Visual culture dominates the western world. Visual messages surround us and are spread through our society. Images, whether photographs, paintings, videos or advertising logos have a power that text cannot compete with: the power of instant recognition. Our visual culture, when it comes to using images, has acquired such strength that it can be argued that it has overtaken the reading of a block of text.
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There is a growing fear among educators and parents that children are rejecting books in favour of the visual excitement of the Internet. While it remains true that fiction, poetry, newspaper reporting and academic texts can and do still shock, manipulate and influence the public imagination through the creative use of language, the visual image does all this faster. It is visual shorthand and has certain features that text alone cannot compete with.
Firstly, an image has the ability to encapsulate weighty ideas, provoke debate, trigger reactions and stimulate thought in an instant and its impact can be felt as deeply. As Milton Glaser, the graphic designer best known for his ‘I Love New York’ logo, once said, “The purpose of graphic design is to move people to action or to inform them. If part of that role is to create a benign social environment, so much the better.” (Glaser, 2006, p72) Visual images can, broadly, reach members of all cultures: it acts as a visual language that everyone can be apart of regardless of one’s age, culture or literacy level e.g. everyone, globally, understands what the nodding of the head means. In multi-cultural Britain, where English is a second language for many, it can be argued that the visual image is the main shared cultural arena. It unites our population in a way that no other medium can do. The visual makes no demographic assumptions and allows everyone to have equal access to important debates. In a world of visual culture we are all equals. It is the most democratic inclusive aspect of our modern lives, which is why these days, the oriental proverb, a picture is worth a thousand words, is truly appropriate.
In western society, it is only to be expected that the great issues of the day will find themselves represented visually. Pictures bring political changes, conflicts, environmental disasters and volcanic eruptions directly into our living rooms, sparking off discussion and debate about national and international issues. It is striking that in countries under tight state control such as North Korea, visual images are closely monitored in an effort to limit the spread of challenging ideas
Prevent the function of an image because of cultural differences
that could undermine the grip of its supreme leader, Kim Jong II.
Yet the visual does not confine itself to world affairs. Contemporary domestic issues are equally powerful. Here, images play as great a part in challenging modern beliefs, testing our prejudices, arousing sympathy and provoking us to articulate about our values. Our reactions can be surprisingly revealing and can lead us to question ourselves both as individuals and as a society. They can bring about change, encourage us to mature and even accelerate our development.
Over the course of the past decade, many widely held shared notions and ideas have been revisited and reassessed in the visual arena. At the top of the list are all aspects of our attitude towards the human body. Disability is one example. In September 2005, the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square was occupied by a white marble sculpture by Marc Quinn of disabled artist Alison Lapper while eight months pregnant. A victim of phocomelia, the genetic condition which has effects similar to those caused by the drug Thalidomide, ‘Alison Lapper pregnant’ pays tribute to a woman born with no arms and forshortened legs. Throughout her own life, Alison Lapper has been acutely aware of the struggles surrounding social acceptance that disabled people face. When the sculpture first received approval in 2004, the journalist Cahal Milmo, covering the story for ‘The Independent’, wrote:
“One of the rare occasions when Alison Lapper was seen in public as a small girl, the reaction of the British public was to turn away and drag their children from where she and her friends were sitting. Yesterday, some 35 years later, Ms. Lapper was contemplating her new status as the subject of a work of art that will leave her naked form to be gazed upon by millions -fleetingly and lingeringly- in one of the most famous public spaces in the world.” (Milmo, 2004)
Visual culture, it seems, can create, communicate and reproduce cultural identity: examples ranging from architecture to apparel can play a part in visual culture. For individuals visual culture plays a prodigious part of conveying one’s personality or notions.
The famous 1980’s hip-hop rap group Run-D.M.C. had a trademark of having no shoelaces in their shoes. Rev Run, one third of Run-D.M.C, stated that wearing “sneakers with no shoestrings… was a very street thing to wear, extremely rough”.
The general public may take the visual sphere for granted, seeing “more examples of graphic design before they get to work than they see examples of art in a year. Before they are even fully awake most people will see the numbers and letters on the faces of alarm clocks, the colours, shapes and lettering on the tubes of toothpasteâ€¦” (Barnard, 2005, p1) and consequently overlook the important contribution it makes to social cohesion through a shared language. As Malcolm Barnard argues, our visual world seeks to decorate, inform, persuade and interpret the world around us. Furthermore, there is an additional function which, he suggests, cannot be overlooked: “the magical function” (Barnard, 2006, p15). Through pictures, we bring the remote closer, shrinking space. “If this were not true, then we would not keep pictures or photographs of our loved ones in our walletsâ€¦” (Barnard, 2006, p16) Furthermore, visual culture introduces beauty and harmony into our daily lives. Both our personal and our cultural lives would be destitute without visual stimuli. We cannot underestimate its significance.
To explore and broaden these ideas, I intend to examine the part visual culture plays in the development of a mature, fair and inclusive society. While these may sound like extravagant claims, we have already accepted that there is more to an image than what appears on the surface. Images that have the power to inform and stimulate may also flush out fallacies, damaging opinions and false perceptions that grip the public’s imagination. Lizzi Miller’s photograph (fig.1) is a strong deterrent of negative perspectives of the natural female form: Chief among these is the notion of the desirability of physical perfection.
According to psychoanalyst and writer on feminist issues, Susie Orbach, states “enough studies have been carried out demonstrating the harm done to all girls and women” enforcing the stereotype of the perfect figure upon them and the harm “is now enveloping boys and men” (Orbach, 2010).
In a recent piece published in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper, she expresses the deep distress caused to millions of adolescents, both male and female, who succumb to eating disorders as a result of what they see as pressure to conform to what is, in most cases, an unattainable size and shape. There is no question that Ms. Orbach makes an impact through the strength of her well-written and thoroughly researched argument on a) those who buy ‘The Guardian’, b) have the time and interest to sit and read her piece, c) are already intrigued by the subject. However, the same argument was expressed by ‘Glamour’, the monthly women’s fashion magazine, in a single visual image: that of Lizzi Miller, naked.
Lizzi Miller (fig.1) was photographed for ‘Glamour’ in 2009. She has the look of an average woman with a dress size 12 and is 20 years old. In the picture, she sits casually, unclothed on a seat with her arms and legs comfortably crossed. She faces away from the camera and her beaming, natural smile suggests warmth and friendliness. The natural light is very bright and the viewer is able to see every detail of her body profile, even her belly roll.
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This model’s deliberately unsophisticated natural beauty, prominent thighs and stomach strike a chord with a broad cross-section of ordinary women: mothers, career women, those in long-term relationships and those whose physical shape does not comply to the perceived ideal. Her social status is kept deliberately vague; she could be anyone and this anonymity is key to her appeal and usefulness as a visual image.
The power of this portrait lies in the way that it places ‘imperfection’ in the spotlight -a rebellious idea in itself- and then goes even further by associating this with happiness, thereby merging the two ideas. The model appears self-confident: the way she sits, her pose, crossed legs revealing her thighs deliberately emphasized by the camera angle. Similarly, her facial expression reveals that she is obviously unconcerned about this, not in any sense depressed by her physical shape. The image insists that she is comfortable with her body and even with her belly roll. It demonstrates her acceptance of her looks and conveys the message powerfully and persuasively to a female audience that it is ok not to be perfect and that there is more to being attractive than conforming to a dress size 8. Compellingly, Lizzi Miller promotes a healthy figure to the average woman in the street.
This strong visual image of a beautiful and contented woman who is pleased with her appearance rather than anxious to conceal it, makes a significant contribution to the current debate on body size in the west, reaching a wide cross-section of the public whose ethnicity, literacy levels and social class are entirely irrelevant. This sort of image would not appear in an elite magazine such as ‘Vogue’. Its affluent readers buy it for the pleasure of seeing beauty in its perfection; a fantasy world. In fig. 2, taken from ‘Vogue Italia’ the model, who clearly conforms to artificial notions of female beauty and body size, is playing a part. The pose she strikes is deliberate and staged. Her gaze is detached and her look absent. It is an artificial construction of a female exterior at odds with Lizzi Miller’s natural personality which is positively encouraged to shine through. Interestingly, despite appealing to women of higher social/literacy status, ‘Vogue’ leaves notions of body size and imperfection unchallenged and maintains the dubious status quo. Skinny is still promoted as more attractive, although it is widely held responsible by experts for the body dysmorphia outbreak, depression, self-harm and suicide. ‘Glamour’ pushes and strains against it with a thought-provoking image that stimulates debate to the extent that ‘Vogue’ begins to seem like pure entertainment or abstract art – amusing, delighting, magical but not real.
Through a single snapshot, ‘Glamour’ flushes out into the open the entire complex debate on body image and brings it to a head. Lizzi Miller’s image undermines the fallacy that super-thin is beautiful and pushes the audience to question its validity. This picture shakes the foundations of an idea that has gripped the female imagination for decades and forces part of it to crumble. If she is beautiful and happy in her body, it seems to ask, why can’t I be?
This challenge to our cultural identity, with both men and women,
Photographer, mag, editor, lizzi is challenging
Comes from mag, anorexia
Challenging the Perceived ideal
arises as a direct result of the visual image, proving its persuasive power. No government statistics, no learned psychological research, no adolescent studies are involved, just one picture captures it all. Through visual messages such as this, our society moves one step closer to tolerance, acceptance of diversity and ultimately to its own maturity. It is images like these that may one day render United States ‘Vogue’ editor Anna Wintour’s comment “every woman wants to be thinner” (Edwards, 2009), obsolete.
Just as cultural identities are shaped and challenged by visual stimuli, so too are beliefs of equality and social status. This idea is revealed through subtle references such as the inclusion of the lone black model who appears in Dolce and Gabbana’s spring/summer collection 2009 campaign by Mario Testino. (fig.3). It is all too easy to miss the significance of this image in the general liveliness of colour, sparkle and expensive surroundings. However, on closer analysis, the viewer discovers that this black female is alone among six white models; she is the odd one out, quite literally the odd number. In addition to this, while all the other glare directly into the lens in a proud, confrontational style, the single black model glances sideways and downwards, her gaze resting on something beyond the frame, the eyes uncertain, her look insecure.
Whereas some of the white girls have their hands placed confidently on their hips, others revealing a whole leg, arm or shoulders, her limbs are partially hidden, her flowing skirt blocked by the twirling hem of the one in front. Surely, Testino is commenting on status, asking several questions through the model’s own anxious pose: What is she doing here? Does she belong? Does she have a right to be here?
Yet again we see confirmation of the influential power of visual cultural messages to drive difficult and uncomfortable ideas into the open for review, consideration and discussion. What may begin as a numerical imbalance -the black female occupying one seventh of the image- expands outwards into cultural rethinking. According to The University of Wisconsin-Madison, this is “because seeing is central to our understandings of cultural difference.” (What is Visual Culture?, 2010) Far from being a superficial advertisement for dresses, Testino invites us to recognise her isolation from the other women, the racial imbalance of the shot and the underrepresentation of models from ethnic minorities in high-status fashion photography. He draws our attention to the fact that while we may support the idea of social inclusiveness, the reality is till a long way off.
Black and other minority ethnic groups are still underused in high status areas of modern life. The brilliance of Testino’s shot is that these huge messages are communicated to us while purporting pretty girls in sparkly dresses. Visual culture is more that it appears on the surface: it challenges, it pushes boundaries, it questions established perceptions and ultimately, if successful, has the strength to bring about change. A well-chosen image may even accelerate a change in social attitudes that can truly liberate us from tired thinking and move us on as a society from ideas that have trapped us for centuries and narrowed our appreciation of the world.
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