"Image analysis teaches two important lessons about the creation of memorable pictures: A producer of messages should have an understanding of the diversity of cultures within an intended audience and she should also be aware of the symbols used in images so that they are understood by members of those cultures."
(Lester 2021: 116)
Lester explains why this quote is vital for photographers or image creators. He argues that if you can examine pictures critically, you stand a good chance of producing memorable pictures. What is important about an image goes beyond the image itself to how it is seen by a viewer who will look at it in a specific way. Such a statement was perhaps inspired by the writing of John Berger in Ways of Seeing. Berger writes, "We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves" (Berger 2008: 9). Therefore, understanding the cultural diversities within an intended audience and the symbols understood by the members of those cultures is paramount.
But Berger also argues that images are not viewed in isolation, where an image is seen and what surrounds that image when viewed changes its meanings. He distils Walter Benjamin's 1935 essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility and writes, "The uniqueness of every painting was once part of the uniqueness of the place where it resided. Sometimes the painting was transportable. But it could never be seen in two places at the same time. When the camera reproduces a painting., it destroys the uniqueness of its image. As a result its meaning changes. Or, more exactly, its meaning multiplies and fragments into many meanings" (Berger 2008: 19).
For Berger, one reads an image with its presentational context. An image viewed on a mobile device, your favourite social media platform, a sombre and respectful gallery exhibit, an oversize print on an advertising board, a small print on a newspaper front page or magazine, a movie shown in a theatre, on television, a computer monitor, or mobile device — all create unique contexts of meaning and thus of reading.
But to read an image, one must take a long, careful look at it, making a note of every detail. In a sense, one must see the image. But seeing clearly is primarily the result of thinking clearly. As described by Lester, the act of seeing happens in three stages. Firstly, we sense; letting enough light into our eyes to see objects immediately around us. Secondly, we select, focusing and looking at a specific part of a scene within our frame of view. Finally, we perceive, which is perhaps the most crucial stage in seeing. That is, you must try to make sense of what you select. Therefore, "sensing plus selecting plus perceiving equals seeing" (Lester 2021: 5)
So how do we read images?
Take this image of the Land Rover ad featured on 12th June 2021 in the Guardian Magazine. The image on the website Badvertising calls for a mass complaint to the UK Advertising Authority. The advert shows Land Rover's newest model, the Inchcape, on a dirt road, driving through a forest/woodland on a misty day as a few rays of sunlight break through the tall trees and mist hits the front part of the vehicle. Accompanying the image are texts designed to trigger a response, in this case, to Book an extended test drive. The image is typical of a high-budget commercial work, purposefully intended to sell a guilt-free dream lifestyle of freedom and adventure just as the UK was coming out of months of its second national lockdown. At the time of this advert, almost every media agency was reporting the harmful effects of the national lockdowns. The public was eager to get back to life as it was before the pandemic, and news of a vaccine rollout showed some success. Thus, the company seized upon the rise in public optimism to offer a future without restrictions – It was metaphorically showing how you could drive into a brighter future.
Jaguar Land Rover also tried to build confidence in this product by showing a winner's badge for the 2021 World Car Awards on car design while claiming that this model's emissions meet EU legal requirements. With this claim, Jaguar intends to reassure its customers that it considered the environmental impact of this vehicle.
The ultimate purpose of this advert is to increase the sales of this newly manufactured vehicle. Its purpose is to increase interest in the car by offering a month-long test drive, hoping to convert that interest down the line into a purchase. The reason for this strategy is perhaps because, at a time, new-vehicle sales were low because of the pandemic, the previous emission scandal, and an increase in concern for the environment.
When seen in the newspaper as intended, its meaning, as previously described, is to entice consumers to take up a free test drive. On the company's website, it acquires a different meaning. It becomes a way of showing customers the range of products the company offers, and in the case of this model, a flagship product, it gives a sense of the height of luxury that one could achieve with this model. However, in the Badvertising article where I found this ad, the meaning changes to show the unethical behaviours that big brands sometimes adopt when approaching customers. As the context changes, the meaning and the way we read an image change.
You understand what you are looking at (described by Roland Barthes as studium(Barthes and Howard 2020: 32)), and you perceive a more profound, perhaps emotional connection with the message's content (what Barthes calls the punctum(Barthes and Howard 2020: 33)). Reading photographs, although time-consuming, is valuable. They help us notice the smallest details that make up an image, leading to greater, universal truths.
- BARTHES, Roland and Richard HOWARD. 2020. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography.
- BERGER, John. 2008. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.
- LESTER, Paul Martin. 2021. Visual Communication: Images with Messages.