• Ruta Kalmane Saksens

READING PHOTOGRAPHS

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

An old English language adage says that a picture is worth a thousand words. Maybe not all of photographs are meant to imply a complex meaning worth a thousand words, but some certainly do.

‘Just as we read words on a page – by giving meaning to the graphic marks (letters), to combinations of letters (words) and to the combination and sequence of words – so, too, we ‘read’ signs in the world around us: pictures, faces, bodies, clothes, music, even smells’ (Salkeld 2014: 45).

Basically there is a meaning to absolutely everything that is around us, everything can be read and interpreted in different ways. All photographs carry some kind of a meaning, you just have to focus on finding it. ‘You will find that all images have something to tell you because every picture created, no matter how banal or ordinary it may be at first glance, has some meaning to communicate’ (Lester 2011: 131). There are many factors (for example, social background, political ideology, education, etc.) that influence how and why a photographer implies meaning in a photograph and how we read and interpret the photograph. ‘Photographs do prompt a variety of interpretations, different people do respond differently to the same stimulus’ (Walker 1997: 52).


The best examples of well-implied, easy and fast readable meanings of photographs can be found in advertising. Every advertisement, hence every advertisement image, is created for a sole purpose to persuade a potential consumer to purchase a particular product or service, therefore advertisements have to do their job of persuasion quite quickly – a potential consumer will most likely not pay attention to an advertisement for more than a few seconds, so the image has to be easy-readable for the consumer. Therefore, a lot of implied meanings of advertisement images are quite straightforward.


Many advertisement campaigns that send a powerful message have been done by the World Welfare Fund (WWF), and all of their advertisements are made with one important message in mind – to raise awareness of people about protecting and conserving nature and wildlife of this planet. Animals are being killed all over the world due to their skin or meat, or bones. It’s our responsibility to minimize the impact that we leave on nature and wildlife. The advertisements serve as a call for action and to raise awareness of environmental problems.

Fig. 1: WWF 2010. WWF Shark campaign


In the advertising series ‘Horrifying – More Horrifying’ two images were put next to each other. One side included an image with a dangerous animal and the other side and image without that animal saying that such a view is even more horrifying, implementing that a planet without animals is way worse than a planet with dangerous animals. The planet needs wildlife in any form.


Also, intertextuality plays a significant role when it comes to reading advertisement images. In advertising ‘intertextuality has a persuasive nature that is based on a consumer’s background knowledge’ (Kalmane 2012: 90). Intertextuality is achieved when an image contains certain elements that the viewer can recognize thanks to his previous knowledge about something that the image relates to. It can also be said that ‘no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone’ (Eliot 1951: 15) – any kind of previous knowledge can serve as a basis for inspiration to the artist.

Let’s look at another WWF advertisement.

Fig. 2: WWF 2019. Fashion claims more victims than you think


In the advertisement Fashion claims more victims than you think there are two leopards that carry a size tag on their backs. The advertisement creators rely on the viewers’ previous knowledge of how clothing size tags look like. A combination of other random letters instead of S and XL would not achieve the effect of intertextuality. In this case the tags serve as a representation of leopard skin being used for making fur clothes. The viewer is forced to be aware that these animals, including their little cubs, are killed for their beautiful skin.


Fig. 3: Saksens 2020. A dog with a Santa hat


After learning about intertextuality in photography, I realized that some of my own work includes it as well. For example, the photograph in which a dog is wearing a hat. Although it is a hat, it is not just any hat. When looking at the photograph, people from the Western culture will immediately associate it with Christmas holiday time. The Santa hat, the Christmas tree and Christmas lights in the background imply the meaning of Christmas celebration time. These three things are typical to one particular time of the year, and without the background knowledge about Christmas time, it would be just a dog in a random hat with some background lights.


In conclusion, every image carries some kind of a message that the photographer leaves for the viewer to decode, and when intertextuality is used in visual images, the viewer’s perception of an image will depend on the viewer’s background knowledge of the particular connection between elements.


LIST OF REFERENCES


ELIOT, Thomas Stearns. 1951. Selected Essays. London: Faber.

LESTER, Paul Martin. 2011. Visual Communication: Images with Messages. 5th edn. Boston: Wadsworth.

KALMANE, Ruta. 2012. Advertising: Using Words as Tools for Selling. 2nd edn. Riga: Lulu Enterprises Ltd.

SALKELD, Richard. 2014. Reading Photographs: An Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

WALKER, John A. 1997. ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’. In Jessica EVANS. The Camerawork essays: context and meaning in photography. London: Rivers Oram.


LIST OF FIGURES


Fig. 1: WWF. 2010. ‘WWF Shark Campaign’. Clio Awards 2021 [online image]. Available at: https://www.adsoftheworld.com/media/print/wwf_shark_0 [Accessed 3 February 2021].

Fig. 2: WWF. 2019. ‘WWF: Fashion claims more victims than you think’. Dr. Prem 2019 [online image]. Available at: https://drprem.com/business/wwf-fashion-claims-more-victims-than-you-think [Accessed 9 February 2021].

Fig. 3: SAKSENS, Ruta. 2020. A dog with a Santa hat. Private collection: Ruta Saksens

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