Tribune. brett hetherington

Journalist and writer/ bretthetherington.net

Easy on the eye

Watching my son doing his geography homework the other day I was struck by how much time he was spending on selecting online images to accompany his (minimal) written work.

This activity is now a big part of modern education which I also know because as a (thankfully former) secondary school teacher of History and English I was continually struggling with students to focus on the text they were developing or learning from and to consider the pictorial aspect as secondary, or supportive. Students as old as twelve would regularly include a photo of say, Adolf Hitler, with the caption, “Here is a photo of Adolf Hitler,” with no other information about him, as if naming him was all that needed to be said and the real task was to cut and paste an image of him. Some older students would often just plagiarise whatever Wikipedia told them was the truth.

But why should I be surprised about all this? If you are reading this article on a train or metro have a look around right now, or next time. There will probably be more people scrolling through photos on their phones than reading something (apart from chatting by text, perhaps.)

The popularity of social media has given rise to even more use of moving or still pictures as communication. Instagram and YouTube, to name just two, have meant that sharing visuals is easy, fun and almost cost-free. Amateur photography has never been so straight-forward, thanks to camera-phones and digital technology.

Children are obviously some of the major users of their own photos as well as those of their friends. One survey of more than 2,700 young British people aged 13 to 25 found that almost one in six children sends naked photos. Equally, this so-called “sexting” phenomenon in the USA led investigators from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to find that of the more than 130 million images containing child pornography examined since 2002, one in four were initially posted by minors themselves.

It's natural for young people to have an interest in their bodies and other's bodies as well. I see no big problem there but an apparent increase in obsession with body image can at least partly be explained by the strong influence of ‘supermodels' (recently including male ones) and the visual appeal of “skin is in” singers and groups, especially from hip-hop, rap and R&B.

The power of the metrosexual male idol such as David Beckham or Ronaldo has yet to be explored in the mainstream media but this increased emphasis that male-grooming puts on the connection between the visual and the physical is abundantly clear. Our society simply values those with “eye candy” appeal more than anything else and that is because a glance takes a split second but conveys so much. It's for this basic reason that film stars have long been paid absurd amounts of money compared to others in the creative industries including virtually all painters, writers and non-commercial musicians.

Looking is easy. Listening is often hit and miss. Reading needs more concentration or patience.

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