Ruth Gschwendner-Wölfle
Visual Literacy Means all of us: Seeing is Believing

Nothing is more certain than what I have seen with my own eyes — or so many believe. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau maintained that anything you notice might be a trick of the senses. On the other hand, masters of far-Eastern schools of thought say, Only a calm and pure mind is clear and perceptive. Normally, though, the mind is impure and stirred up by strong desires, intense dislikes or projections and therefore it is unclear what we see.

Delight in being able to see — basic skill or luxury?

If you want to learn qualified seeing as a cultural technique, you need a pinch of childlike curiosity, a decent portion of problem awareness and as much patience and attentiveness for reading images as is comparable to learning a verbal language.

The learning process includes chapters on: appropriating knowledge via types of images and visual codes (to be found in Anna Rüegg’s module), the capacity for and stillness of observation itself (with Georg Vith). Visual guidance systems are easier to comprehend in your own cultural sphere than in a foreign one (Klaus Lürzer has more on that). Margareta Gynning deals with the topic of how much images contribute to one’s feeling of identity and brings in examples from painting. Eva Saro shows how we receive images, for instance from advertising, and make them our own consciously or unconsciously. Her module makes clichés and stereotypes of male and female images transparent. All of this is part of the multi-coloured, multi-layered learning field of visual languages. Werner Matt throws light on reading photographs, historical as well as contemporary. Film as an instrument of observation is used by Frode Stor°as in his module. Both media often aim for a semblance of relative objectivity, but really they are among the more complex visual language systems and allow anything, from the most subtle manipulation all the way to indoctrinating the masses. Just how much explosive potential the — often unwitting, often undiscriminating — manipu-lative use of images has in our multi-cultural society becomes clear in the media. When traditions are violated and limits of tolerance breached, religious taboos broken, values “socialised” and feelings hurt, political complications often ensue (Edith Maier’s module has more on that and on handling images from Islam; Ruth Gschwendtner-Wölfle’s module more on handling images from Buddhism). Our Eurocentric image of the world sometimes blinds us to the “the stranger’s gaze”. Developing such an extended gaze is a sensuous, exciting and wide subject.
A training manual
What is needed is: profound knowledge on images, the capacity to quickly grasp many images and the capacity to deliberately slow down visual perception, i.e. to become engrossed in pictures. The training manual for “The Learning Eye” has been developed from the groundwork book of the same name with the aim of creating user-friendly, compact modules for everyday teaching situations from the large body of image, text and film material. It is meant for people who, in the broadest poss-ible sense, deal with pictures professionally (i.e. art teachers, graphic designers, architects, …), those who present pictures (in museums, in teaching environments, …) and those who use pictures as a didactic medium (with migrants, in foreign language teaching, in cultural work, with senior citizens’ groups, …), plus, of course, anyone who wants to educate themselves. Even though the two publications do relate to each other, the groundwork book “The Learning Eye” and “The Learning Eye Manual” can be used independently. Both media are complemented by web-based training material. The books are available in English and German. The texts are also available in French, Polish, Portuguese, Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian on

The three media of “The Learning Eye” offer different approaches, exercises and methods for the large theme of seeing. In the book we deliberately opted for a broad range of opinions, so that it speaks to “image semantologists” as well as “spontaneous image readers”, free “association acrobats” or “decoding specialists”.

In the end, what counts is not membership of a particular group but achieving a highly developed sense of the issues surrounding images.

A blind spot in the education system

Visual literacy is indispensable, if people are to hold their own as responsible image readers in our global world. And yet there is practically no systematic training available. Attempts at enabling people to read images are often hampered by a misunderstood notion of art (often in relation to works of art, i.e. only experts are able “to say something clever about works of art”), combined with a theory of geniality and talent that resists any relativisation (e. g. the belief in art teaching that only the talented can draw or paint). What we can say is this: if you have learnt to write for everyday use, you can learn to draw for everyday use, whatever your level of talent. Major teaching aims are visual competence — in the sense of being able to read images, and expressive competence — in the sense of being able to “record” what you have seen. The study includes trivial image fields as well as artistic language forms, internal as well as external images, religious as well as profane, familiar as well as foreign image worlds.

Whether school system or life-long learning: competent image reading skills should be part of the general knowledge and the basic skills of all world citizens in the 21st century. Yet until this visual literacy becomes part of the general European education canon — so far it has not been included in the evaluation subjects of PISA studies — and is given room and appreciation as a subject, one must assume that it will remain tucked away in the drawer for lack of awareness of the issues and of general blindness.

According to Buddhist Master Gesche Rabten, Seeing is a spiritual ability that can be trained. So let’s get started!