I was talking to a magazine photojournalist the other day, and the discussion turned to the concept of visual literacy, or how we make sense of what we see. Specifically, he made the point that — in terms of production and interpretation — quantity does not equal quality.
In other words, although we are inundated by more visual images than ever before, mostly in the form of photographs and video, the ability among the general public to understand those images has not reached a sophisticated level. Perhaps the ease with which visual images can be produced and distributed lessens their value in all senses of the word, but especially as objects to be studied and understood.
I’ve often been struck by the fact that we spend so much time educating young people to analyze and interpret written texts, but comparatively little time teaching them to analyze and interpret visual images. This despite the growing informational burden assumed by visual images vs. the written word in modern society. You may look at hundreds of visual images in an average day, but are you giving them more than a cursory glance? What do you actually see?
Describe the Content
Just as with written text, there are techniques for analyzing and interpreting visual images. First, a caveat: although this column deals solely with visual images, we rarely encounter visual images without some kind of accompanying written or spoken text. This may be as simple as a caption or as complex as a magazine story or the dialog in a documentary or feature film.
Thus, techniques for analyzing and interpreting visual images should, ideally, also take into account their accompanying written or spoken texts; perhaps this will be the subject of a future column. Also, we can perform the same type of scrutiny on video and film as we apply to photographs by going shot by shot and/or sequence by sequence. Such scrutiny of visual images, whether still or moving, establishes at once the difference between looking and seeing.
With visual images, one obvious way to begin the analysis and interpretation is to describe as precisely as possible everything in the image. This forces us to look closely at the image — to examine it as if it were the visual record of a crime scene — so as not to miss any important detail.
Such a rich description of each image’s content should take into account the subjects, both human and nonhuman; where and at whom the subjects are looking and gesturing; composition; camera position and camera angle; tonality and color; and the size relationships of subjects to each other and to the viewer.
Look More Closely
How is space used within the image? Where are the subjects placed? Is there empty space (also called “negative space”), and if so, what part of the image does it occupy? Are there lines, shapes and repeating patterns that you notice?
Camera position determines the visual perspective, which gives the image its sense of depth — whether the image seems to have a great deal of space from foreground to background (expanded space), or very little space (compressed space). Camera angle, on the other hand, determines whether we are viewing the scene from eye level, from above, from below, straight on, or obliquely.
Both camera position and camera angle tell us, the viewer, where we are physically in relation to the scene being photographed. This may also translate into how we feel, psychologically, about the scene. Are the subjects far away, and hence of little importance, or do they appear up close and intimate? Do we look down on the scene from an omniscient, all-seeing viewpoint, or to the subjects tower over, and therefore dominate, us?
Tonality and color can set the mood of an image. What is the predominant tonality — dark or light? Are certain subjects hidden in shadow or bathed in light? This can be a clue as to which subjects the image-maker wanted us to consider most important.
Colors have culturally constructed meanings: for example, in many cultures, green stands for nature, red for blood and passion, and white for purity. Are the colors in the image used to transmit these or other meanings?
Where people are looking and gesturing in a image provides clues about their relationships with the image-maker, with each other, and with us, the viewers. A subject looking directly into the camera often makes us feel as if we are being directly looked at, i.e., addressed in some way. This can take the form of a welcome, a challenge, a question, or a demand for some sort of action.
A subject looking away from the camera sends a different message. For example, the subject may simply be unaware of the camera, or may choose not to acknowledge it.
The relationship between two or more subjects can sometimes be determined by whether and how they look at each other. Gesture can reinforce look — if a subject is both looking at and gesturing toward the camera, the effect is more intense. Gesture can also direct the viewer’s attention to or away from some other aspect of the image.
Size relationships of subjects to each other and to the viewer are often clues to their social relationships. The taller a subject appears in an image, the more powerful he or she seems, both in relation to us and to the other subjects. The closer a subject is, especially if the subject fills the frame, the more intimate the connection between subject and viewer.
Analyze the Context
It’s important to understand that visual images are almost never created or viewed in a vacuum — they come to us surrounded by context.
Visual images are part of the culture and society that produce them. It makes sense, then, that the meaning, or communicative power, of visual images resides not solely within the images themselves but also within the context of how and why the images were produced and distributed.
However, there is generally no personal link or contact between the producer and the viewer of an image (unless these are personal photographs or videos shared with family and friends). In other words, the image-maker is not able to explain directly to the viewer what he or she intended to communicate.
Thus, the viewer, to derive meaning from the image, must take into account not only what the image shows, but also the circumstances under which it was made and the situation in which it is being viewed. Such circumstances might include why the image was created, who paid for it, what purpose it was intended to serve (information, persuasion, entertainment), how it was distributed, and in what situations/settings it was intended to be viewed (mass media, gallery/art museum, personal communication, etc.).
It is also helpful to get a feel for the historical, social, and cultural environment in which the visual images and their accompanying written texts are received and understood by the people who view those images. In other words, what impact do these images and words have on — and how are they likely to be interpreted by — their intended audience?
For example, travel photographs today are commonplace, but during the early days of photography in the mid-nineteenth century they represented magical glimpses of exotic people and places. So today, we might view a travel photograph or video and think about our next vacation. But in the mid-nineteenth century, which was also the Age of Imperialism, people viewing travel photographs probably thought about the glories of empire and the “otherness” of the natives.
Explain the Construction of Reality
Visual images are powerful for many reasons, but perhaps most important is their ability to construct a particular version of reality for the viewer. For example, photojournalistic images convey a sense of fact and believability, whereas advertising images often portray a world of fantasy and desire. Although completely different, both types of images construct a cohesive version of reality with its own internal logic.
This construction is possible because we, as viewers, accept the premises upon which the images rest. In other words, we believe that photojournalism records events as they actually unfolded in front of the camera, even though we know that a human being controlled the camera and decided what to include, what to omit, what to emphasize, and what to ignore.
Similarly, we believe that certain products and/or services are worthwhile having (and will spend money obtaining them), even though we know they probably won’t really make us younger, slimmer, more beautiful, or more powerful.
Every society has a shared (whether voluntary or forced) system of beliefs — in other words, its ideology. Ideology is powerful because it portrays particular beliefs and values as normal, ordinary, and inevitable. Ideology is thus, for the most part, unseen and unacknowledged.
For example, many Americans probably go about their daily lives never questioning the basic premises of our social system, such as the value of hard work, the rewards of family life, the importance of obeying the law, and so forth. Visual images are especially effective at diffusing ideology throughout society, because they deal easily with symbols and myths, they play upon the emotions of the viewer, and they are — because of their omnipresence — often hard to ignore.
Thus, if you want to interpret a visual image and understand the reality it creates, it is necessary to examine the ideology (or ideologies) created, exemplified, reinforced, or contradicted by the image.
It is clearly unreasonable to expect this level of scrutiny for each and every visual image we encounter in our daily lives. But if we take the time regularly to analyze and interpret perhaps just a handful of images, we will begin to progress from looking to seeing.
Note: much of the material in this column is adapted from a chapter I wrote for “Visual Communication Research Designs” (Routledge, 2009), a book by Dr. Keith Kenney, associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina.