Current Events #4
From SED 625 SC
Dr. Mike Rivas
Making Sense of Photographs
by LILIAN POZZER-ARDENGHI, WOLFF-MICHAEL ROTH
From Science Education. (2005) Vol. 89, No. 2, PP. 219–241
One of my interest areas is the teaching with visual representations, for in some
contexts, a visual representation may be worth a million words. From my 15 years‘
experience with teaching chemistry in high schools, I‘ve learned that using photos and
other types of illustrations facilitates student understanding of complicated concepts
and principles in chemistry. So I want to know how to effectively use visual
representations in my class to promote students‘ understanding. To begin with, I like to
investigate the pedagogical role of photographs in school science. It was this reason
that made me chose this article, Making Sense of Photographs, as the 4 current
The purpose of this study was to understand how high school students interpret
photographs that were accompanied by different amounts and types of context (caption,
main text). The data for this study consist of video-recorded interviews with twelve
Brazilian high school students.
There are so many illustrations in science textbooks to help readers understand
texts. However, some photos in those books don‘t seem to convey specific meaning;
other photos in those books have too much message. The authors said that photos have
a dialectical character: they simultaneously lack determinacy and exhibit an excess of
meaning. Photos cause innumerable, different interpretations because their meaning
emerges from the dialectic relation between the photographer‘s way of seeing and the
perception of the reader. It is the reader‘s work of reading, the viewer‘s perception of
the narrative and perceptual order of the photographic image and the surrounding text,
and the meaning-making resources available to the reader that allow a specific
interpretation of a photograph to arise (Bjelic, 1992).
Every image embodies a way of seeing. Even a photograph. For photographs
are not, as is often assumed, a mechanical record. Every time we look at a
photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight
from an infinity of other possible sights. This is true even in the most casual family
snapshot. The photographer‟s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject . . . .
Yet, although every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation
of an image depends also upon our own way of seeing. (Berger, 1972, p. 10)
Surplus of Meaning from Additional Textual Resources
“The picture helps to understand the text as much as the text helps to understand
the picture.” (Faith, grade 10)
To investigate the changes in how students perceived photographs when additional
text was provided, the researchers presented the photo, the caption and the text
sequentially to students and analyzed the students‘ responses to them. Two kinds of
photographs were used in this section: the orchid (single) photo and the camouflage
(series) photo. The conclusion derived from this section is that it is the interaction of all
semiotic resources presented in the textbook, together with the photographs, that make
it possible for readers to interpret and understand what they are seeing and reading. If
visual information provided is insufficient to help students interpret photographs, the
texts associated with these photographs not only are important for directing the readers
toward a specific interpretation, but also are essential to the readers to construct an
understanding of photographs.
Whether the photo is single or series, for instance, the sequential addition of
captions and main texts respectively helped students to find out the objects and topics
of the photographs. The adding of different kinds of texts to the photos complemented
one another in a textbook by providing additional information. Only after reading the
caption, the students began to notice the important aspects to be observed. Sometimes,
however, the captions are not enough to guide the readers to identify the focused
objects and the relation between background and foreground.
The researchers also compared the result from the camouflage photo with that from
the orchid photo to seek the differences between single and multiple photographs. The
students made external comparison when the series of photographs were provided, and
they easily distinguished differences and similarities between photographs. Thus, when
interpreting the photographs of camouflage, students could easily identify the
differences on the plumage of the bird and on the environment. However, they had
difficulty in realizing the topic of the series, the camouflage, without its caption because
they only noticed the difference between photos to make sense of photographs. Internal
comparisons of each individual photograph became secondary to the work of
interpretation. In these situations, other resources (caption, texts) were employed,
when present, for highlighting important aspects to be observed, and guide the readers
through their work of interpretation. Therefore, a series or a pair of photographs by
itself is not enough to ensure the correct interpretation of the photographs.
The Work of Reading the Text and Photograph Simultaneously
“If you are interested in the picture, you will want to read what is beside it, or
below it, or above it.” (Cameron, grade 8)
To investigate the actual work of reading that the students engaged in when texts
and photographs were provided simultaneously, the researchers used the photographs
of caterpillar and lichens, which were reproduced as they might appear in the textbooks.
The students were then asked to talk through their reading of the page.
The first interesting finding from this section was that almost every student
interviewed noticed and commented on the photographs before referring to the texts,
even if they did not pursue the investigation of these photographs afterwards. This
result shows the role of photographs in a textbook—capturing readers‘ attention.
However, this is not enough for the pedagogical role of photographs. To play
pedagogical role, photographs need the contextualization of the object depicted in the
photograph. That is to say, in a contextualized photo, when students see it, they can
find the relation between its background and foreground, which makes the
interpretation of the photo easy. In the lichen photograph, for example, the students
could not comment about the photograph before reading the text, as they could not
easily identify the object in this photograph. The photograph focused only on the
lichens, so although these were fairly represented in the picture, they became out of
context, which generated difficulties for the students in understanding this photograph.
In addition, much previous knowledge and common senses, as well as conventions
of perspective, are involved in the work of interpreting photographs. For example, even
though the caterpillar photo was static, students made comment that this animal was
eating leaves or plants because they saw the unusual shape of the leaf. They
interpreted from their common sense that this shape was caused by the caterpillar
biting. These details cannot be seen in the photograph, but they are crucial aspects of
the work of interpretation. In contrast, some photos that feature unusual things are
difficult for students to interpret without help of reading the text.
Besides, this study showed that students pay attention to the indexical references
to the figures when reading a textbook. The indexical reference to the lichens
photograph provided a good example. When reading the text, the students immediately
connected ―lichens‖ with the photograph, because the index for this photograph is
placed just after the word ―lichens‖ on the text. In the case of the orchid photograph,
however, the indexical reference placed after an entire phrase that identifies a
phenomenon, not an object, confuses the students. The indexical reference is what
allows the reader to connect photograph and text; therefore, it can be an essential
resource to help readers to interpret photographs and texts in the context of learning a
“I thought, „it‟s a research, so there will be some trick in here.” (Adam, grade 11)
This paper gave me interesting information not only from the research result but
also from the research method. The study employed the interview as a method. This
method can help carry out deep research, but can cause undesired problems. An
important meaning-making resource to interview participants is the interview context
itself as well as every word, sentence, and even pause produced by the interviewer
(Schoultz, S¨alj¨o, & Wyndhamn, 2001; Ueno&Arimoto, 1993). The students interviewed
were high school students. I think they were wise enough to realize the testing situation.
In this situation, their responses to the interviewer were not normal or usual.
Even though they had developed an interview guide and were careful to avoid
questions that could direct the interviewees toward particular features in the
photograph, the nature of the interview and any word that the interviewer says have to
be considered as a potential meaning-making resource to the participants (Suchman &
Jordan, 1990). The students used some such aspect in their reasoning, and it directly or
indirectly shaped their answers.
For example, according to this paper, the students‘ immediate reactions to the
photographs were in accordance with what they had been asked. The students were
concerned about providing an appropriate answer to the request ―tell me what you are
seeing in this photograph‖ by means of finding focal points in the photographs. Their
responses were constrained by the interviewer‘s way of phrasing the activity, insofar
as asking, ―what are you seeing in this photograph?‖ implies a different context than if
the question had been, for example, ―what is this?‖
Furthermore, interviewees can be influenced by the situation to choose unusual
responses. A student in this research had responded with right answers, but after
presenting other information from the interviewer, he changed his mind to give a
different answer because his conception of the nature of research influenced his
responses to the extent that he disregarded his own previous knowledge.
The valuable thing from this research that I found is that the researchers took into
these constraints and used the follow-up interview after finishing the questioning about
the photos to address them. If I want to use this method to do my research, I need to
study more about this method. More careful design should be required to acquire
SELECTING THE PHOTOGRAPHS
The most interesting thing to me of this research was the criteria of selecting the
photographs. I think it is not easy to decide what kind of photos should be selected.
This study is part of the principal author‘s master‘s thesis, concerned with
understanding the pedagogical function of photographs in school science textbooks.
Two previous studies provided analyses of the meaning-making resources that texts
and lectures provide in support of the pedagogical function of photographs in school
science (Pozzer & Roth, 2003a, 2003b). They developed the four categories of the
photographs from those researches.
Four photographs were used during the interview. The following distinctions were
addressed in the selection of the photographs: (a) there were both single and multiple
photographs; (b) some photographs were referred to in the text, and others were not
(i.e., incidence and placement of a feature such as ―Fig. 30.3‖); and (c) all four major
categories of photographs identified in our previous study had to be represented.
To understand the analysis of this paper, I had to examine the four photos to find
out the features of them. Here are my reflections on the findings, too.
The first photograph, which is referred to as the orchid photograph, represents a
single photograph, is associated with an indexical reference appropriately placed in the
main text, and represents illustrative photographs (Figure 1), characterized by having a
caption that names the object or phenomenon represented in the photograph. No
additional information is available.
The ‗single‘ photo means that this photo was presented solely. So the
students could focus on the internal comparison. However, this photo
framed the reality; it has too much detail. This abundance of details
interfered students with the interpretation of the photo.
Figure 1. Photograph of the orchid.
The ‗illustrative‘ photo means this photo has the caption that explains the
topic of the photograph. After reading the caption, which stated only “Fig. 83.1
Epiphyte plant,” the students focused their attention to a specific detail in the
photograph and began to find the epiphyte plant in the photograph.
Lacking further resources in the caption that could help them to identify the
epiphyte plant on this photograph, the students relied on other semiotic
resources such as differences in focus and alignment of the objects depicted.
Besides two students who already knew orchids from nature, the other
students (n = 7) proposed the orchid as the epiphyte plant in the photograph
because it was the most focused or centralized object in the photograph.
The text referred to the indexical number of the photo, but the place was
not appropriate to assist the students in finding out the main object‘s name.
Only the inscription in the bottom of the photo finally helped them out to see
the epiphyte plant as an orchid.
These results from the orchid photograph suggest a few pedagogically important
1. When we introduce a photo into a textbook, we should try to make it simple
and explicit to help students to make sense of the topic of the photo and
even the main object of the photo by removing too much detailed
2. Captions should be accompanied with photos to allow students to separate
and evaluate the gratuitous detail. And consequently the relevant details
actually become salient foreground, the real topic of the photograph.
3. Caption should be informative enough to provide correct semiotic resources
that might alter how students perceive and therefore interpret the
4. The place in which indexical references are used should be considered
carefully not to cause confusion.
5. The use of an additional semiotic resource layered on the photograph should
be considered to help readers to make sense of the photograph in relation to
The second photograph, which was referred to as the photograph of the caterpillar,
was a single photograph and exemplified decorative photographs (Figure 2); that is, it
lacked caption and indexical reference in the text. For the research, the students were
asked to decide whether the text pertain to the photograph or not.
Figure 2. Photograph of the caterpillar.
The ‗decorative‘ photo means it has nothing to do with the text explicitly.
However, this photo still plays an important role in drawing the readers‘
attention to this page.
Despite the lack of caption and index, all the students assumed the
photograph was helpful in some way to understand the text, and they
struggled to justify this assumption by directly connecting text and
photograph, even if this connection was not explicitly available.
This photo provided a good example of the role of prior knowledge and
experience. The students are familiar with caterpillars. Thus, they gave a
variety of interpretation about this photo, and even they attempted to
imagine the situation to interpret the photo.
The pedagogical suggestions that I made are following:
1. Since students usually assume that photographs in a textbook should be helpful
in some way to understand the text, we should make sure that photos in
textbooks should be related to the text in a more explicit way.
2. The resources that definitely and directly link photographs and texts such as
captions and indexical numbers should be used to reduce a level of
indeterminacy that gives students a lot of confusion.
3. Photographs that are familiar to readers should be used to draw the attention of
students to read the text.
The third item consisted of a series of three photographs; the main text did not
refer to them. It represented complementary photographs (Figure 3), which are
photographs with caption that names the represented object or phenomenon and
provides new information not available in the associated main text. These photographs
deal with the concept of camouflage.
This series photo shows an interesting result that without a caption almost
all students (n = 10) attempted to describe each photograph separately,
emphasizing differences between the birds, the environments, and/or the
seasons represented in the three photographs. That is, rather than seeing in
the series of photographs a concrete example of camouflage, students
identified a variety of other features.
To actually see the caption ―camouflage‖, the students began to perceive
what is invariant across the three images. They thought the three birds
were different birds before seeing the caption. However, when the caption
told them this series photos are about a protecting strategy of the same bird,
they start to make sense of the photos.
However, even after reading the caption some students still had difficulty
understanding the sequence of the same bird changing the plumage color in
accordance with the change of environment. The photo in the middle has
different plumage color from the background, which even interfere the
students with the conception of camouflage.
This complementary photo means that it is not directly and indirectly
referred to in the text. So to understand these photographs, students only
rely on the caption itself. But this caption includes not only the title of the
photos but also the short explanation. It helped students make sense of the
Figure 3. Photographs of camouflage.
The implications from this photo‘s research result are:
1. Students should be instructed to see sameness in the face of difference.
Actually, teachers should teach how to use the textbooks, including how to
see photos and how to use glossary of the textbooks.
2. Teachers should make time to explain photographs during instruction to help
students understand correctly if they are complementary to the text.
The fourth and final photograph (Figure 4) was a single photograph to which the
main text referred in an appropriate manner. It represented explanatory photographs,
characterized by having captions that name the represented object or phenomenon and
provide relevant explanations or classifications. The topic of the text was mutualism,
and the photograph presents lichens as an example of mutualistic associations.
Figure 4. Photograph of lichen.
In contrast to the caterpillar photo, the lichen photo has the caption about
the name of object. However, students were not easy to find out the topic
and the object because the lichen was unfamiliar to them. To understand
what it was about, they had to read the text with indexical reference.
Fortunately, this photo was directly referred to in the text with indexical
reference, which helped the students find out its meaning.
The photo was decontextualized, which means it has too simple background
to give some information about the photo. As a result, the students were not
able to understand the meaning of the photo without help of the text. This
shows the importance of the context of the photographs for students‘ work
When the students failed to identify anything in the photograph, they
therefore turned their attention to the text, searching for information that
could help them figure out what the photograph was all about.
This photo‘s results informed me two things:
1. The photos in a textbook should be contextualized by providing enough
background in order to allow the reader to distinguish the relevant details in the
2. To help the work of interpretation, additional information should be given to the
photos when the visual information provided was insufficient.
3. Teachers should teach students the importance of using indexical reference
numbers when they are reading textbooks with photos and tables.
Everyday we teach students with textbooks, so the photographs in the textbooks
play an important role in our teaching science. However, to maximize the pedagogical
potential of photographs, we teachers should understand the process of the students‘
work of reading photos because it‘s only through the reader‘s work of reading that the
photographs can achieve its powerful role as representations of the real world.
When I prepared my teaching material, I heavily relied on the illustrations, including
a lot of photos. It‘s not only because the pictures draw students‘ attention to my
instruction, but also because the illustrations help students understand my instruction.
However, I always add other symbols and texts to the photographs to improve their
educational functions. When I was inexperienced teacher, I thought that showing a lot of
illustration is enough to give additional information to my students. But I realized that in
fact many students don‘t understand the illustrations in chemistry textbooks. So I
changed the graphics with additional captions and inscriptions to use them during
classes like the below photo. (Figure 5.)
Figure 5. A sample of my processed photo
Moreover, some students don‘t have some kind of literacy concerning reading
textbooks with pictures. Therefore, I have been teaching this literacy to my students.
Yet I need to know more about students‘ work of interpretation. This research gives me
a part of answers. Students tend to be attracted by photos at first, but they don‘t spend
much time to interpret them and just read the text to get more information about the
photos; Many times intrinsic characteristics of photographs, such as the background and
framing of the photographs, are useful as meaning-making resources for students;
photographs, captions, texts, indices, and a variety of other resources can and should
be used to make sense of photographs when reading a textbook; The work of
interpretation of photograph and text is essentially dialectic. That is, the text helps to
understand the photograph as much as the photograph helps to understand the text, and
both text and photograph need each other in order to be properly interpreted.
I have written a chemistry textbook and many drill books of chemistry. During
those works I struggled with making and choosing photos to make my books more
attractive and meaningful. If I have another opportunity to author books, I will pay more
attention to using graphics in order to achieve more didactic goals of books. I would
give readers a lot of meaning-making resources such as complementary captions to
promote their understanding and consequently their learning of chemistry.