In 1927 László Mohly-Nagy proclaimed that ‘the illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.’ Today people often speak of visual literacy, and of the ‘language of photography’. This is taken to be a visual code inherent to photography, which is able to transcend the usual limitations of other modes of written or spoken communication which must be laboriously learnt. By contrast it is often assumed that this language of photography is inherent and immutable, that it is understandable to anyone, anywhere. Two tendencies are evident with this claim, as with many clichés about photography. First that very few of the people who repeat it subject it to any serious scrutiny, and second that when it is investigated it starts to come apart.
Admittedly the definition of language is open to debate, but for the sake of this discussion I’m going to err on the side of caution and define it fairly broadly. Language is a complex system of communication, which is understood by those who use it to operate according to certain rules. It’s rules needn’t necessarily be formally described or codified, so long as two ‘speakers’ of the language understand an example of it’s use in basically the same way. Whether that language takes a visual, oral or other form is rather beside the point provided it meets these two simple definitions. Taking this as our definition and applying it to photography I think things rather unravel.