“Performing Civic Identity” Response: Wow, Images Sure Can Be Loaded With Meaning

This reading wound up taking me a factor of two longer than expected—I spent a lot of time not reading, simply processing, since it was my first encounter with explicit articulations of many of the points it contained. Here are some of my first-pass thoughts, since I’m hoping to read this piece more closely and reflect more:

The meaning of an image is:

  • inseparable from who generated the image, and in what context
  • inseparable from who is currently using the image, and for what end
  • inseparable from who has used the image before, and for what end

(Also, is there ever ‘meaning’ to an image in the absolute, or is there only ever ‘the viewer’s interpretation’?)

Moreover, what strikes me as a little bit unnerving is that what is actually inside a picture—the composition, etc.—is essentially an arbitrary (albeit curated-by-the-photographer) sum of whatever stochastic processes generate the spatial layout of real life. And these stochastic processes in and of themselves are completely devoid of a higher meaning, but when included in an image, they suddenly become viewed as part of the ‘narrative’ of the picture. For example, the Iwo Jima photograph is “brushed with touches of the natural sublime…even the wind is blowing in the right direction. This fusion of nature and culture in a heroic uplifting gives the image a sense of destiny.” Wind direction does not encode any deep truths about American ideologies, but when included just-so in a photograph, it dramatically alters what the photograph ‘is saying.’

Why is that? Where do these innate, never-explicitly-learned-but-somehow-common-to-most-humans interpretations of visual stimuli come from? Why are ‘good guys’ dressed in white and constantly bathed in sunlight, in contrast to ‘evil’ figures that wear black and tow thunderstorms along with them everywhere they go? (I’m thinking back on some particularly visual-trope-heavy movies I’ve seen.) At least some of these associations make a kind of evolutionary sense: humans are generally afraid of the dark, and if you want to visually communicate that there’s a villainous character in a scene, you may as well visually associate them with things that humans are also unnerved by. However, what gets to me about this is that these visual associations are not inherently meaningful—they’re contrived by the image-maker to produce an emotional response in the viewer.

It seems, then, that there’s potential for significant danger in forgetting the mostly-contrived nature of visual communication. Villains in real life aren’t guaranteed to come covered in warts or have crooked noses. Likewise, capturing a political leader lit by the sun, standing physically above a crowd of onlookers in shadow, doesn’t actually indicate any legitimacy on their part. It’s important to keep a distinction between “what the image is saying” and “whether or not it’s true.”


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