Updated: Feb 28
All visual material can be interpreted in many different ways depending on the specifics of the audience. The intended meaning by the visual material creator might not always be the one that the viewer will actually perceive.
One and the same image can bring up different associations and reactions. Therefore, Roland Barthes points out that “all images are polysemous… the Reader being able to choose some, and ignore others” (1977: 39). Which meaning the viewer will perceive will depend on the person’s background knowledge and individual characteristics. Nicholas Mirzoeff claims that “we do not actually ‘see’ with our eyes but with our brains. […] Seeing the world is not about how we see, but about what we make of what we see. We put together an understanding of the world that makes sense from what we already know or think we know” (2015: 73). When looking at an image, our brain goes through its internal storage to provide us with the best possible meaning according to what knowledge is available to us. According to the encoding/decoding theory developed by Stuart Hall, all messages are first encoded by a producer and then decoded by the receiver (Stuart Hall in James Procter, 2004: 52-71). The encoded message might not be decoded in the same way as the producer of the message intended, and different receivers will perceive the same message in different ways. Hall distinguishes between the following three decoding positions: dominant reading, negotiated reading and oppositional reading (ibid.). Dominant reading refers to the straightforwardness of the message and is about reflecting the dominant cultural perspective, while negotiated reading has to do with the receiver of the message taking an alternative position of the implied meaning, possibly adopting and opposing to the dominant meaning. Oppositional reading occurs when the receiver recognizes the intended dominant meaning, but chooses to oppose to it. For example, while looking at the Crow-bar advertisement (see Figure 1) for the Scrabble campaign developed by Twiga in August 2014, I as a reader of the message experience its dominant, intended reading: Scrabble is a fun word game in which the length of words and connecting letters matter. At the same time another person might experience a negotiated meaning, not initially intended by the encoder of the message, for example, a viewer might feel uncomfortable seeing a crowbar coming out of a crow, establishing parallels with animal cruelty.
Fig. 1: Twiga 2014. ''Crow-bar" advertisement for Scrabble campaign
In general, decoding of this advertisement will depend on the linguistic and cultural background of the viewer. In order to decode the advertising agency’s intended dominant message, the viewer 1) must have knowledge of the English language, and 2) must have background knowledge of what a Scrabble game is, otherwise the advertisement will not make any sense as the two objects represented in the advertisement have nothing else in common other than the shared linguistic qualities. The advertisement is made in a way to be read from left to right, which is also the way how words are read linguistically in the Western world. Furthermore, in the Western world, text is also read from top to bottom. Being a Westerner myself this way of thinking (from left to right, from top to bottom) has also affected how I compose my own work. My eyes are used to scanning information in this way. For example, I constructed the following image (Figure 2) in a way that visual information can be easily perceived by eyes starting the reading journey from left to top to bottom (Figure 3).
Left: Fig. 2: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Crying tree [pair of digital photographic images]
Right: Fig. 3: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Flow of visual information in ‘Crying tree’
If the same image, for example, would be reversed (Figure 4), it would not work for me, because my eyes would follow the information, leaving the image frame and returning from bottom to top to finish reading the information (Figure 5). The image becomes confusing and cannot be read as easily as before.
Left: Fig. 4: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Mirrored version of the ‘Crying tree’
Right: Fig. 5: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Flow of visual information in the mirrored version of the ‘Crying tree’
The Crying tree image is also a result of background knowledge about how sadness, crying and tears have been represented in art. For the creation of this pair of images particularly important is the reference to the painting ‘Freya’s Tears’ (c. 1900) by Anne Marie Zilberman (made in the style of Gustav Klimt) in which tears are showed as golden leaves (Figure 6).
Fig. 6: Zilberman c.1900. Freya’s Tears [painting]
Another reference goes to the painting ‘Weeping Woman’ by Pablo Picasso (1937), which is based on an image of a woman holding her dead child (Figure 7). Similarly, the leaf in the ‘Crying tree’ is a dead part of a tree.
Fig. 7: Picasso 1937. Weeping Woman [painting]
Furthermore, the Crow-bar advertisement is a good example of how important it is to be able to make and recognize connections. Dorte Nielsen and Sarah Thurber (2016) strongly believe that being able to find existing connections and create new connections is the core of a creative thinker and forms the basis for being a successful artist. According to Nielsen and Thurber, “making connections helps you see new options, create unusual solutions, and make the far-fetched combinations that lead to original ideas. Training your ability to see and make connections helps you build mental flexibility, agility, and adaptability” (2016: 18). I believe this is a valuable skill that should also be taught to children already from early childhood, helping them to develop the ability to notice connections from early stage in life, facilitating their own ability to find connections in the world around them, which can lead them to become more flexible in different real-life situations. Some of the world’s greatest inventions and artworks exist due to connecting seemingly unrelated objects. For example, Pablo Picasso’s famous sculpture of a bicycle seat and handlebar (Figure 8). Picasso took parts from an existing object and connected (appropriated) them in a way that lead to a new concept (a bull’s head and horns).
Fig. 8: Picasso 1942. Bull’s head [installation]
In photography finding connections is just as important as in conventional arts. Photographers use this skill to play with objects and situations. Elliott Erwitt has once said the following: “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them” (in Nielsen and Thurber, 2016: 33). Erwitt often finds connections between objects that have nothing directly in common, but when connected, they lead to an unusual combination (consider the role of melons in Figure 9).
Fig. 9: Erwitt 1957. Managua, Nicaragua [gelatin silver print]
I often think about how objects can be combined in my own work, to reach a certain goal. Sometimes combining objects lead to intertextuality, offering the viewer an adapted meaning of a well-known concept, using the viewer’s pre-existing background knowledge to facilitate the process of decoding the message. For example, I have used Carlo Collodi’s fictional character Pinocchio (1883) as a reference for the image ‘Lying bird’ (Figure 10).
Fig. 10: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Lying bird [pair of digital images]
A person who is familiar with the wooden boy Pinocchio, knows that when Pinocchio is lying, his nose is growing. The ‘Lying bird’ was created in a response to this concept. Intertextuality is also frequently used in visual advertising due to its ability to facilitate the decoding process for the viewer. For example, the reference to Pinocchio has been used in advertising by the agency JWT Portugal for CIN Woodtec (Figure 11).
Fig. 11: JWT Portugal 2010. Advertisement for CIN Woodtec
Although as a viewer I recognize the reference to Pinocchio in this case, I have to point out that the creator’s encoded message of “long-lasting protection” didn’t work for me. Quite in contrary, I experienced the oppositional meaning. Pinocchio’s long nose seems like an indication of a lie, hence “long-lasting protection” becomes “not a long-lasting protection”. In either way, people generally enjoy the decoding process. Since the advertising agencies presuppose that their audience will decode certain clues and signs, it leaves a fertile ground for modifications. Daniel Chandler has pointed out that "instant identification of the appropriate interpretative code serves to identify the interpreter of the advertisement as a member of an exclusive club, with each act of interpretation serving to renew one's membership" (2021).
In conclusion, it is worth emphasising that visual material has multiple meanings that will depend on the background knowledge of the viewer. Finding and making connections is an important ability that is an indication of creative thinking. Intertextuality relies on a viewer’s ability to make a connection with a pre-existing source of information to facilitate the decoding process. However, decoding a certain message doesn’t necessarily mean that the viewer will perceive the originally encoded message.
LIST OF REFERENCES
BARTHES, Roland. 1977. Image, Music, Text London: Fontana.
CHANDLER, Daniel. 2021. Semiotics for Beginners. Available online at: http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel//Documents/S4B/sem09.html (Links to an external site.) [accessed 11 February 2022].
MIRZOEFF, Nicholas. 2015. How to See the World. UK: Penguin Random House.
NIELSEN, Dorte and THURBER, Sarah. 2016. The secret of the highly creative thinker. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers.
PROCTER, James. 2004. Stuart Hall [e-book]. Taylor & Francis Group.
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1: Twiga 2014. ''Crow-bar" advertisement for Scrabble campaign. From Ads of the World [online]. Available at https://www.adsoftheworld.com/campaign/scrabble-twiga-08-2014 [accessed 10 February 2022].
Figure 2: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Crying tree [pair of digital photographic images].
Figure 3: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Flow of visual information in ‘Crying tree’.
Figure 4: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Mirrored version of the ‘Crying tree’.
Figure 5: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Flow of visual information in the mirrored version of the ‘Crying tree’.
Figure 6: ZILBERMAN, Anne Marie. c.1900. Freya’s Tears [painting]. From Artessenziale [online]. Available at: https://artessenziale.tumblr.com/post/128837442708/freyas-tears-gustav-klimt [accessed 16 February 2022].
Figure 7: PICASSO, Pablo. 1957. Weeping Woman [painting]. From Tate [online]. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/picasso-weeping-woman-t05010 [accessed 16 February 2022].
Figure 8: PICASSO, Pablo. 1942. Bull’s head [installation]. From Pablo Picasso paintings, quotes & biography. N/D. ‘Bull’s Head, 1942 by Pablo Picasso’ [online]. Available at: https://www.pablopicasso.org/bull-head.jsp#prettyPhoto [accessed 16 February 2022].
Figure 9: ERWITT, Elliott. 1957. Managua, Nicaragua [gelatin silver print]. From Artsy [online]. Available at: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/elliott-erwitt-managua-nicaragua-1964 [accessed 16 February 2022].
Figure 10: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Lying bird [pair of digital images].
Figure 11: JWT Portugal. 2010. Advertisement for CIN Woodtec. From Ads of the World [online]. Available at: https://www.adsoftheworld.com/media/print/cin_woodtec_pinocchio [accessed 16 February 2022].