Image-text combination as narrative instrument

Of course, you don’t need to resort to image manipulation techniques to alter the meaning of an image, as Errol Morris (2008) puts it, “[c]aptions do the heavy lifting as far as deception is concerned. The pictures merely provide the window dressing” but this aspect of fakery is less commonly explored in discussions of misinformation.

Barthes referred to the caption as a “parasitic message designed to connote the image, to ‘quicken’ it with one or more second-order signifieds” and as such “the text loads the image, burdening it with a culture, a moral, an imagination“; since we regard the photograph as ‘natural’, and the text as merely duplicating the image’s content, that which is connoted by the text is naturalised by the image, and “we are thus confronted with a typical process of naturalization of the
cultural” (1977, pp 25-26).

In the relation between a photograph and words, the photograph begs for an interpretation, and the words usually supply it. The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words. And the words, which by themselves remain at the level of generalisation, are given specific authenticity by the irrefutability of the photograph. Together the two then become very powerful; an open question appears to have been fully answered.” (Berger 1982, p 92)

Berger seems to have hit the nail on the head with his interpretation of how images and text are often used together in a kind of symbiotic (synergetic?) relationship, where each contributes to the whole and survives as a result of being part of the relationship rather than any ability to exist (to any significant degree) alone. What is important here is the power inherent in the relationship between text and image – the power of text to direct interpretation of images and the power of images to evidence the written word.

Benjamin also realized the power of the caption, but his exhortation was aimed at the photographer, who is not always the one who supplies the caption:

What we must demand from the photographer is the ability to put such a caption beneath his picture as will rescue it from the ravages of modishness and confer upon it a revolutionary use value” (1998, p 95).

Victor Burgin recognized that we hardly ever experience a photographic image which is not accompanied by some form of text:

We rarely see a photograph in use which does not have a caption or a title, it is more usual to encounter photographs attached to long texts, or with copy superimposed over them” (1982, p 144)

While the photograph itself is encoded in a form of language that Burgin calls ‘photographic discourse’, and is not fixed but subject to an “unending process of becoming” as function of other, latent texts:

this discourse, like any other, engages discourses beyond itself, the ‘photographic text’, like any other, is the site of a complex ‘intertextuality’, an overlapping series of previous texts ‘taken for granted’ at a particular cultural and historical conjuncture” (ibid, p 144).

Thus when we read a photographic image, although the content of these other texts do not appear in the image itself, they are brought into play as part of the reading process.

Barthes also observed how photographic images are polysemous, imbued with multiple meanings or a “floating chain of signifieds“, with the viewer at liberty to decide which ones to select or ignore. As such, in order to ‘fix’ this ambiguity and “counter the terror of uncertain signs“, images are typically captioned or set alongside a text that “directs the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others… towards a meaning chosen in advance” (1977, p 40). For Barthes, this anchoring of the message constitutes repressive utilization of the text to control reading of a particular image.

I exist in an important sense for you, and by virtue of you. If I have lost the conditions of address, if I have no “you” to address, then I have lost “myself.” In [Cavarero’s] view, one can tell an autobiography only to an other, and one can reference an ‘I’ only in relation to a “you”: without the “you,” my own story becomes impossible. (Butler 2005, p 32)

Butler is advancing the Bakhtnian notion that meaning can only be established through dialogue. Elsewhere, Butler analyses Sontag’s opinion about the discrete, fragmentary quality of photographs:

For Sontag, photographs render truths in a dissociated moment; they “flash up” in a Benjaminian sense, and so provide only fragmented or dissociated imprints of reality. As a result, they are always atomic, punctual, and discrete. What photographs lack is narrative coherence, and it is such coherence alone, in her view, that satisfies the needs of the understanding” (2009, p 67)

Of course, here we are considering photographs as individual standalone images, not fused together in a fixed time sequence. Butler takes the following phrase from Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others: “Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us” and proceeds to question the correctness of this statement, asking whether photographs cannot succeed in making us understand: “Sontag maintains that “a narrative seems more likely to be effective than an image” in helping to mobilize us effectively” (Butler 2009, p 69). Surely a combination of image and narrative would serve both as evidence and stimulus to take action or change (political) views. Although both writers are talking about war, can we transcribe their ideas onto any issue involving the suffering and/or oppression of the other, which requires a shift in accepted values?

I am looking at text used alongside images, particularly first person singular/plural. I am drawn to first person narratives, and all the more so since completing the last course where I looked at National Geographic traditions and how that magazine actually reinforces stereotypes and imperialistic world view of Western Anglo-Saxon positivist hegemony. Empowerment is the key, providing a platform for the ordinary man to speak, to be heard. This fits in with postmodernist trends towards the parochial and seemingly inconsequential as a retort to overbearing and prejudiced systems of power and knowledge (metanarratives). I find it more interesting when the people themselves are allowed to speak without having an interpreter placed between subject and audience.

The National Geographic tradition is merely pandering to the tastes of its audience (as can be seen when we analyse how the entire continent of Africa is reductively depicted on its pages), and very often the text is written by a different person from the journalist who took the photographs, which adds another remove (it’s very often the case that the text has nothing at all to do with the images, as I explored with McCurry’s image of the Afghan Girl and accompanying text by Debra Denker). Becker reminds us that the images we see in the final publication tend to reflect more the editorial attitude, or even the photographer’s pre-emption of what might be expected by the editor or audience:

editors know, or think they know, in advance of any investigation, what their story line is going to be. Whatever a story says … will be well within what readers already know and believe. An appropriate photograph will rely, for its instant readability, on readers having that knowledge” (Becker 1995, p 12).

Readers expect media images to be instantly interpretable, without any ambiguities or complexities that require them to decipher what is represented; the image should therefore illustrate what is already considered ‘known’ about a subject, and not raise questions.

Moving away from mere captions, which are just another way of enforcing an audience’s reading of an image or set of images (as Sontag clearly showed with her example of the same photographs of dead children shown differently captioned to both Serbs and Croats during the Balkan wars – New Yorker, Dec 9, 2002), the text-image combination has great power since we can add background data and contextual information that may otherwise lie outside of the frame: “Alter the caption: alter the use of these deaths.“. Sliwinski calls attention to what she terms the “radical malleability” of the meaning of photographs, since they can undergo transformation in both context and content: “The meaning of a photographic image is never fixed, never guaranteed, and never to be trusted” (2009, p 308).

As Hall tells us, the meaning of an image is not its exclusive property, but is located in the conjunction of image and text (1997, 228). On the topic of documentary images, Maren Stange also notes that:

Not the photograph alone, but the image set in relation to a written caption, an associated text, and a presenting agency (such as the reform organization or, later, the museum) constituted the documentary mode. For the sponsor and the audience of the documentary experience or publication, the photograph necessarily took on meaning within a particular rhetorical framework created by its interaction with caption, text, and agency, even though the photographer and his or her subject did not always intend such a meaning or share its ideology.” (1989, p xiv)

As Ken Plummer (1995) has observed, contemporary social science discourse draws on deconstructionist theories to view the world as a series of stories or texts; cultural and social narratives that are produced and consumed as a way for individuals to interpret the social world, negotiate their way in it and form their identities. Since identities are not fixed, and an individual can shift between states of being what he terms ‘producers, coaxers and consumers‘, the meanings of narratives are also never fixed, but rather generated as a result of a “ceaselessly changing stream of interaction between producers and readers in shifting contexts” (p 22).

I see my role in this project as that of what Plummer calls a coaxer:

These folk possess the power, at least momentarily, to provoke stories from people. Their line of activity is to seduce stories: coaxers become listeners and questioners. They probe, interview, and interrogate…
bringing people to the edge of telling a story they might never have told before, and coaching them to tell it in a certain way
.” (1985, p 21)

Although the narrative essentially belongs to the producers, my role as coaxer is also significant: “Coaxers can play a crucial role in shifting the nature of the stories that are told” (ibid, 21). In this sense, the ultimate narrative will be the result of a collaborative process between the producer and coaxer, the final edit being approved by the producer after having been edited and arranged by the coaxer. Plummer also points out that the receiving audience has to be prepared; otherwise the narrative will cease to function adequately:

Stories come into their time when a community has been fattened up, rendered ripe and willing to hear such stories. Whilst they can be heard amongst isolated individuals, they can gain no momentum if they stay in this privatised mode. Many personal narratives hence remain in the private sphere of dim inarticulateness, having no group to sustain and strengthen them. For stories to flourish there must be social worlds waiting to hear” (ibid, p 121).

How do I set about preparing an audience to receive the films I am producing? Are the different audiences (in KZ and UK) to be prepared in different ways?

I explored propaganda and media manipulation in the previous module. Here I want to look at image-text combinations that embody narratives.

I looked at Rosler’s Bowery during the last course, and I think there has probably been enough said about it. Nevertheless, I’ll look up her own thoughts on her work. The rationale behind a piece of work is oftentimes more interesting and engaging than the work itself.

“In general, photographic analysis has concentrated on the immanent structure of images, the relations within the frame. However, photographs are by nature ambiguous and polysemic texts; their narrative capacity is weak, and their meaning is often determined by the immediate context created for their publication: the synthesis of text, titles, and – in extended photoessays… – the accumulated significance of the images themselves.” ()

In this sense, what Mraz is saying is that photographs are typically taken as singular objects rather than analysed in the light of how they are presented, captioned, etc. On the other hand, some critics have looked at the way images are presented in certain formats (images of famine juxtaposed with lifestyle advertisements in magazines, for instance). I guess it’s difficult to make a meaningful analysis of an entire body of work, and one tends to use examples of single images to represent the whole or to illustrate a point. This may also be the power of still images, which affords them their iconic status.

Documentary images have pretty much always been presented along with text to aid (or guide) interpretation of the images. As Curtis (2004, p 14) points out, even Jacob Riis “embellished” his lantern slide lectures with an “exaggerated vocabulary” to create “powerful interpretive frameworks” within which his audiences were instructed how to read the projected images. Lewis Hine was also not averse to using strongly worded captions to add inferences to images and direct viewers’ interpretation and drive home a point, as Curtis demonstrates with this 1910 example, titled simply One Arm and Four Children:

Hine is drawing attention to the implications of this man’s apparent inability to provide for his young family as a result of an industrial accident (which also serves to further stigmatise impairment and disability).


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