How Truthful Are The Things We See?

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We are surrounded by everyday visual culture, from paintings to images and cinema to something as ordinary as the traffic light system and the highway code signs on our roads. We see these ordinary objects and generally just accept their meaning and place within society. But how are their meanings created? How do they become an integral part of our culture? How do we, even if it is just subconsciously, decode the messages that the visual presents to us, how does the visual culture control our minds and the way we see the world?

As a Media and Cultural Studies student, these questions are considered as it exposes how much visual culture controls how we see things in our everyday lives. I am going to briefly demonstrate these ideas by analysing a few images in order to explore this concept.

Courtesy of Didgeman via Pixabay

We instantly decode (the idea of converting a coded message into one which someone will understand) based on the knowledge that we have. So, we look at this image of a traffic light system above, and instantly associate the colour red to ‘stop’, amber to ‘get ready’, and green to ‘go’. But how do we already know this? The traffic light system is based on the idea that when a code is introduced, we need to learn it so we can understand the code and fully comprehend the culture. This idea is also reinforced through a shared code, as we read signs and symbols through a set of cultural forms.

However, whilst it is important to respond to the idea that we can understand images through a shared code, images can also be polysemic (have multiple meanings) due to images being used in different contexts and different forms- for example, the same image used in a different context will result in a different meaning, or, people from a diverse culture may also interpret the same image in multiple ways.

This idea is reinforced through the introduction of the digital camera in the 20th century; paintings and images could now be reproduced in different, transmittable formats, and photos, are interpretable messages, rather than literal meanings.

 For example:


(Image Credit: Lindsay Tomlinson)

According to Barthes and his theory of semiology, there are two, key main areas we have to consider when interpreting a coded image: denotation and connotation.

We can put these ideas briefly into practice by analysing the image above.

Denotation- (what we see)

So, in the image, we see the trees, a lake, the sky and the colours, blue and green.

Connotation- (the things we associate with the image when we see it)

For example, here, we could say that the trees and the lake indicate nature, which is linked closely to the powerful feeling of spirituality. You could also say that when looking at the image, you are drawn to the use of blue. The symbolism of water is drawn to the feeling of cleanliness and healing, where it could be seen that the trees have been purposely presented as a frame (masking) to interrupt this flow of purity.

This is the key message that I can take from this image. Looking at it from an unbiased perspective, I don’t know the editor’s intended preferred reading (the messages and meanings the editor intended to be taken from the image).

This introduces the concept of power- the idea that the author takes all control and can manipulate an image using camera angles, captions, formats and colours to try and make us think a certain way. This idea is shown in the replicate of the image above, below:

(Image Credit: Lindsay Tomlinson)

Here we can take a whole different perspective on the image. I have changed the colour of the image, which therefore changes the meaning. If we repeat the same process, we can say that the signifiers are the same, whilst the connotations are significantly different.

The connotations of black and white, make a place of suggested peace and tranquillity turn into eeriness. This indicates the importance of how an edited replicated image, can instantly change its meaning when placed in the hands of the editor.

This idea is reinforced, when we use a caption:


Here, if you consider the initial denotations and connotations with the image the caption portrays, it impacts the thoughts and feelings we have about the image. Going back to the earlier idea that images are polysemic, it is shown that anchoring pieces of visual media with captions limits this potential polysemic meaning.

Captions bluntly put images into context and stir us towards the preferred meaning- within a matter of seconds this image which symbolised purity and healing, paradoxically, now indicates heartache and suffering. This idea is fixed as the image is placed alongside the text to create a narrative and a fixed reading.

So how much does visual culture control our everyday lives? How much of it is true?

The clever use of editing can manipulate an image and its set ideology so much that it destroys any uniqueness that the original image has had. By the time it reaches us as the audience, it may have been processed that much that we see a completely different meaning to the one intended- memes and GIFs are good examples of this, where images may have had multiple producers with an intended different reading each time.

So next time you see a form of visual culture, just stop and take time to think about how genuine its content may be.

You may realise, that the world is never truly as it appears to be.

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