How to photograph the linguistic landscape

Note: The following post was originally sent to my subscribers on Sunday 30th July 2017.

Every summer, I escape the Barcelona heat and head to the UK to run my Video and Image in Language Teaching (VILT) course at NILE (Norwich Institute for Language Education).

For me, and for many of the other NILE trainers, summer involves living in accommodation at the University of East Anglia. We do have fun sometimes.

Many of the teachers who come to Norwich like to take advantage of the local linguistic landscape – the English used in public spaces. There is so much good stuff to photograph. As well as giant letters on the university campus, there are street signs, posters, advertisements, shop windows, T-shirts, graffiti, menus, lamppost stickers, tattoos, gravestones, and much more.

If this is something that interests you, I would like to share a tip with you – something that I show my trainees.

A few years ago, a wall mural appeared in London. It was created by the artist Banksy. As the best-known street artist in the world, Banksy’s work always makes the headlines. This meant that images of the mural appeared in newspapers, news sites, blogs and other media.

Many of the images looked like this:

Now, although this photograph captures the slogan, it is completely ambiguous. We read the words but we have little or no idea about their environment or context. Unless you look carefully enough, you probably wouldn’t even realize that the slogan was written on a wall. This is a wasted opportunity.

There are always different possibilities for creating a visual narrative. And you can see that in some of the following images:

In this picture, we can clearly see that the slogan resides on a wall. But there is more than that: we get a glimpse down the street. It doesn’t look particularly glamorous. In fact, it looks a bit depressing. There are some fast food shops and a newsagents – the place to get your news, cigarettes and lottery tickets. The presence of these would seem to reinforce the message of the slogan: that you wanted glamour but instead, you got junk food and tobacco addiction.

The next image does things the other way around:

This photographer has used a telephoto lens to bring Canary Wharf – London’s slick financial centre – into the composition. This changes the meaning: rather than showing you the lifestyle that you got (previous image) this one references the one that you always wanted.

There are other ways to do it:

By including a person in the photograph, the narrative centres on that individual. The ‘you’ in the slogan immediately refers to the man in the picture. Sometimes we wait for people to leave the picture frame before we push the button. But sometimes the results are better if we include them in the shot.

Finally, my favourite:

This photographer included an abandoned supermarket trolley in the picture. I can’t think of a better symbol to support the message of the slogan – the perfect image of failed consumerism.

There are always many different ways that we can construct a narrative when we take a photograph. Spend some time thinking about the composition. Don’t just move in on the words – step backwards and capture the context. And if you find that the words aren’t clear enough, create a collage. That is what I did for this activity on Lessonstream.

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