In this section you will find material – discussion, examples, and exercises – that address issues of representation. Specifically the material proposes ways in which images can be analyzed and interpreted. The material also addresses ways in which images in media can be used to express social norms and values, as well as contest those.
There are many theoretical models through which images might be read and interpreted. Generally, two dominant models are discussed: the realist and the constructivist model.
For the following section you may wish to read individually or with other people and develop your discussion. Going through this section is important for being able to conduct the upcoming exercises.
Realist model: according to this model an image could be universal – it can have the same meaning at different times and places – and therefore is a trace of something real.
For example: Think of a cow.
One can argue that the image shows (represents) a cow as it naturally appears. Therefore, there is a universal understanding of what is a cow; that anywhere and anytime, the viewer can identify the image as an image of a cow. In other words, whatever the image intends to show is what the viewer sees.
By looking at the picture ask yourself: what do you see when you look at this image? What is being depicted? Where is the picture taken? Is there any room for interpretation and difference in perception?
The picture does not seem to provide any social context. However, we might read the image as depicting serenity and pristine nature in an alpine background. This could be interpreted as the meaning of the image. Do you find the realist model (see definition above) satisfactory or unsatisfactory? Why?
Conventionalist/constructivist model: According to this model, with an image we express social norms and values. Therefore, images show things in particular ways and are a way of transmitting our cultural and social norms (even in the image above). One might say that images convey different things to different people (cultures), and that what the photographer, in this case, aimed to show can be interpreted differently. Therefore, viewers/audience, people represented, artists, marketing agencies, corporations, editors, etc., all take part in giving meaning to images.
In the image above we see a cow, again. However, this time additional context is provided. The context also is different and therefore affects our readings.
Again, ask yourself, what do you see in the picture? What is depicted? Where is the picture taken?
One might comment by referring to Hindu religion, which considers cows as sacred, a symbol of the Earth and life, and therefore people show respect and veneration towards them.
Again, ask yourself, what do you see in the picture? What is depicted? Where is the picture taken?
The image above shows cows in an industrial setting. For some the image refers to the fact that we use cows as food, but for others it expresses animal cruelty and abuse. For example, vegetarians value the lives of animals equally to those of humans and are against the mass production of animal products. Another analysis might refer to the technological, medical, and economic developments that have driven the rapid growth of populations and have created the demand and possibility for the mass production of meat. However, animal rights activist and environmentalists criticize these developments. They have pointed to damages caused on the environment (CO2 released by cattle and need for grazing, transportation, storage, etc.), the inhumane treatment of animals, as well the health risks (overuse of antibiotics in cattle, overfeeding, etc.).
This example illustrates how changes in social values and norms shape our readings of images and that they are not uniform (one groups may see it as part of advancement and development while the other sees degradation of environment and a health risk). Also, the ways we “see” is specific to our culture, history, geography, as well as our political beliefs.
If we think of culture as shared meanings, and society as shared relationships, images reflect those meanings and relationships. In other words, we read and “see” through our shared understandings. For example, one might think of culture as a pair of glasses we wear, through which we see the world around us in particular ways. The position we are looking from is also important.
Images carry reference to things we recognize, for example an envelope icon for most means email. However, disagreements can also exist around the meaning of images. For an older generation that remembers handwritten letters an envelope can reference a love letter. Differences in meaning can therefore be generational, as the envelope example shows, but such differences are always results of changes in social, cultural, economic and political settings. The latter is what the rest of this module focuses on.
Split into groups of two people or more. As a group look at the following pictures (7 objects):
Discuss and agree amongst themselves what each image represents. After this, come up with a story by arranging the images according your preference. By referring to each picture make up a story that connects all the pictures into one narrative. You may want to write down your narrative. You can name the images (e.g. chair, door, etc.), repeat them in your narrative, and/or provide a description or meaning. There are no strict rules on naming, description, or interpretation.
Taking turns narrating to the other groups the story you came up with. Once you have all shared your stories discuss the differences and similarities in your narratives, the way you named and described the images. From where do you think these similarities and differences come?
You can this of this exercise as a game. You might even wish to suggest it to a teacher and do the exercise at school, or with a group of friends in another setting.
Sit in a circle and place one chair in the middle of the circle. Each one of you takes turns describing what you see.
Relying on the responses it might become evident that differences in physical positions (where one is standing/sitting) provides us with a particular viewpoint. These views are similar to the views we have depending on our social, historical, and economical positions.
For example, freedom of movement is generally conditioned by political and economic limits and possibilities. If we consider the case of visa liberalization in Kosovo, we see that political developments have created a situation where Kosovar citizens are not able to move from one country to another in the EU as their neighbors can. However, some groups of Kosovars have more mobility then others (the more affluent, for example). Therefore, our social, economic and political positions shapes they way we interpret what we see.
This section provides a discussion and exercise.
As an exercise take a look at the following images. You can do this alone or with others. Write down what you see in each picture and note any differences and similarities you notice. Discuss among yourselves what you wrote.
The images show how ideas of beauty are not fixed and universal. They rely on particular cultural, and other, influences and therefore reflect social values of a particular time and place. The images show how during different historical periods, dominant representations of female beauty have changed. In the first image, the woman appears passive, serene, and innocent. During the Renaissance (in the West) paintings were the medium through which these ideas were disseminated. In the second image, Marilyn Monroe, whose image is more globally disseminated (movies, posters, etc.), became an icon of beauty in the 1960s. Similarly to the woman in the first image, her image reinforced ideas of beauty and femininity as passive, romantic, sensual, naïve. In a way, the social expectation on women was to be beautiful in a particular way, reflecting her position and role in society. As images three and four show, contemporary notions of female beauty also rely on trends set by the fashion industry, as well as movies and advertising. In the third image, Cindy Crawford, a super-model during 1990s appears more active and powerful. Beauty icons that are younger and thinner have more recently replaced this model of beauty. In the fourth image, Cara Delevingne, model and actress, especially popular among teens is an example.
The images above show how notions of gender - in this case womanhood - have been tied to physical appearance, and how those have reflected the changing positions of women society. They also document changing roles held by women and assigned to them. Therefore, images have meaning that depends on context and can hold valuable information about a particular society and time.
Also, within a particular society different groups can have different ideas about what is considered beautiful. Another example to consider is how the phrase “Black is Beautiful” during the 1960s in the U.S.A., reflected the strife for empowerment of African-Americans and aspirations towards changing social values of the time. Even today, as the images above show, dominant notions of beauty are connected to whiteness. Therefore, images matter. They matter because they shape and are shaped by social, political and economic relationships.
1 “A Woman at Her Toilet” by Titian. Photograph. Britannica Online for Kids. Web. 19 Aug. 2016. <http://kids.britannica.com/elementary/art-88772>.
2 http://www.pintattoos.com/800/marilyn-monroe-body-photo-shared-by-alejoa-tattoo-share-images/ORdGF0dG9vcy5mYW5zc2hhcmUuY29tL3Bob3Rvcy9tYXJpbHlubW9ucm9lL21hcmlseW4tbW9ucm9lLWJvZHktMTY5NzQ0MTQyMi5qcGc/ 19 Aug. 2016
4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cara_Delevingne 19 Aug. 2016
Please find below the link to the map exercise.
In this exercise you will engage in a critical reading and discussion of a piece of art. The art work, titled Transition by artist Erzen Shkololli, is a composite of three pictures.
Take a look: http://www.e-cart.ro/1/blood/poze/blood5_uk.html
In a group discuss what you see. Use the discussion points made in the Reading Images section for your discussion of this art-work.
Some question to answer (take notes):
For this section you will engage in a photo-shooting exercise. It is best if there are at least two of you, but you can also make groups.
Split into two groups and take some time (at least 30 minutes) to develop your idea. You can use your phones to take the picture.
First you will have to decide what you wish to photograph and then write a short (one paragraph) description of the image. Ask yourselves the following questions:
Consider also ethical issues:
If you photograph a person – ask for their permission
Would your photo cause any controversy? If yes, what? Would you still wish to take the photo? Why?
After you have your picture, and written the description, the groups can engage in interpreting the images:
Group 1 will give an interpretation of the photo taken by Group 2, after which Group 2 will read their paragraph. This will be followed by a discussion of the similarities and differences in intent and interpretation.
Group 2 will give an interpretation of the photo taken by Group 1, after which Group 1 will read their paragraph. This will be followed by a discussion of the similarities and differences in intent and interpretation.