they better understand how visual language works and the constructed nature of all texts. Even the youngest students can easily make their own visual texts through photography.

Visually literate students understand that:

  • photographs are produced and used for different purposes. For example, the purpose of an advertising photo is very different from a photo in a nonfiction picture book or from a snapshot of your best friend

  • photographers make choices about the way the photo is constructed (camera angles, framing etc.), that impact the message conveyed to the intended audience

  • readers draw on their experience and their understanding of visual language to come up with an interpretation

  • not all people interpret photographs in the same way


Good readers ask questions. We can use different types of photographs (such as advertising, news and snapshots) to help students understand the role that questioning plays in making meaning.

A photograph is a construction not a reflection of the truth. The photographer uses the camera to construct the message they want to communicate for a variety of purposes. In order to read the photograph, students must be able to understand the purpose and recognize the techniques that have been used.

Purposes include:

  • to hold a memory

  • to influence or promote

  • to inform or advertise

  • to persuade

  • to entertain

  • to create an emotional response

  • to send a cultural or social message

  • to provoke a response or a move to take some kind of action

The purpose determines the way the photograph is constructed in order to convey a particular message. Changing the purpose changes the message.

Students need to be asking questions as they deconstruct, analyze, interpret and produce images if they are to become critically literate.

Possible questions for analyzing visual media include the following.

  • Who created the image?

  • Why was it made? What is its purpose?

  • Who might like this message? Why?

  • What do you notice about the way the message is constructed e.g. the colours, lighting, characters, etc.?

  • What is omitted from the message that might be important? (Other ideas, information, points of view, etc.)

  • How might other people view the message differently e.g. a single mother with 3 small children, a lonely widower who loves dogs?


Present two photos with different points of view and have students examine them from a critical stance.

Examining the photos helps students see that photos are never neutral. They are created in such a way as to influence the viewer by presenting a particular point of view or bias. We want to help the students see beyond the bias and understand that photographers create the perspectives that are represented. They can then decide whether or not they agree with this perspective.

Adapted from McLaughlin & DeVoogd (2004) Critical Literacy: Enhancing Students’ Comprehension of Text. Scholastic.


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