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Jos Gysenbergs
Professor Denise Comer
English Composition I: Achieving Expertise
22 April 2013
Achieving Expertise: Not One but Many Ways.

Figure 1: Seymour, David. The Battle Against Illiteracy. 1950. Photograph. Magnum Photos,
SED1950003W00009/06R. Web. 22 April 2013.

Jos Gysenbergs

Gysenbergs 2

Professor Denise Comer

English Composition I: Achieving Expertise
22 April 2013

This black-and-white interior photograph shows a man, about sixty years old. He wears
his Sunday clothes and is sitting at a school desk, writing in deep concentration. Next to his
notebook, there is only a small, uncovered bottle of ink prominently in the middle front of the
desk. An open window to his right provides light. A home-made walking stick is leaning
against the wall, in a corner below the window. This part of the picture is slightly blurred
which emphasizes the main theme, that of a peasant during a writing class. The observers eye
wanders from the subjects face to his right hand, holding a pen and his left hands index
finger following a line on the page hes writing on.
David Seymour of Magnum Photos took this photograph in 1950 on assignment for a
UNICEF literacy program in the town of Rog[g]iano Gravina, in the province of Calabria in
rural Italy between the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Sea (Bondi 117). It is a typical example from
the human or social documentary (Sontag 49) school of photography, originated mid 19th
century, pushed ahead by Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis and Walker Evans (Curtis 4) and now
mainstream through photographers like Diane Arbus, Sebastio Salgado and Manuel RiveraOrtiz. They aim to portray humans in their natural environment often depicting social
injustice and underdevelopment.
Analyzing this image it becomes clear Seymours subject is a peasant. Most likely he is
not alone but he is sitting with others - in a classroom - learning to read and write.1 Relating to
achieving expertise, this image does not define expertise as literacy or the ability to take

1 In rural post World War II South Italy, literacy rate was far below the 85 % average at that
time, so this image is not that unusual. What makes it special is the adult learning to read
where normally one would expect children. For more on illiteracy in Italy, see World
Illiteracy at Mid-Century, UNESCO, 1957, pp. 51 and 194.

Jos Gysenbergs

Gysenbergs 3

Professor Denise Comer

English Composition I: Achieving Expertise
22 April 2013
proper photographs but both the peasant and the photographer are experts in their own, totally
different, areas.
One could argue that literacy is the start of all wisdom but the peasant has accumulated
a profound knowledge of nature, acquired through centuries old oral tradition, his own
observational skills and common sense. The photographer achieved his goal in life organizing Magnum Photos, one of the most renowned photo agencies in the world - by
intellectual reasoning, pragmatism and talent for strategic planning (Boot 426). These are
very different ways to reach expertise.
By contrast there is a tendency in recent popular literature about expertise and
learning representing a trend stating that the only way excellence can be reached lies in
practicing as deep as possible thereby diminishing the role of natural talent, personality and
character, environment and circumstances (Coyle 46 and Colvin 1). Coyle even presumes the
necessity of continuously growing a substance in the brain (myelin) by deep practicing. He
thinks this is essential in the development of expertise (e.g. Coyle 5). This rather mechanistic
view is based on the notion of the self-made man in Western work ethos of discipline, drill
and perseverance (Ribeiro 2).
It seems obvious there are many other factors that have to be taken into the equation:
intrinsic capabilities, educational pedagogics, adequate upbringing, demographic and gender
issues are major catalytic agents in reaching expertise.

Gysenbergs 4

Jos Gysenbergs
Professor Denise Comer
English Composition I: Achieving Expertise
22 April 2013
Works cited

Bondi, Inge. Chim : the photographs of David Seymour. Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1996. Print.
Boot, Chris. Magnum Stories, Phaidon Press, 2004. Print.
Colvin, Geoffrey. What it takes to be great. CNN, 2006. Web. 21 April 2013.
Coyle, Daniel. The Talent Code. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.
Curtis, James, ed. Making Sense of Documentary Photography. History Matters: The U.S.
Survey on the Web, s.d., Web. 21 April 2013
Magnum Photos s.d. Web 21 April 2013
Ribeiro, Isabel M. Talent Requires Practice. Coursera, 2013, Web. 25 April 2013.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, 1977. Print.