The interpretation of images

2639 words (11 pages) Essay

27th Feb 2017 Photography Reference this


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Does the person (or people) who produce a work (image, film, artwork etc.) ultimately control its meaning and interpretation?

The relationship between a person and/or people controlling a piece of work, and thus its meaning, are closely inter-related. Photographers, for example, hold multiple theories. One photographer may concur with the notion of inter-relation, whilst another may hold an idea contradictory – theories that support a negative interpretation of, in this case, an image. Throughout this essay I will be looking into different photographers views on meanings of a piece of work and authorship. I will be doing this by comparing the photographers’ views, concluding the questions answer s and then explaining my opinion and summarising the essay.

I believe most photographers agree that they have full control of the meaning or interpretation of an image, when we look at an image and read then read the concept behind it we are led to believe that, that is the intended meaning of that piece of work. However, sometimes when we are looking into contradicting and deceiving images that is when the public eye notice that the concept may not be what the photographer intended to show through his photographs.

It is common practice for photographers to use various methods to analyse the meaning and interpretation of an image. They have a choice as to the method employed, which can give results ranging from the qualitative, to the quantitative.

Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize, given for an award-winning image of a malnourished Sudanese child, is one particular example of how the intended meaning of an image can actually be interpreted. The image signified no celebration – a child barely surviving, and a vulture eager for carrion. However, this image which epitomised Sudan’s famine would go on to win Kevin Carter fame, from previous hopes of a career built on hounding the news, free-lancing in war-ravaged countries, and waiting anxiously for assignments amid dire finances; he would stay in the line of fire for that one great image.

The photograph was sold to ‘The New York Times’ where it appeared on 26 March 1993, as a ‘metaphor for Africa’s despair’. Overnight, hundreds contacted the newspaper to ask if the child has survived. As a result, the newspaper ran an unusual special editors’ note explaining to the public that the girl did have enough strength to get away from the vulture, but that her ultimate fate was unknown. Journalists within Sudan were requested not to touch victims of famine due to the risk of disease transmission. Despite this, Carter came under aggressive criticism for not helping the girl. The‘St. Petersburg Times’in Florida wrote “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.’’[1]

The approach that public opinion doomed on Carter was not only that of taking the image instead of immediately chasing the vulture away, but also the element that he did not help the small girl afterwards who clearly needed help. Then again, as Carter explained later that he left her in such a weak condition to continue the march by herself towards the feeding centre. Kevin Carter committed suicide two years after receiving the Pulitzer Prize.

We are led to believe that Kevin Carter’s suicide note is as followed:

“Im really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist… depressed… without phone… money for rent… money for child support… money for debts… money!!! I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners… I have gone to joinKenif I am that lucky.”[6]

Joanne Cauciella Bonica, Massapequa, New York expressed her feelings to the world by saying “It is ironic that Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer for a photograph which to me is a photograph of his own soul and exemplifies his own life. Kevin is that small child huddled up against the world, and the vulture is what we could call ‘the angel of death’. I just wish someone would have chased that evil from his life. I’m sure that little child surrendered to death just as Kevin did. Both must have suffered significantly.”[7]

This is a prime example of whether the photographer, the producer of the image, has ultimate control over the meaning and interpretation of their work. An analysis into Kevin Carter’s ‘vulture stalking a child’ image reveals that his intentions were only to show a bird spreading its wings. On the contrary, the result was much more haunting – on the most basic level, it is interpreted as an image of a predator and its prey, by the viewers. Following such observations and information requests to The New York Times, the viewers altered the meaning of the image, from one that should have shown a vulture spreading its wings, to one which displays a cruel, heart-breaking, and cultural issues image.

“He heard a soft, high-pitched sobbing and saw a tiny girl trying to make her way to the feeding centre. As he crouched to photograph her, a vulture landed in sight. Trying careful not to disturb the bird, he positioned himself for the best possible image. He later then said he waited patiently for about 20 minutes, hoping the vulture would spread its wings. However it did not, and after he took his photographs, he claimed to chase the bird away, yet still watched as the little girl continued her struggle to the feeding centre.”[2]

Therefore, when we look back at the question, does the person (or people) who produce a work (image, film, artwork etc.) ultimately control its meaning and interpretation? We can look at this question in many different ways when we begin to deconstruct the image bit by bit, so we can observe many different individual parts of this image to interpret.

When we look at this image whole, what we are pushed to believe that the image is representing a malnourished Sudanese child that is crying for help, you could say the image is showing awareness of what is happening in different areas of the world.

However, if we were to deconstruct this image, the concept of the photograph is completely changed to a wild animal looking for its pray to pounce on. Which then relates to wildlife/documentary photography. Then again, if we were to deconstruct the image the other way around we would see a raising awareness image of the people of Sudan needing help, instead of the journalist photography that Kevin Carter is so highly known for.

KevinCartePulitzer1994 KevinCartePulitzer1994

‘’The rule of thirds is applied by aligning a subject with the guidelines and their intersection points, placing the horizon on the top or bottom line, or allowing linear features in the image to flow from section to section.’’[3]

When looking into the rules of thirds we frame the photograph and imagine it divided into 9 individual parts of the image, as a photographer when using the rule of thirds properly we try to position the main parts of the photograph near the lines and intersections of the grid. Therefore, when we look at Kevin Carters image using this method, we see that the vulture and child meet the criteria of the rule of thirds rules, the main aspects of the image line up with the main centre lines of the grid. This could be known as a perfect picture, if you will. However, we are told that Carter’s intentions of this image was to take a picture of the bird ‘spreading its wings’ and flying away.

Carter must have been set up in a position where if he did take the image it would be seen as a perfect image, then again because this was the image he produced instead, this one turned out to be ‘The perfect image in photography rules.’

Stephen Bull

Discourses are infamously tricky to evaluate. Ever since the 1970’s this idea of disclosure has perfected, absorbed and if you will replaced the theory of ideology. Its use in the analysis of photographs, ideology generally devises from the writings of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. However in summary of Foucault’s work the definition of disclosure is known as ‘a groups statements which structure the way a thing is thought, and the way we act on the basis of that thinking,’[4]. All of the elements around a certain photographs or photographic practice’ are its wide-ranging perspective that is produced and then how it is thought about.

Therefore to illustrate this idea, it is useful to scrutinise thoroughly many different theories such as Martin Parr’s conservative ‘Midsummer Madness’ party has been expressed through a number of discourses, the originally meaning has been re-interpreted, sometimes subtly, other times significantly in its process.

The cost of Living conservative Midsummer Madness is part of the documentary discourse – where ‘things as they are’ are shown. Many writers such as John Tagg would have been more likely to argue that the arranging of the photographs in this particular imagery is within the disclosure of documentary, which produces the idea that they portray the reality of the middle class consumerism in the 1980’s in Britain. Then again Parr’s work is involved in a development of the discourse documentary where the photographer allows more of a personal, independent viewpoint throughout their image of choice. (Bull, 2010).

Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright

Many images produce meanings, however meanings of a piece of work do not are not, strictly speaking, fully interpreted in the work itself, this is where the producer of the piece of work has placed its individual elements for the viewer to uncover them. The meanings and interpretations of work are based besides the image itself and the producer of the image.

Then again, images have what we call the ‘dominant’ better known as a shared meaning. The image can also be interpreted and seen in many ways that do not adapt to its originally meaning.

However, it is important to realise that not all work of arts and media productions do not speak to all viewers the same, rather, a piece of art speaks to specific viewers who are drawn into the image when being viewed. For example, style, content, the world it builds and the issues it raises. When a viewer is interested in a photograph they say the image speaks to them, perhaps because they can relate to it or know of someone who they can relate it to. ‘Just as viewers create meaning from images, images also construct audiences.’[5]

Normally most images we view have some sort of concept behind them that their producers have tried to show throughout the image this could be a small or large aspect of the image. For example, advertisers look into audience research to ensure that the product they are advertising to sell is directly focused at the right age group or gender for the best selling point. Artists, graphic designers, filmmakers and many other people in this industry use images that the viewer will read interpret to their satisfaction. (Sturken, Cartwright, 2001).

To conclude, does the person (or people) who produce a work (image, film, artwork etc.) ultimately control its meaning and interpretation? After looking into different online and library book resources such as ‘Stephen Bull PHOTOGRAPHY’ who expresses how an individual photograph is thought about and portrayed, I have found that all the recourses I have read through have one thing in common, the theory of a viewer creates meaning from images and the image creates the audience. Even though I have mentioned throughout my essay that the producer of the work attempts to show the meaning he intends to give throughout his/her image/images the main aspect in my opinion is the viewer and their opinion of the image and how they are drawn into it, how they interpret the image and relate to it.

I believe from the research I have found that the person/people who produce the work do not have full control of the image. The producer attempts to show meaning throughout the image/images, process but how it is seen is the main element of this question.

In summary, if the producer had full control there would be no need to have a research team in all advertisement of artist, graphic design and photography industries. The producer would not need to look into his target audience or age category, he/she would just take the picture and broadcast it. However this is something that is vital throughout the photographic industry. We direct our work to a specific audience to what the images concept illustrates. Therefore, “the audience will change the images interpretation”[8].


  1. Kevin Carter. (2011). Manic Street Preachers. Available: Last accessed 09/03/2015.

  2. Kevin Carter. (2011). Manic Street Preachers. Everything must go. 7 (4), 34.
  3. Pete Williams. (1999). Rule of Thirds. Available: Last accessed 11/03/2015.

  4. Stephen Bull (2010). PHOTOGRAPHY. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. 43.
  5. Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright. (2001). Viewers Make Meaning. In: Practices of looking. United States, New York: Oxford University Press. 45.
  6. Macleod Scott. (12 December 1994). The life and death of Kevin Carter. Available: Last accessed 20/03/2015.

  7. Joanne Cauciella Bonica. (10th august 2005). The ultimate in the unfair. Available: Last accessed 20/03/2015.

  8. Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright. (2001).Practices of looking. New York: Oxford University Press. 45.

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