Humans Evolve a New Form of Visual Literacy… Through Image

Intro to the article

This originally appeared in Facebook Stories. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to put them below. I always enjoy reading your thoughts on these matters.

Humans Evolve a New Form of Visual Literacy… Through Images

Hello. I’m Trey Ratcliff. I’m a travel photographer, and I love using technology to create beautiful things.

I believe we’re starting to use images to communicate in a new way with one another. Imagery is a universal language that has no borders and describes truths and stories that all humans can recognize.

Let’s start with a thought experiment. Imagine a parallel universe where civilization has developed along slightly different lines.

Think of the moment when mankind first began to record their experiences, using crude imagery to communicate concepts and ideas. Behold, a new invention appears! It is a very early image-making device—a proto-camera of sorts. The invention spreads quickly through the major population centers via traveling tradesmen, and cultures around the world gradually begin to capture images of the world around them.

The Morning Fisherman Now, getting to this place was not easy!I arrived about 1 AM at a tiny family-run inn by the river.  I was meeting a local guide at 5 AM, so I didn't get a lot of what I would call "quality sleep".  Anyway, I got up very early and went downstairs in pitch black.  There seemed to be a big white cloth box I had to go around to find the front door.  My guide was outside.  The door was locked and we could not figure out how to get it open.  Everyone at the little inn was sound asleep and I was totally confused.  Then, from inside the big white box, a body flew out of it!  There was a 60-year-old Chinese guy inside that was sleeping until I woke him up with all my lock-manipulations.  His naked limbs in the white sheets scared the bejeezus out of me and woke me right up!And then we were on the river about 5:15.  It was still completely dark outside.  And I mean COMPLETELY DARK.  It was a thin bamboo raft with an outboard motor.I turned around to ask my guide, "How the heck does the boat driver know where he is going?!?"He calmly said, "Oh, no worry.  The river is very wide."I not-calmly said, "Well, that's great and everything, but I can't even see the edge to the river!"He calmly said, "But it is so wide."This line of questioning was not getting me anywhere, so I just decided to sit back and enjoy my possible last moments on Earth.  Then the sun started to rise, and we moved the boat over to the best bank for the angle.Want to hear something amazing about these fishermen?  You won't believe it... but maybe others can confirm this! The fishermen use these two trained cormorant birds that have their throats tied.  The birds dive into the water, eat a fish, but then can't swallow it because of the rope.  The fisherman rudely pulls the fish from the bird's throat and drops it into that basket behind him.  The bird then goes over to a tiny keyboard and sends out the tweet, "WTF".- Trey RatcliffClick here to read the rest of this post at the Stuck in Customs blog.

Inventors continue to improve this device so that most people are able to tell their own stories with pictures and groupings of images. These devices become as plentiful as quill and ink in our own version of this timeline.

No “written word” evolves. There are no letters, no symbology, no Phoenician, no Sumerian or Aramaic or Sanskrit, no Eastern ideograms, and no Roman alphabet we know today. In this parallel universe, no advanced civilization goes through the trouble of using a pen and paper to describe an idea or concept or a story, because it is easier and more efficient for everyone to quickly create images.

There is no Rosetta stone, because there is no difference in how people record information. Images are universal. A picture of a royal birth in Gaul is understood by the people in Mesopotamia. A picture of a cavalry charge of Genghis Kahn across the highlands of Mongolia is easily understood in northern Africa.

And there is a parallel-Shakespeare. He doesn’t weave words into gentle forms and delicate sonnets. Instead, he takes image-making in a new direction. He tells stories by putting together a series of images where actors show pain and loss and love and betrayal and death and drama. These are mass-produced and shown to audiences around the world—a new and beautiful way of telling stories. Monks do not sit with ink and pen in candlelit monasteries to re-copy a written symbology to communicate concepts of an ethereal world. Instead, they use other devices to copy and paste a series of images that describe divinity and communicate spiritual notions.

The Secret Workshop of Jules Verne This is perhaps my favorite find on my most recent trip to Europe.  How can a place so wonderful exist in our world?  It's amazing.I got a recommendation from a close friend that told me I would love this place.  And he was right!  As usual, to see the full-size image, click Original in the menu that appears when you hover over the image in SmugMug.This is the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle and is one of the least-known places in Paris.  Everyone goes for the hot tourist spots, and this museum sounds rather boring, yes?  But as you can see... au contraire!- Trey RatcliffClick here to read the rest of this post at the Stuck in Customs blog.

In this world, children do not spend ten years of their lives learning how to convert a concept or idea into a series of alphanumeric symbols. They don’t slave away with paper and pen to create a series of cogent sentences so that others may “read” their thoughts and reverse-engineer them into imagery in their mind. This inefficient “translation” layer is a waste of time for children to learn in their important formational years. Instead, they are taught to use their own picture-making devices to record information and ideas. In this world, there is no “illiteracy” because anyone can understand a simple picture, though advanced concepts may require viewing a series of them.

Pictures are everywhere, and children and grownups alike crave new pictures, new stories. Suddenly, this doesn’t sound like a different dimension any more, does it?

As we’re sliding through the second decade of the new millennium, something new is happening. We all have cameras in our mobile phones and taking a photo of something is far more efficient than typing a sentence about it. Sharing that image online is not only easier – it’s automatic. Your friends and family immediately see the concept or story that you have created.

When there’s a birth in the family, what is better and faster: writing a few paragraphs about the experience, or taking a series of photos from your family to see? Yes, there will be many journalist graduates who shake their quills violently in the air at this idea, but I think the evidence online speaks for itself.

-The Gentle Path to the Beyond-The little train that carried me into Hakone started winding through misty mountains.  The trees were thick and a fog was rolling in.  I had a feeling that it would stay wet, moody, and fairly perfect.  It had that heaviness that made you feel like it would remain like that for a few days, and it did.Before I get on train rides, I have a wonderful but dangerous habit of loading up with pastries.  Train stations seem to have nice little selections of all sorts of foreign twists on the usual subjects.  And, since I consider myself an explorer, I thought it would be good to get a TON of pastries and try them all.  It's very nice... sitting there... looking out the train window at a new land... rain falling... eating pastries...  (and I'm only a little ashamed to say that, upon arrival, my pastry bag was empty.)

Think about the “streams” that fill our days in web browsers and smartphones. We scroll and scroll and scroll, often skipping past text updates and pausing whenever we get to a photo. Imagery is more immediate, more evocative, and more interesting than text. There is no “translation” necessary. We don’t have to use these complex text-to-imagery-brain-translation that we’ve been perfecting all our lives. Let’s just skip that bit and look at the images and video, right?

I think people who take pleasure in and prefer the written word to imagery will be an ever-diminishing percentage, though they’ll never disappear. I was raised in an alphanumeric world; I love sitting outside on a cool night under a warm blanket and reading a good book; but I also love taking photos of concepts and ideas that can’t be captured in words and sharing them online.

This new visual literacy that we’re adopting is fundamentally changing communication. For hundreds of years, the only people who could mass-communicate ideas were the few people who had the power to purchase a printer’s services for their content—the church, the government, and the wealthy elite, mostly. Now, things are more democratic. Everyone has a printing press in their pocket that can mass-produce images, describe concepts and tell stories. Over time, we will all become better at telling stories through images — about our daughter’s ballet recital, a graduation, a new love, a new passion — the things that matter to us.

As our streams become more about imagery than words, all of us will evolve a new sense of visual literacy. It is important to note that imagery is not better or worse than text — it is simply different. Those who have spent decades bathing themselves in words are quite adept at abstracting ideas and concepts into words and sentences. The world of academia is one that is based on this abstraction of concepts into words. A book on philosophy, for example, is almost inconceivable without having one super-abstracted word like “epistemology” to represent a bundled set of concepts. And those of us who were raised in an alphanumeric age begin to grow older, we take great pleasure in learning new words out there like “schadenfreude”, a wonderful word that means, “to take pleasure in the misfortune of another.”

The Bay at PortofinoThis isn’t really Portofino, but it sure does look like it, eh? We might even make the case that it is more pretty than the real Portofino! This is a beautiful resort in Orlando, over at Universal Studios.from Trey Ratcliff at

In our make-believe world of imagery, could these ideas of philosophy and other academia that are bathed in words even be possible? It’s hard to say, because we’ve never given them a chance to flourish. When we teach millions of people to write, they will work together to create a higher concept of thought and academia. Now that billions of people have a camera, we will see what follows. I believe that people will work together to create a new visual literacy that will build upon itself over time. We all know that there are wonderful things in life where words just fall apart. These gentle feelings have been the domain of poets, who use vague “imagery” to illustrate the situation.

Imagery is inherently a more “human” way to communicate. All seven billion people on Earth understand the same visual concepts of what it means to be a human. Not only are there universal facial expressions of emotions, but all cultures are connected through human connection. We all share the idea of joyful children playing without thought. We all feel the serenity of a forest while the autumn leaves color the ground on a warm afternoon. We all share the feeling of time slipping through between our fingers like water cupped from a river.

I believe this is the most exciting time to be alive, and it’s the most exciting time to take photos. Some old-school photographers may be upset that everyone can take photos now, but to keep that power and knowledge in the hands of the few is an old way of thinking akin to the old printing press. Since the advent of the Internet, now everyone has a printing press. Now, literally billions of people have cameras too. Soon, there will be no more value in having a camera — the value is in the human that is holding it.

Billions of people now have a totally new way to communicate, and we will all discover this new visual literacy together. Now, finally, our ideas and thoughts and feelings and stories can effortlessly travel across borders, cultures, and time.

HDR Photo

  • Paul Newell

    very interesting and thought provoking

  • Trey Ratcliff

    Thanks! 🙂

  • Nice write up. “Let’s just skip that bit and look at the images and video, right?” I do this all the time, even with this blog post I skipped though it to look at all the pictures first, then start to skim though the text to see if its a good read. To me I guess it almost acts like a rating system before I get to the text, if I like the pictures I am more likely to read to article. I wonder what kind of effect this has on other forms of communication like reading and writing, kids grow up on texting and email, it must be detrimental to in person communication. For me its easy to take the picture, but hard to give it a title/description worth the picture. BTW, any plans on bringing Stuck on Earth to the PC :)? Looking forward to the G+ hangout!

  • Gavin Jackson

    Nice post, enjoyed reading it. I was at a Renaissance exhibition held in Canberra earlier in the year, it occurred to me at the time that the paintings were the photos of the day – the composition and lighting were very similar to what we strive for as photographers today. It was also very obvious that the people who commissioned these paintings were the rich aristocracy and the church (and in some cases the line was blurred – where the rich patrons replaced the faces of saints with images of themselves) – I like the idea that cheap cameras and social media/cloud computing is democratizing this art form, and the concept of imagery as a universal (and more efficient) communication mechanism – very thought provoking.

  • Well done! Very stimulating and intriguing article. Cutting edge.

    As a high school teacher I’m witnessing many of these changes and it is very cool.

    Clash of centuries, however, when you give a paper and pencil standardized test to students of the visual and video age.

    I think you’re right about the power of images and the possibilities in the future of how we communicate with images.

    However, radio, television, and paper books are still around and I think that there will always be a place for words, sentences, paragraphs. How else could we get this kind of detailed, nuanced communication? Could I have communicated this comment with images? Hmmm…

  • Great thoughtful article and great images.

  • susan ratcliff

    wonderful Trey!

  • Adam Allegro

    Very insightful essay Trey. I agree with you on so many of your points, but think that the written word will continue to play a significant role in our future. I do think less of an emphasis is placed on words and more is placed on visual stimuli, but these means will never be able to replace written words. Just my 2 cents 🙂 I pose a question to you… How does one convey specific, complex ideas with a series of photographs? You can present a photo to 1000 different people and what happens? 1000 different feelings and ideas arise. This is not to diminish the role photographs have, are, and will be playing in our daily lives…

    As a Photographer (one who has followed you for quite some time, and I thank you for helping to inspire me to pursue my passion full time), I get no greater pleasure than producing compelling, thought provoking images and sharing them with the world. Thanks for all that you have done for the community and for all the fantastic daily inspiration!


  • Nice pictures, but what were all those words about? I skipped past them.

  • Love this post!

  • Snake_Oil_Baron

    A interesting concept and the post makes some good points but with more abstract concepts like “deceit” it would not be feasible to express without developing cultural specific images which would need to be translated or taught to others. If you wished to convey the trout that a person was deceitful you could show their image and him hiding something behind his back. All your friends might know what you were saying because of shared experiences but people in Burma might think you were saying that he is full af surprises. It seems likely that all writing systems started off as hieroglyph like images but the need to refine concepts and combine abstract thoughts to make new thoughts made later writing systems more valuable even though they are not universally understood.

    New technologies will make images and video more useable and in a multilingual world it will be helpful to be able to convey more of your message through images. But machine and crowd-sourced language translation will help meet that need also. Text and spoken language are invaluable and virtually cybernetic alterations we make to our brains after birth to facilitate something close to telepathy. Image recognition and symbology are also but they seem to contain far more of their information in the construction and transmission of the message rather than in the content therein. A picture may be worth a thousand words but they don’t convey all the same words between 2 people.

  • Ily

    Very interesting,

    You may find this article interesting too –

    It is about a study on the brain of illiterate and literate people and shows that when we learn a language this competes with areas in our visual cortex – where we extract meaning from images.

    The Japanese language is made up of modules of meaning that can be rearranged to create multiple meanings around one topic, much like the way we interpret meaning from images. This would suggest that the way they use language does not compete with the visual cortex but in fact enhances it – Japan is an incredibly visually literate culture.

    so… may not be that words are inferior to images it may just be that certain languages do not function as well as others?

    This is something I am currently researching…

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