Reading Photographs

This weeks topic is about reading and examining images, looking at single images rather than a series and using semiotics (the study of signs & symbols and their use or interpretation) to decipher the meaning of a photograph. 

We were first asked to post and discuss an advertising image in the forum, describing what and how it is communicating. 

Searching online for adverts I came across this French Eurotunnel ad, depicting budget versions of the Spice Girls with the caption ‘London on the cheap’. It’s a satirical view on typical Britishness, the Spice Girls being one of the biggest British girl bands, but getting this sort of tribute band version to suggest how cheap the journey fare is. It’s simple, descriptive and comedic and doesn’t take much to understand the point they are making. They are instantly recognisable as typically British, using stereotypes to entice travellers. 

When ‘reading photographs’ there are certain things we initially look for. We typically break these down into two parts, the denotation - what we immediately identify and make out ‘what is’, and the connotation - the ideology or message behind it. Barthes used these concepts to form the whole semiotic system and penned his own phrases - the studium and punctum. The studium is what the picture contains and what is depicted, and about understanding the photographers intention. Studium is an interest in the subject, liking it but not compelled by it or loving it.

Punctum however are the elements that “pricks me, but also bruises me” (Barthes, 1981), the powerful aspects that draw you in and really connect to your emotional feelings. Studium and Punctum are subjective and different for every viewer, whereas the connotation and denotation are pretty standard concepts to break down an image - even so creating subjective responses between different people. 

Barthes’ system is confusing and I am still getting my head around it. However I recognise the punctum of an image for me personally would be an image of my mum, just like for Barthes when he found an image of his late mother,  immediately bringing up feelings of nostalgia, grief, love and happiness all at once. 

We then were asked to examine and compare two images - Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’ (1985) and Jodi Bieber’s ‘Bibi Aisha’ (2009). 

At first glance there are several similarities between these two powerful portraits; both young Afghan women, their striking gazes possessing strength and resilience. Both subjects are symbolic of all the innocent Afghan civilians affected by the war and terror their country is embedded in. Yet, these two portraits were taken 24 years apart, a never ending war. McCurry’s portrait was candid, taken in a refugee camp in Pakistan in “beautiful soft light”. Sharbat Gula only known as “Afghan Girl”, was angry. Her image captured and taken without permission by a white, Western man. We may question the ethics, but in hindsight, we may also recognise the importance of the image within society and history. Alternatively, Bieber’s 2009 portrait of Bibi Aisha was an organised and consented portrait. Aisha’s husband tracked her down and cut off her ears and nose after she left him. Aisha possesses confidence and resilience, guided by Bieber, a female photographer, to focus on her “inner power and beauty” rather than physical. Viewing these two portraits alongside each other, we can recognise how Bieber gives power to her subject, encouraging her to own her story, whereas in McCurry’s portrait the power is held by him as the photographer, gazing upon her. 

Paul commented back and replied to me, questioning if Bieber really gave complete power to her subject or if she just allowed her more in comparison to McCurry. I thought this interesting and it would have been fascinating to see a collaboration between them to see how Bibi would portray herself against Bieber’s depiction.

I am used to the process of ‘reading’ photos, but I am still surprised each time by the things I miss myself and are brought up by others that then make so much sense when I hear them. 

The way I personally react and interpret images is different to others due to my life experiences and background, I have had a very artistic upbringing due to both parents, and step parents, being artists and art teachers and this has definitely been a massive part in paving my own creativity and being aware of art and culture. I realise I am hugely privileged to have grown up comfortably and happily which also effects the way I view and interpret things, but these privileges doesn’t mean I haven’t faced hardships which also equate to who I am and my outlook. My loss and grief of my mother is also a big part of who I am and how I experience life and art. 

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