Week 4 – Signs

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sunset. We know that the earth is turning away from it. The knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.”

(Berger, 2008: 7)

Images can be more than just two dimensional still frames from an ever moving and evolving word. They can represent and often change or challenge the way a viewer sees reality.

None more so than in the use of images for advertising or political means. That being the use of an image to drive a message, sell a brand or project a view that’s not necessarily individuals own.

Plato’s cave looks at the notion of a group of slaves chained up in a cave facing a wall. Their only perception is the wold projected as shadows onto the wall in front of them. They can not see anything else. The notion that if they were freed, they would see the world for what it was, initially panic and want to be back in the cave. However, if given enough time they would adapt to the new scene in front of them.

For me, this summarises commercial advertising at its best. The way images are used for political and commercial gain, can often be the cause for ‘slaves’ to be within the cave in the first place.

The screen generation (as we are becoming known) is far more susceptible to this issue than any generation before us. The cave has been replaced with a small, silicon screen that fits nicely in our hands. The chain is now a virtual one, a chain we can not see, yet bonds us to a gaze that others want us to observe, a gaze that’s not our own nor supported by our own free will.

As individuals, we occasionally look up from these screens. Some keep looking up, but the masses – caught up in the great western consumerism, look back down to a familiar and ‘controlled’ world. The Matrix approach (from the films The Matrix) does have echos of reality to it.

Images are now everywhere.  The digital world is saturated with advertising the latest of everything. Such images use to appear in a magazine, on billboards and the TV – promoting the latest perfume or car. These images we could turn off, close or walk away from.

Now we carry these images around with us on our phones, tablets and devices. Our gaze fixed – we see them in our sleep – chaining the masses to the proverbial cave wall.

The USA is an excellent analogy of this. All know the American flag. Its one of the few flags of the world that almost all the global population can identify with.

The American way, freedom, constitutional independence, family, fast food, beer and guns are all associated with the image of the US flag. That is, to many of the American people. In other parts of the world (and to some in the US) this same image is often seen as a symbol of oppression, occupation and violence.

The burning of the US flag has formed some of the most iconic images from global conflicts (indeed some images have been associated with the start of conflicts) the burning done by those that the western world often associates with as ‘terrorists’. It is the photographer and the photographs ability to bear witness to such events, that then transforms a local action into a public political statement.

This transformation of an image from a single record of events to a political statement of intent has always fascinated me. Who is the instigator here, the photographer? The person burning the flag? The actual image? Alternatively, the viewer who is gaze transforms the image into one that fits the juxtaposition – the stereotype if you will – of their cultural cave?

However, is this association always real? After all – are all who burn the US flag always the oppressor or the oppressed?

I digress.

Some forms of imagery it seems could be accused of being an agent of oppression when used in anger. That anger is often driven by commercial advertising or by political intentions and a will to change the gaze of the population, to one that can be coerced and controlled.

Images can also be used for good. A single image can draw a community or a nation together under one aim and bring a sense of hope when all is lost.

Some images can be potent symbols. Take for example the image below:

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Figure 1

Franklin’s image has come to represent a will to rise from the ashes of 9/11 and provide the strength that many – including myself – have drawn from over the years. This image was naturally shot and is a representation of pure determination and will at a point in time when all seemed hopeless.

However, to me, this image can be compared to a similar image taken some sixty years previously.


Figure 2

This image taken by Lowery on 23rd February 1945 depicts US marines making it to the top of Mount Suribachi, during the Battle of Iwo Jima. They were at the time still taking heavy fire and when the flag was raised it rallied the US forces to complete the action on the island. This image was later recreated and became the most recognised.

The point here is that both images represent a natural, yet potent moment in time that inspires true US patriotism. It speaks of a will for freedom and democracy at times when both of these were under threat from the ideals of terror.

This example, to me, represents the use of an image for good but carries within a particular cultural message that the people of the US identify with.

Arguably this is an excellent example of Barthes studium and punctum working together. The cultural connotations of what is happening within Western culture combined with the emotional interaction with the events of 9/11 that the images create.

This could be considered a rare event for photography and only specific circumstances could create this impact.

The above is indeed an extreme example. Most images that force our gaze are advertising based. They seek to convince us we need something we do not have a use for. These images, to me, are the influence peddlers and the ear whisperers of their time. They take photography into a dark place. A place where your gaze is controlled by others whose own ambitions are often financial and physical gain.

I am not so sure Berger or Barthes could have seen this event occurring!

For me, a good analogy of this is the film Inception. Here the story covers a thief who steals corporate secrets through the use of dream-sharing technology – is given the inverse task of planting an idea into the mind of a CEO.


Figure 3

This ability to implant ideas into someone’s mind through their dreams – within a world that can be altered in multiple ways to achieve this fits with the ability of modern commercial advertising to do the same with its images.

For me, the construct of an advertising image is staged to the point that reality is often lost in favour of forcing your gaze to make you ‘feel’ a need for an object. For example:


Figure 4

The original mix of sensual, seductive colours in the scene with the exuberance and elite look to the model gives the viewer a visual sense of the product – that it will bring YOU a lifestyle like this.

This is, in reality, not something we see, rather a product we smell. It is the images ability to deceive, that is forcing our gaze to a place where the viewer then generates a sense of wanting instead of just a sense of seeing.

All of this draws me to Barthes “Photographic Message,” This is a look at how culture and ideas are encoded in photographs.

“The photographic paradox can be seen as the co-existence of two messages, the one without a code (the photographic analogue), the other with code (the rhetoric of the photograph).”  

(Barthes and Sontag, 2015: 198)

That being – while images are pretending to be neutral and objective, they have underlying cultural connotations and subjective meanings – depending on where and by whom the image is being viewed.

The very ideas and values inherent in a photograph are determined by the culture in which the photograph was produced, and therefore, always historical. That is why photographs are also a source of information on culture and the society in which they originated.

To me, such images are very ‘westernised’ and do not appeal. More so because, in my view, they promote a lifestyle that others inspire to be part of – a lifestyle that its, in itself, a complete fake, constructed by advertising companies to sell the product.

In the words of Berger:

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand, and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your pleasure.”

(Berger, 2008: 51)

In “Rhetoric of the Image,” Barthes examines a magazine ad for pasta sauce. He focuses on relations between the image and the content.  According to Barthes, any advert contains three types of message: a linguistic message, and two messages encoded in the image – the denoted one (the object) and the connoted, symbolic one.

“Any image has these multiple meanings, and so society is looking for ways to fix a specific meaning to a particular photograph, for example, with the help of text, in order to establish some ideological control over it.”

(Barthes in Garage, 2019)

This will for control creates a fascinating paradox. One the one hand photography is made up of a living history of critical theory and commentary, as well as much broader and more liberal use of imagery as taken by the masses.

On the other, it is a tool (or weapon) which is wielded incorrectly could be used to coerce and control a cultural movement and a society as a whole.

Could we then, therefore, see the photograph as an innocent witness to the passing of time? A helping hand that’s then mascaraed as a cultural terraformer?

Alternatively, does the vanity of the modern world force photography itself to be something it does not want to be?






  • Figure 1FRANKLIN, Thomas. 2001. Firemen Raising the Flag at Ground Zero. [Photograph] (source media)
  • Figure 2 – ROSENTHAL, Joe. 1945. Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima [Photograph] (source media)
  • Figure 3 – NOLAN, Christopher. 2010. Inception. [Photograph] (source media) 
  • Figure 4 – THERON, Charlize. unknown. Dior J’Adore Fragrance.[Photograph] (source media)