Exercise: contextualisation and multiple meanings of images

The brief:

Cut out some pictures form a newspaper and write your own captions.

  • How do the words you put next to the image contextualise/re-contextualise it?
  • How many meanings can you give to the same picture?

Try the same exercise for both anchoring and relaying. Blog about it.

For this exercise I picked two images from the National Post and another two from the local North Shore News. I covered the caption and tried to create my own comment on the photo before looking at the accompanying caption.

A bulldozer crushes boxes of cheese outside the Russian southern city of Belgorod, part of "contraband" food seizures in reaction to broad sanctions against Russia.
Fig 01 (National Post Vol 17 No. 229, 7 August, 2015)

My caption for Fig 01: Bulldozer removes carton boxes illegally dumped on property.

My initial reading of the image in that it is a bulldozer moving cartons is correct, but my context was completely out of whack. The photo accompanied an article on Russia’s president Putin’s embargo on Western food imports. This shipment was only suspected of coming from the European Union. The actual caption is: A bulldozer crushes boxes of cheese outside the Russian southern city of Belgorod, part of “contraband” food seizures in reaction to broad sanctions against Russia. This is a great example of what Roland Barthes refers to as Anchorage. Without this caption supplying the context we would have no idea of the political implications of this image.

At the level the literal image, the text replies … to the question: what is it? The text helps to identify purely and simply the elements of the scene and the scene itself: it is a matter of a denoted description of the image … the caption helps me choose the correct level of perception …

Barthes (1977, p. 39)

Paper lanterns float on the Motoyasu River in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima.
Fig 02 (National Post Vol 17 No. 229, 7 August, 2015)

My caption for this image: Local Chinese population celebrate the Lantern Festival on the fifteen day of the Lunar year.

Initially I had thought this image represented a lantern festival, but upon looking closely and seeing the origami cranes in the water I was able to discern the proper context for this image (only because I had seen a TV news article on the anniversary of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima the previous night). I then realised that it was a Japanese event and not Chinese as originally thought. This is another example of anchorage.

The actual caption is: Paper lanterns float on the Motoyasu River in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome (background) in Hiroshima on Thursday. Tens of thousands gathered for peace ceremonies in Hiroshima on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing.

… the anchorage may be ideological and indeed this is its principal function; the text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others …

Barthes (1977, p. 40)

Seymour Salmonid Society volunteers prepare to capture salmon for radio tagging in July.
Fig 03 (North Shore News, 7 August, 2015)

Initially I thought this image had something to do with the recent toxic oil spill from one of the tankers anchored just outside the Vancouver harbour. Although contained fairly quickly, the damage to marine life was evident and the oil spill affected Vancouver’s most popular beaches. So my initial caption was: Cleanup crew inspect boom for marine life.

In actual fact the real caption reads: Seymour Salmonid Society volunteers prepared to capture salmon for radio tagging in July. It accompanies a story about an effort to allow thousands of coho and pink salmon and steelhead trout to return to their spawning ground up the Seymour River. The fate of their current spawning ground is at risk due to a massive rock slide that fell into the river canyon blocking the fish’s path. Another example of anchorage.

… anchorage is a control, bearing a responsibility – in the face of the projective power of pictures – for the use of the message.

Barthes (1977, p. 40)

Mark Traverse and his dog, Sid
Fig 04 (Vancouver Sun, 10 August, 2015). Photography by Mark Traverse

My caption to this image would be Man and his dog. The actual caption that appeared in the Vancouver Sun is: Mark Traverse with his dog, Sid. Neither captions really tell us anything of the story. They are both free to any interpretation. The story is about a Grizzly bear that invaded the Traverse household in the very early hours of the morning. Sid, the dog sounded the alarm by waking his owners with his barking and Traverse shot the bear with his shotgun after the bear lunged at him. Quite a gruesome story, but one would not discern it from the image above. The caption above would be a good example of relay as the caption leaves the interpretation of the image open to the viewer’s experience.

The function of relay is less common (at least as far as the fixed image is concerned); it can be seen particularly in cartoons and comic strips. Here text (most often a snatch of dialogue) and image stand in a complementary relationship;

Barthes (1977, p. 41)

Reference List

Barthes, Roland (1977). Rhetoric of the Image in Image, music, text. London: Fontana Press

Hill, Kevin (2015). Fish rescue planned for Seymour. North Shore News. 7 August, 2015.

Nogi, Kazuhiro /AFP/Getty Images (2015), Refusing to Let Memories Die. National Post  Vol 17 No. 229, 7 August, 2015

Rosselkhoznadzor Belgorod/AFP (2015), Putin’s bulldozers destroy mountains of EU food. National Post  Vol 17 No. 229. 7 August, 2015

Traverse, Mark (2015). Hungry grizzly killed after entering home of experienced hunter in Kimberley. Vancouver Sun. 10 August, 2015

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