Images: More Than 1000 Words?

We are living in a Visual World...

In our culture, the visual is everything.  Of course, this is in addition to touch and sound.  Seeing is so much more than a sense – it applies to all areas of our lives, including our constant search for meaning.

In terms of communication, visuals are extremely important characteristics to consider.  We decide what to look at and how long.  We look for ourselves, and we look for others.

With the rise in digital communication, our daily input of visuals has increased exponentially.  They are specifically chosen to elicit certain responses, whether they are positive or negative

The visuals of violence are important in bringing out emotional responses.  People may want to catalyze a social reform by exposing the violence associated with it – this is where images come into play. It may horrify us, but it’s like a train wreck – we can’t look away.

Key Terms

Representation – use of language and images to create meaning about the world around us

Photography – technique in which light rays reflect off objects and pass through a lens and register an imprint on a medium

Myth – cultural values and beliefs that are expressed through connotation

Ideology – systems of beliefs that exist within all cultures

Image – elements of contemporary advertising and consumer culture through which assumptions are created and continued


Words: help to understand, describe, define, and images are used in the same way.  Images form a language-like structure, but it is one that is much more powerful than English, French, or Spanish.  They can communicate across the barriers of time, language, or space.  However, as with any language, there are rules.

Representation is not a static portrayal of the world as it exists.  Instead, it is how we choose to represent the world that allows us to create meaning.  Artists do not create just to show the world as it is – they want to show how they see the world. There is more than meets the eye to an image.  Usually, there is some symbolism or message that is being conveyed.

Maybe it’s my obsession with anything remotely French, but I loved the mention of René Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” in this chapter.  He is making a statement, but in a very humorous way.  He means to say that the painting is a representation of a pipe: how Magritte interprets it.  Yes, it does look like a pipe, but it is not the actual object.


The Myth of Photographic Truth

“The camera adds 10 pounds”

“He doesn’t really look like that in person”

“That’s a terrible angle – let’s retake that”

And my favorite: “Do I really look like that in real life?” 

Although we usually see a photograph as the most honest depiction of what we look like, the camera can easily deceive us.  It may be more accurate than a painting by hand, but the photographer and camera have become our new painters.

Even candid cameras are not a true portrayal of the physical world.  After all, who decided on that location or that angle?

Composing, lighting, and framing a picture all contribute to the subjectivity of a photograph.  Since my dad is an experienced photographer (he took one photography class in college), he is constantly moving us around to look for the best shot.  Is this really a true depiction of what’s happening when the photographer has to intervene?

Subjectivity in Photography

Is a photograph really not subject to question? The camera itself may add 10 pounds, but others can also edit a digital photo to make it show whatever they want.

One of my favorite shows, Prison Break, shows an extreme (and probably unrealistic) case of this.  When a top secret agent is kicked out of his position, which was close to the President, they digitally remove him from every single photo where the two are spotted together.

The meaning we derive from photographs is a combination of both subjectivity and objectivity. They can both inform and express at the same time, which is why they are so powerful.

Society Values Skinny

What bothers me is the societal value in super skinny models.  The fact that companies continue to use them today, is telling viewers that that is what is attractive.  Despite all the “love your curves” and “curvy is beautiful”, you don’t see Victoria’s Secret using fuller models.  This perpetuates the body image problems among females in our society today.

American Eagle recently launched an ad campaign where they use “real girls” with “real flaws”.  However, to me they still seem to be representing only the thinner girls of this “real” spectrum.  What do you think?

Images and Ideology

Images are produced to construct, add to, or question our ideologies.  They become so natural, that they are a part of our daily lives without a second thought.

Images act as an important mode of identification.  They are used on licenses, passports, and even credit cards to verify our identity.  I recently had to take a look at my old passport because I’m renewing it.  I was 14 and had a mouth full of blue braces (it wasn’t pretty).

Assumptions of Images:

  • Beauty
  • Desire
  • Glamour
  • Social Value

Images are taken more easily with the help of cell phones.  The typical smart phone can take a picture or video and email it or upload it within seconds.  Depending on the public’s level of interest, the image can circulate at a rate that only the Internet makes possible.

Meaning of Images

Company logos are more than just an image.  They acquire a denotative meaning that can be either positive or negative.  The meaning can be simple, but it also depends on the sociocultural context in which it is being interpreted.

Factors of Meaning:

  • Color
  • Shades
  • Tone
  • Contrast
  • Composition
  • Depth
  • Perspective
  • Style


Barthe distinguishes between the signifier and the signified, or the image at hand and the meaning we take respectively. In the case of Starbucks, the woman is the signifier and chic, high quality coffee is the meaning (or maybe that’s just me – I love my grande skinny mocha).


But the image is not merely a picture – it also includes text.  This is usually important for establishing meaning in the advertising sense.

Three Signs of Representation:

  1. Iconic – resemble object in some way
  2. Indexical – relationship between image and interpreter
  3. Symbolic – arbitrary meaning associated with image

Value of Images

Why do we enjoy (or at least some of us) going to art museums and staring at paintings and sculptures? It is because we enjoy looking for meaning in works of art, whether it is social, cultural, or historical.  Even those who are not artists themselves appreciate the possible meanings behind any one painting.