Visual essay exploring cultural literacy
Boy, what a jumble. This is my attempt at creating a visual essay that explores my personal experiences in developing literacies outside of alphabetic literacies (i.e., reading and writing). The idea behind this exercise is that traditional written language skills do not wholly prepare students for a world whose arguments are made predominantly through a visual means. To fully unpack the vast array of visual images that students are presented with in our culture, students need to learn visual literacy skills as well (see Selfe, Toward new media texts: Taking up the challenges of visual literacy).
I chose a handful of photos to explore my own cultural literacy through my travels, experiences, and the people who have made my life rich. The upper left-hand image is a postcard reading, “Greetings from Kentucky" – my home state, and the beginnings of my exploration of various cultures. The image just below it portrays (left to right) myself, my good friend Kenji, and a new friend we’ve met at a café in Bangui, Central African Republic. East and West meet the birthplace of humankind. As friends, Kenji and I shared insights into our own cultures that illuminated all experiences that followed.
To the right, just past John Coltrane, we see one of my English conversation classes in Kaga High School, Japan. Learning to reach students as a teacher with limited Japanese language skills, and as a gaijin (foreigner/"outsider"), proved to be a challenge to say the least. As Japanese popular technologies (e.g., cell phones) are about 4-5 years more advanced than our own, in a sense this was a glimpse into the future of students in American schools. Six years later, keitais (or, cell phones) are commonplace among American high school students – a great nuisance to many teachers. To the far left below the photo from Africa, there is a photo taken along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. Especially in India, the cultural richness of these peoples is something to marvel. For centuries, people have made pilgrimages to this sacred river to die and be cremated on the pyre not too far upstream. Further, this experience helped me appreciate the poverty that so many people must endure to survive in this world.
Moving to the right is an image of me thoroughly confused by the work of life on an organic farm on the island of Bocas del Toro, Panama. My lady friend, Annie, and I spent four months traveling in Central America, but our original intention was to spend the entire time on the farm Finca Luna, whose farm infrastructure was sorely lacking. There are only so many varieties of meals afforded by lentils, rice, chemical pancake mix, and bananas, so the three weeks we spent at this farm were intense to say the least. The next two photos portray scenes from this trip as well. To the right, we see Annie posing with grape soda in front of an anti-American mural in Nicaragua. These murals were commonplace throughout the country, as the Sandinistas had created them to depict how the United States funded Contras to squash the burgeoning Socialist government, leading to a long and brutal civil war. This illustrates our reinforced awareness that our government is much maligned by many other peoples – not always a pleasant sentiment to recognize. And just below this, just for fun, I’ve included a photo of Annie posing among figures in a garden in Boquete, Panama – one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever visited. Here, Annie is at play with her surroundings (namely, functional/popular works of art) – representing a spirit of playfulness and humor that I hope to always recognize as wholly life-giving and affirming. This also affirms the idea that literacies revolving around art, film, or music do not have to be entirely serious – indeed, we can be playful in our interpretations of any works of art, including literature, as well as our own experiences.
Lastly, at the top right is an image that I’ve just always loved. I took this photo in the rural Nebraska countryside that is home to Carhenge. This place is absolutely surreal, and stands as a testament to American humor, art, and style. The beauty of the Midwestern plains and the blue sky contrast with the skeleton automobile’s tire. This serves as a strictly visual representation of something about the United States that I can’t quite put into words but makes so much sense to me in its visual presentation.
Anyway, there are a handful of texts and images that I’ve included to build on the idea of collage, and to represent other fields of my personal interests – namely, literature and music. Novels represented include Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker, and Plath’s The Bell Jar. Musicians that explore various literacies include John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Dr. John, and The Smiths. I’ve included these images to serve as a backdrop, but they tend to clutter the whole piece more than inform. At the same time, I wanted to present this as a collage rather than 6-8 separate images. Organization certainly needs work, but this is my first attempt at creating a visual essay. I see the value of unpacking the visual arguments of a text, but I am certainly no master of creating visual forms that lend themselves to others’ interpretations.