Visual Literacy 101: Learning to Identify Manipulation - Conditioning Factors


Visual Literacy 101 articles serve as one of the academic courses in this precise field. The main aim of this research is to focus attention on the analysis of the topic of “mass culture”, its visual representations, and the ways it takes action through imagery and its components. The theoretical framework will be covered from a “counter hegemonic” stance and, essentially, the project involves the attempt to create a diagonal discourse that promotes visual literacy through the idea of art as a pedagogical and revolutionary act, since it moves collective subjectivities.

Visual Literacy 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

  1. Where the necessity begins: examples and contextualisation of control.

  2. A background to mass culture.

  3. Cultural Industry and what it implies.

  4. Manipulation through images.

  5. How is this manoeuvre orchestrated?

  6. Learning to identify manipulation: conditioning factors.

  7. A critical eye to the situation: Visual Literacy.

Learning to identify manipulation: conditioning factors

Before addressing the new reading skills demanded by the experimentation of the contemporary imagery, three of the characteristics that images possess and that can be exploited are going to be analysed, to culminate in the manipulative function that Bretones (1997) or Eco (1995) talked about, and which was also developed in the fourth article of this series, Manipulation through images.

Figure 1: Photo manipulation, Md.Mamun.

Once again, Juan Martín Prada theorises in his book El ver y las imágenes en el tiempo de Internet (2018) about the sense in which current visual objects are elaborated, that is, elaborated in terms of the configuration and arrangement of the elements they contain. According to the author, today individuals are faced with the fact that representations of the visual speak about the event they reproduce, rather than about the single view - or successive views, in the case of video - they present. This peculiarity occurs due to the manipulation that is exercised on the image itself - on it and not through it -, which results in the significance of the visual object being something connoted, apparently hidden behind the retouching, implicit in the representation.

Behind this inclusion of content without actually expressing it, this implicitness, lie the different meanings that visual messages can have, which will depend both on the intentionality of the creator-emitter (which has been analysed in the previous two sections), and on the perspective with which the receiver assumes them. In the latter case, and as studied on the basis of the notes made by Warren Neidich (Neidich in Brea, 2005), perception is educated and shaped by the information received. Julian Hochberg, an American psychologist specialising in visual perception, talks about this event and explains:

Analyses of specialised sequential behaviours (be they learning maze paths, specialised motor acts such as typing or playing the piano, or language production and perception) always suggest the existence of guiding structures: of expectations, cognitive maps or deep structure. From these cognitive structures, different specific sequences of particular responses can be generated, equivalent to each other by the mere fact that they produce the same final result. [...] all visual perception, or a large part of it, also involves highly specialised intentional sequential behaviours. (Gombrich et al., 1973: 60) 

Thus, insofar as the coding and decoding of visual signs are given by a learning process that is intentional - by one or the other part of the communicative agents - it is then possible to study the characteristics of these, which mechanisms are used in perception and through which semiological tools the latter is carried out. In this respect, the Gestalt movement is the most important representative of the explanatory studies that have been carried out on perception and its problems.

Figure 2: Gestalt’s laws.

Gestalt psychology, as defined by Donis A. Dondis in his book A Primer of Visual Literacy (1973), has provided valuable research with significant results in the field of visual perception. The aim of its theorists (Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler, Kurt Koffka, and others) was to organise the field of perception. That is to say, to establish how human beings see or assimilate visual content and how it is organised in the brain. Thus, the Gestalt theory defends that in order to develop his knowledge, the subject uses totalities or gestalten that are made up of simple elements that compose them -of which some will be analysed in this section-, and that what the brain perceives are not the parts, but the qualities of the gestalten as a whole. For this reason, this psychological trend establishes a series of laws that explain the relationships between the elements of the visual object and that end up giving rise to the qualities that make up the total objects. These elements have distinct characters that cannot be defined by the usual terms of size, sense, contour, or length, for example but are themselves constituted as stimuli that set in motion the psychophysical forces that give rise to the perception of things (Dondis, 1973). These semiotic stimuli are the same ones that Warren Neidich referred to in his study when he affirmed that it is through them that the configuration and adjustment of brain development take place at the hands of the hegemonic powers (Neidich in Brea, 2005). In fact, Gestalt theory establishes that what the individual sees depends directly on the characteristics of the organisation of brain fields (Dondis, 1973), also stating that these laws can be learned (which means that, consequently, they can be taught -or imposed- according to the interests of the sender).

It can be argued then that the individual, in the intentional process of learning that is perception, takes "that information susceptible of being grouped in the consciousness to generate a mental representation" (Leonardo Oviedo, 2004: 90). Thus, the visual object would cease to be a simple thing and would mutate into a "visual event", as an action that incorporates a reaction (Dondis, 1973). This visual event given by semiotic stimuli would thus be the concept of perception proposed by Gestalt psychology. Therefore, here are given some examples of the elements of the image that are presented as semiotic stimuli that can be modified, manipulated, and apprehended.


Simplicity means here visual synthesis, which can be exploited either through the direct display of elementary forms, by making use of temporal simplification, or through repetition.

Specifics aside, experiencing the stimulus of simplicity gives rise to certain kinds of perceptions, which will depend on the individual in question, but which can be associated with what is known as "stereotyped perception" (Velasco, 1968). Cándida Velasco, who was Professor of Philosophy at the Valladolid Teacher Training College, explained in her book Psicología general y evolutiva (1968) what this type of perception consisted of, which she defined as "a mental portrait created prematurely" (p. 269). In other words, the authoress established that through simplicity and its mechanisms of simplification or repetition, brain processes are induced that exempt interpretation, by linking the information received directly with other information that was previously located in the subject's memory, thus facilitating the immediate assimilation of content and, therefore, causing an atrophy in the development of the processes of perception, by not exercising them. In fact, when the author spoke of the preconceived ideas with which new information was associated, she was referring precisely to those social stereotypes promoted by "common opinion" (Velasco, 1968: 269), such as, for example, that of the "thieving gypsy", which appears in the film Snatch. In other words, it is through simplicity that the standards of behaviour promoted by mass culture are perpetuated.

Figure 3: Capture of the movie Snatch (2000).


Unity, as established here, is defined as the appropriate balance between the elements that make up the totals which the individual perceives visually. The harmonious assembly of the parts of the gestalten. Thus, it is through it that the image is perceived as a single visual object.

The type of perception that takes place when the unit as a whole is experienced has to do something with the subliminal. Again, Cándida Velasco (1968), clarifies the processes that occur here. The unification of the visual elements causes the viewer's conscious attention to be directed to a certain type of information present in the image and not to another, which appears disguised outside the desirable reading established by the visual communicator. Thus, there is part of the visual object that seems not to be experienced at all, but which is nonetheless digested unconsciously. This conception of the subliminal is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's conception of "the optical unconscious" (Benjamin, 2008), which he defined as that which we perceive from what we see and assimilate without wanting to because rationally we do not know that we know it. So, from this expression, it could be interpreted that, by means of the unity: manipulative actions of content can be undertaken on that which the individual receives and understands because it forms part of the successive glances that he places on the visual object, but he is not aware of it because that is not where his interest is directed.

This consideration of the implicit, as a manipulative force through unity in the image, is linked to the profusion of discourses whose subjects it would not be correct to deal with explicitly. For example, the profusion of the idea of the "woman-object" is a discourse that has been endlessly reproduced through different mechanisms, such as discursive unity through composition.

Figure 4: Chez Patou, Helmut Newton (1996).


The definition of obviousness embodies what is evident and, in addition, it also encompasses a pseudo-attribute interpreted as truth, which was already discussed in the second and third articles of this 101 series: that which is presented as true, obvious, but which is not.

The perception of obviousness, therefore, is constituted as a mechanism of confirmation. Through it, perceptual processes are directed in which the actual elaboration of discourse does not take place, since it is offered ready-made, so that it is immediately assimilated without being subjected to the filter of interpretation, leaving aside the cerebral processes involved in perception and thus leading to its deterioration. This case is similar to that of simplicity, with the difference that in that case the information was linked to contents that had already been assimilated in the brain: perception was stereotyped. However, now the possibility exists that the obvious information that is transmitted will be totally new, to which new brain spaces to occupy will be assigned and which will influence the development of cognitive processes.


In any case, the semiotic stimuli defined here are presented as an example of the activity of the visual communicator aimed at the dissemination of visual objects that are desirable, interpretable, and apprehensible - in a targeted manner - for the spectator.

In short, techniques and viable paths have been studied in order to incur those visual objects of a manipulative nature that appear in mass culture as truth and as such are assimilated by the spectator. In other words, the lie, to which the French philosopher of Algerian origin, Jacques Derrida, already referred when he declared in a conference that:

Lying: it is an intentional act. [...] There are no lies, there is that saying or that wanting to say which is called lying: to lie will be to address to another (since one only lies to another, one cannot lie to oneself, except to oneself as another) a statement or more than one statement, a series of statements (constatative or realisative) that the liar knows, in consciousness, in explicit, thematic, actual consciousness, that they constitute totally or partially false assertions. (Derrida, 1995)

In other words, lying is the communication of fictitious truths in an intentional manner, just as the processes of coding and decoding visual symbology are also intentional, which result in manipulative actions that make use of semiotic conditioning factors or stimuli as tools for execution.

Image references

Bibliographic references

  • Benjamin, Walter (2008). The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility. United States: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press. [1st ed. 1936]

  • Brea, José Luis (Ed.) (2005). Visual Studies: The Epistemology of Visuality in the Age of globalization. Madrid, Spain: AKAL.

  • Bretones, María Trinidad (1997). Funciones y efectos de los medios de comunicación de masas: los modelos de análisis. Barcelona, Spain: University of Barcelona.

  • Derrida, Jacques (1995). Historia de la mentira: Prolegómenos. Lecture given at Buenos Aires, Argentina: School of Philosophy and Arts of the University of Buenos Aires.

  • Dondis, Donis A. (1973). A primer of Visual Literacy. United States: The MIT Press

  • Eco, Umberto (1995). Apocalyptics and Integrated. Barcelona, Spain: Tusquets editores. [1st ed. 1964]

  • Gombrich, E. H.; Hochberg, J. y Black, M. (1973). Art, Perception and Reality. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

  • Leonardo Oviedo, Gilberto (2004). La definición del concepto de percepción en psicología con base en la Teoría Gestalt. Revista de estudios Sociales, no. 18, pp. 89 — 96.

  • Martín Prada, Juan (2018). El ver y las imágenes en el tiempo de Internet (Estudios visuales). Madrid, Spain: AKAL.

  • Velasco, Cándida (1968). Psicología general y evolutiva. Valladolid, Spain: LEX-NOVA

Author Photo

Alicia Macías Recio

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