What Images Mean

Assignment 2

For this next assignment, we were asked to find out what images mean to different people. The purpose of experimenting with images and objects I think is to try and consider how you could use this as a research method and to understand the concept of polysemy.

First I shall explain what polysemy means: with many significations or from Greek polusēmos having many meanings.

For the first part of this assignment we were advised to read Roland Barthes‘s essay ‘The Rhetoric of Image’ (essay taken from the book on right) which explores the relationship between images and text. He uses a Panzani advert, as an example, to demonstrate how from just one image can open a whole variety of underlying messages. I found this essay very tricky to read as Barthes first wrote the piece in academic French then translated it into English, but the main key points I think were conveyed well. Such as:

  • Images in advertising are purposely made to be easily understood so that the public can quickly grasp what the advertisement is trying to sell/say.
  • He sees two linguistic messages conveyed from the Panzani advertisement: the labels and captions on the produce create a denoted message. There was also a connoted message implied by the word ‘Panzani’ illustrating a cultural ethnicity, in this case, of Italianicity.
  • He then sees another underlying meaning, a symbolic message. For example, the half-open string bag portrays a come-back to the market meaning; tomatoes and peppers imply a feeling of Italianicity; the gathering of objects and vegetables signify a culinary service; the arrangement of the scene is similar to that of a still-life.
  • The third message is the literal message, the actual individual items in the image (a packet of pasta represents a packet of pasta), thus this is a message without a code.

After reading the essay and feeling confused I selected three random photographs using the website Stock.xchng and began the experiment. The pictures I chose are below, not in any specific order.

I asked different people to look at the images and tell a brief story linking all three together. Next I wrote down the key information from each story told, which were all completely different. When I had summarised all of them I selected one to be my target story. The task was to add a fourth image so that everyone I showed the images to would come up with the same target story.  The fourth image is below.

The initial story was from Kirstie, aged 23, female, studies Physiotherapy and born in Brunei Darrusalam. Her story went something like this: A couple owned a fruit and veg stall, whilst on the stall their kids are looked after by their grandma, she takes them to play ground to go on swings, this is where they find stray cat, they take it home.

The result was really surprising! 4 out of the 5 people told a similar story from the four images, without me even putting them in the correct order! Each of the 4 stories ended with kids taking the cat home. However I was determined for the last girl to follow suit. It was pretty simple, I just added one word for each image (fruit stall – couple, swings – children, cat on grass – stray, cat in bed – home). I then asked her how I could have made the target story more obvious. Her answer was possibly to have a cat with a collar on, the cat playing with children inside or the cat sleeping on someone’s lap. I also noticed in both stories that there was no suggestion the cat was a stray, her reason behind this was because she loves cats and does not want to imagine them stray and abandoned. This is interesting as now I think people’s taste can have a huge effect on image meaning.

Now from reading the essay and through experimenting with images, I have found that my understanding of polysemy has grown. That, indeed, an image can have multiple layers of meanings but can also have an affect and become misunderstood by different people, perhaps due to their cultural background, bringing up, schooling and, in Pierre Bordieu’s book I read, it could even be down to social class. So polysemy in jewellery can create problems as you may percieve your own piece in such a way but others may see it in a totally different light. Maybe you did this purposely to keep the public questioning about your piece but sometimes it is important to fix the meaning of your work (Lighting, colours used, composition etc), or else your work could be reviewed in an art newspaper for everybody to see besides the fact that what is being said about your piece may be complete nonsense.

However, the essay as a whole raises the question ‘how does this relate to my discipline’ – jewellery? Well I think it relates to me as an individual. How do I come across to other people? How do others percieve me? How can I present my work in such a way to attract clients? Because if I place my piece on, let’s say, some sand, it may detract from the true meaning of my piece. I think this plays a big role in my discipline because if a client wants to interview me and I come in with a frown on my face of shabby clothes, it will turn the client off straight away. Appearance, enthusiasm and confidence in your own work is essential in luring customers in.

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