I’m really enjoying this week. It is personally one of my favourite things about photography and other visual arts, to read and decipher the meaning/s of an image.

WEEK 3: Reflection

What challenged you? What surprised you? What do you feel you learned? 

Consider also the points raised in the presentation. What factors influence how you might read and interpret photographs. Think about: 

  • Your family and social background and your heritage. 
  • Your upbringing, values and education. 
  • The kind of art you were exposed to and at what points in your life. 
  • The literature and philosophical and/or political ideas you have been exposed to. 
  • Significant changes or events in your life that might have shifted your perspective when it comes to ‘decoding’ images. 

This week has been a real favourite for me. I absolutely adore the topic of reading images. Decoding and working out the possible meanings behind an image is what I love most about photography. The biggest challenge for me was getting over my fear of contributing in the discussions. I worry that I may not be articulate enough or be able to get my point across succinctly. It’s another thing I love about photography, that I can speak visually without having to be verbally “well polished”.

This leads me nicely on to the factors that influence how I might read an image. I’m from the work class North of England, Burnley to be precise. I come from a white working class family with very “northern” attitudes towards topics such as politics, art and education. I was educated in a mixed (both in terms of gender and race) state school and I was the first in my family to go on to higher/further education. It wasn’t until I entered the “professional services” sector that I realised how much of a disadvantage my background, accent, gender and education could be. I was openly mocked by the directors and partners for my lack of private education and the way I spoke. They saw my background as something which would undoubtedly hold me back, my not belonging to a “public school boys club” as the biggest disability one could have in the industry. I like to think I proved them wrong as I continued to have a successful career in the banking sector after leaving that particular training programme.

Art was not something I was exposed to at home, my only exposure to it was through education. In terms of my art education it has predominantly taken place in the later half of my life as I was not permitted to study the arts in my former years. My family were all traditional labour voters, hoping to seek some sort of representation in the politics of the distant “posh” south. As an adult I found myself more frequently amongst others who also graduated university (through the jobs I took), and who were often from the middle or upper middle classes. I feel as though I am often sat seeing two sides of any story, straggling two worlds. I spent 13 years of my adult life living in Edinburgh, an English person living in Scotland as an independence referendum loomed. During heated debates I found myself seeing an empathising with both sides. The same happened during Brexit, with my Northern family and friends having very different opinions to my newer Southern middle class friends and acquaintances.

I think the thing that most surprised me this week was that I both had something to say during the seminars and webinars and I managed to get my point across and feel a contributing part of the discussion. I felt welcomed and my comments felt well received which has given me the confidence to continue sharing my thoughts and ideas. On that note my biggest learning this week was that I have a place here on this course and I am capable of contributing and adding to the discussion being had. I feel I have a good grasp of reading images, well ones with people in, I’m not so sure I’d do so well with other genres.

WEEK 3 EXERCISE: Images of Afghan Girl & Bibi Aisha

Steve McCurry, Afghan Girl (1985)

  • Tightly cropped portrait of a girl, the title tells us she is from Afghanistan.
  • Striking green eyes and beautiful – fitting the ideals of western beauty.
  • Bold contrasting colours
  • Torn clothes and a headscarf
  • Staring straight into the camera at the photographer/viewer
  • Not a happy/soft look, she seems scared/angry
  • Greens look super vibrant on the version in Campus, perhaps manipulated for impact
  • Taken in 1985 long before the US war against the Taliban
  • McCurry is an American male photographer employed as a photojournalist for National Geographic
  • On the University reference image, McCurry has signed it and put his name in bold text beneath the image
  • He has not named his subject and I know from reading previous criticisms of his work that he never asked her for it. So it wasn’t that he had it and chose to omit it, he didn’t deem it worth knowing when taking her image.
  • What I know from previous reading is that this girl was found in a refugee camp and her religion would normally not permit her face to be seen by a male outside of her family. This was obviously not an ethical consideration for McCurry when he as a male took the image knowing it would be circulated for any Western man to see. It may have also been the reason for the expression on her face, bother terrified and angry that a western man was taking her photograph. Even if she understood an image was being taken against her will, did she understand the whole world would see it/her?
  • The image has similarities in pose and composition to that of a magazine, McCurry was commissioned by National Geographic to take it so perhaps it was a cover image he had in mind. However, it also seeks to show her in the way beauty magazines show and commoditise women. Perhaps it’s why the image has been reproduced and used so much since it was taken, it has the look of an image used for advertising.
  • Did he take her perceived pain and suffering and try to make it beautiful and a commodity, something to make money and a reputation from? Was he hoping this image of her would bring attention to the refugee camps and help women like her? Did he just want to take a beautiful image of this “eastern beauty” that would be consumed and appreciated by others like him back home? Was he just earning a living doing the job he was sent to do?
  • The way in which the image was used is varied, it was used as propaganda for the subsequent “war on terror”, it was used by National Geographic in their magazine and other promotional materials and it was used by McCurry both in terms of his own portfolio and also as a commodity as he sold books and prints.
  • We don’t know her name or her story.
  • Whilst McCurry and those who used this image for their own gain claimed that she was in some way abused and veiled by her own country they have themselves abused her by turning her into a commodity and sharing her image globally against her will and with no regard to her beliefs or culture, without any form of compensation.

Jodi Beiber, Bibi Aisha (2009)

  • Beiber uses the subjects name, making her image both more respectful to the sitter and more personal to the viewer.
  • Beautiful young girl a similar-looking age to that of the Afghan Girl.
  • The photographer is quoted as saying she wanted to “show her beauty, rather than make her a victim”. Wanted her to be seen as a survivor.
  • If the photographer didn’t want to make her a victim then it could be surmised that the intention wasn’t to use the image for humanitarian reasons?
  • The photographer commissioned by Time magazine.
  • The headline was “What happens if we leave Afghanistan?” – the image was serving a political agenda
  • Similar crop and pose to Afghan girl, though the face is not as front on it’s more angled.
  • Facial Disfiguration
  • She looks less scared than the “Afghan Girl”
  • She wears a headscarf and it could be extrapolated (by the similarities of this image with the Afghan Girl image) that she may be of similar culture and religion to “Afghan Girl”.
  • It was taken in 2009 after the war against the Taliban had started.
  • Jodi Beiber is a South African Female photographer.
  • As a woman, the photographer may have been more welcomed by Bibi Aisha to see her and photograph her. Whether Bibi Aisha was aware/understood how the image would be used and who would see it is perhaps unknown.
  • The image highlighted to the world the abuse of women.
  • It was reported that the Taliban had disfigured her but other reports say it was her father-in-law as she tried to flee domestic abuse. Her story twisted for political propaganda?

Similarities between the images

  • Both posed and cropped in a similar way – cover girl magazine – implied beauty
  • Both images are of women wearing a headscarf but showing their face, both were of a religion where showing your face to men outside of the family is not permitted and that is the result of these images. Both women are from Afghanistan
  • Both photographers could be seen as deriving personal gain from the plight of those with less power & in vulnerable circumstances.
  • The power dynamic of the photographer and young (possibly traumatised) girl is present in both images.
  • Both photographers could be seen as glamorising and exploiting/violating these women, making exotic/beautiful imagery from their pain/suffering.
  • Both were commissioned by magazines to take the image.
  • Both images ended up serving a political agenda as propaganda for the war in Afghanistan.

Differences between the images

  • In McCurry’s image, the subjects name was unknown and used, in Bieber’s image the subjects name and story were used. In this version, McCurry’s name is very prominent under the image. He’s known to have made a significant income from the commercial uses of this image.
  • US Photographer McCurry’s image was taken before the US war in Afghanistan. Beiber’s image was taken once the war had started.
  • McCurry was a male photographer photographing a woman whose culture does not permit her to be seen by men from outside the family. Although Beiber was a woman the image would eventually be seen by “outside” men.
  • The girl in McCurry’s image looks scared/angered whereas the girl in Beiber’s image has a softer more gentle look.
  • A journalist interviewed Bibi Aisha to get her story before she was photographed, possibly implying more consent was given. McCurry reportedly failed to ask the “Afghan Girl” for her permission to take or publish her images.
  • Aisha seems to have received some financial benefit from being in the image, she now lives in NYC and has received prosthetics.
  • Beiber showed the world the effects of male violence on women and McCurry’s image showed the world a beautiful image of a refugee displaced by foreign invasion.

Whilst McCurry and those who used this image for their own gain claimed that she was in some way abused and veiled by her own country they have themselves abused her by turning her into a commodity and sharing her image globally, against her will and with no regard to her beliefs or culture, without any form of compensation.

As photographers are there a risk that we try and reframe what we’re doing and our motives to help us feel we are complying with our own /external moral codes when the primary driver is actually personal gain?

Week 3 Seminar: Reading & Feeling Photographs notes

  • Roland Barthes two approaches to reading a photograph, semiotic (objective, scientific use of signs) v camera Lucinda (subjective and feeling)
  • About to see an image of a dead body. How do you feel right now? Frame of mind impacts the image. – I was feeling quite optimistic but now slightly apprehensive about the fact the image might be disturbing.

Luc Delahaye’s Taliban, 2001 is the image we looked at together.


For me, the mood was sombre and sad, for me the overwhelming impression it gave was one of humanity, that even the Taliban soldiers who are “the enemy” are human. We are usually shown men fighting in wars in a very aggressive and confrontational way, especially if they are the enemy in the war. Here the man lies in a very peaceful way and the emptiness surrounding him also feels peaceful and void of the usual aspects of a war scene.

Other people said they felt empathy, curious, calming feel – beautiful, classical religious feel about it. Not much emotion because they thought it was staged, homeless or asleep. Loneliness, abandoned.

Referent: What are you looking at? What details do you notice?

Signifiers, what do we have in the picture and what don’t we have in the picture.

  • the colours of the clothes blend into the earth
  • a dead Taliban soldier given the title
  • his position looks peaceful
  • long rectangle crop

Other comments included…

  • Where are his shoes? and weapon? Interference, robbed?
  • vest with a lot of pockets – ammunition pouches
  • Blood
  • A sense of absence, alone, void
  • Size it’s huge, almost life-sized
  • trench/dirt
  • footprints (boots) around the image
  • dead body with the artist’s name below it not the deceased.
  • here the photographer has a position of power over the dead.
  • dead leaves – sacrifice and consequence
  • culturally – photographing images of the dead for photographers own self-gain/career
  • isolation and loneliness at the point of death.
  • wondering how long he’s been there.
  • Sacrifice and martydom

What is the image about?

The other side of war we don’t usually get to see. Returning to the earth, the colours of the clothes blend into the earth and for me, it symbolises the natural, nature of man, how we all return to the earth, we all live and die. With nature being in stark contrast to war, which is eerily absent from this image of a dead soldier. An alternative view to the war/news.

Other views – senselessness of war. Martyr, suffering. Documentary showing consequences of war. No action, but disadvantage of war – death. Position of power over the body. Dead leaves – decay, sacrifice, consequences.

What is the style/genre?

Not reportage, cinematic panoramic frame. Not a typical war picture, space around him, not associated with reportage or photojournalism. 18/19c diorama photography, painted background of an event. Tableau, history painting. In the text, we can see it’s a series and its size which suggests it was taken for a gallery, so contemporary art photography.

Context: What do you know for certain about the image? Where are you seeing it?

It’s been presented to us as part of a photography MA and was shown to be a prize winner at the start. Circulated in the art world, it has credibility as a prize winner. This is having an impression on how we are receiving this.

What do I know about the maker and would would I like to find out?

I’d like to see the rest of the series and his other works to get a more rounded idea on his perspective and what he’s hoping to achieve from his photography. It would be interesting to know his background/motivations for his work.

  • In 2001 in Afghanistan you would have had to be embedded in the military to be there.
  • He’s probably not a Middle Eastern photographer, perhaps French?

Intended meaning: what is the author trying to say?

The nameless soldier represents the many that died. Extends to how we memorialize soldiers, with the many monuments made to the unknown soldier, Cenotaph in London and the grave in Westminster with the remains of the unknown soldier. Symbolic of the broader enemy to the west.

Other views: Futility of war – the brutality of the Taliban. For someone to take an image of a dead body with the intention to exhibit has an element of personal gain.

Rhetoric: What decisions have been made to convey this message?

Lots of empty space, camera angle from above, the long panoramic crop. The photographer is removed (through distance) from the subject, thus the viewer is removed. The distance and empty space around the body emphasises this. There’s a dissonance. Emphasises the distance we are from the hard end of the war. It demonstrates how disconnected we are.

Flat, stamped into the ground, about to be covered over. Lack of depth.

  • Flat focal plane
  • almost buried
  • 5:4 film camera with panoramic back, large format, difficult to capture that image
  • unlikely aimed at newspapers, more likely considered for art world

What did you like/dislike about the image?

I liked that the image offered a different perspective on the images that we usually associate with war.

Memory Work: do any of your experiences inform your response or analysis?

Series on TV about being on the ground and the impact on civilians

Beliefs & Biases, attitudes & values, explain your critical and emotional responses to this image?

Humanity in everyone, it’s individual circumstances to make the choices we make. Humans inherently good, just made choices not seen as good by society.

Value a balanced view, and seeing things from both sides. Listening to every perspective on the story.

Has this image affected you? Has your analysis affected you?

Seeing things from a different point of view has been fascinating, this is a theme that keeps coming up in the artworks that I most enjoy. I’ve really enjoyed the analysis which for me more deeply explained my initial reaction to the image which at first I didn’t have such a rounded thought process for.

I feel as though the analysis gave context to the original feelings I had about the image. It rationalised my emotional response. I now understand why I felt that way. Things I’d not considered such as power/ethical position of the photographer.


We looked at an image taken by our tutor, Michelle Sank titled “Maurice” from “My.Self” Series.

Referent: What are you looking at – what is the image of?

A very masculine looking black man, teddy bears, half-dressed as a teddy bear? It’s as if he’s partly stripped off the soft teddy bear exterior to show his true self? And to reveal this strong masculine torso. Presuming in his own home/bedroom.

Other people noticed the basketball stickers on the wall and HUNTER box, the image in the mirror (perhaps himself younger or his daughter?) The LOVE ME on the teddy bear jumper. That the outfit is a onesie.

Style: Does the image belong to a particular style or genre of photography

Documentary or Conceptual?

Intended meaning: What is the author trying to say? What is the image about?

I thought the image was looking at toxic masculinity and how society sees and stereotypes individuals. Showing here that a man can be both masculine and strong but also have a softer side.I think the image is trying to challenge the expectations we have of young black men.

Others thought the image was looking at how this man is in flux between the childhood he once inhibited and the man he is becoming. Which I had not considered and it seemed a very interesting alternative view. Another view was that he was shedding the teddy bear image of those around him and seeking to show his true self.

What decisions have been made to convey this image? Do you see any social or cultural referencing?

The hunter wellies are a British brand seen as a bit of a luxury status item. The onesie is something culturally relevant in the UK recently/currently.

Response: How does the image make you feel? What is the mood of the image?

I thought the image felt playful and it also posed a lot of questions. The state of his undress does make me think of sexy images that you see on calendars, but the teddies for me discount the image as being sexy because they bring a childlike element.

Someone commented that they felt a little intimidated at first because she didn’t know if the half-naked man was supposed to be sexy and whether his expression was challenging in some way.

Reflection: Do any of your own experiences inform your response or analysis? Your beliefs, attitudes, or values – do you think they may affect your critical and emotional response to the image?

I think my own interest in identity and societal expectations informed a lot of my judgements and analysis of this image.

What do you like or dislike about the image?

I really like this image, it’s the sort of image I’d naturally be drawn to because for me it speaks a lot about identity and social expectations which is a topic I love to both photograph and view in photographs.

Context: What context do you envisage the work being seen in?

Art galleries, books, fine art type magazines.

Questioning the author

Michelle was really generous in speaking with us about the image and her intentions. She explained that the series was taken in West Bromich and it aimed to look at young people’s lives in the area. The images in the series were shot in the bedrooms of the sitters as they were, and as such were not staged. She referred to Maurice’s body as being symbolic of roman/greek sculpture, which are synonymous with societies version of masculinity. This masculinity is juxtaposed against the soft cuddly teddies which say “love me” on the bed. The work has been printed in a book, exhibited in a local school (it was important for the work to be accessible to the people it represented) and also in The Guardian.


Reading notes

The Camera work Essays: Context & Meaning in Photography; John A Walker.

  • The same image in different contexts/settings has different meanings.
  • Different People see different things in the same image and the same person can view an image differently in different settings. (This reminds me of John Berger’s TV series)
  • What is next to an image can impose more meaning (Juxtaposition that wasn’t available with the image in isolation).
  • Example of the image of the sheep, placed in the tube to draw attention to the commuters seeming like sheep as they go about their commute.
  • The life of an image, it can change its meaning over time. History & Circumstances or societal changes can alter the meaning.
  • Reception theory – ideal reader implied by a work of art
  • Reception History – actual readers and readings over time.
  • The context in the example of a wedding photograph in a family album, v a photographers advertising
  • Context can be architectural, media, mental, sociology-historical etc
  • Context shifts – change of emphasis in context, or different parts appear important in different display of contexts.
  • Whole new meanings – single image used in montage, with a caption or text added, alongside another image.
  • How images are perceived in different countries/cultures
  • Viewed in different locations train/tube/plane/home/library etc
  • Displayed in a magazine amongst lots of text or in a fine art journal with a wide border (encourage to see it as art)
  • Jo Spence, Beyond the Family Album, Private Images Public Conventions; 1978-79
  • Spence’s work was viewed in 3 different contexts
  • 1. In the Feminism & Portrait section of the Three Perspectives on Photography exhibition at Hayward Gallery, alongside public advert images emphasising women stereotypes. [here her work was seen critically on it’s photographic merit/theory]
  • 2. On the cover of a magazine, Spare Rib, alongside other glossy magazines in the newsagents. [here the feminist dimension was highlghted]
  • 3. Entrance hall to a public library in Finsbury. [Here the private v public and personal v social contrasts were prominent]
  • Are galleries there to educate or entertain?
  • The display influences the meaning of a photograph and the photograph influences the meaning of the context.
  • Different relation to an image according to ones place in society (gender, race, age, class, education etc)
  • p60. A viewer approaches an image not with a blank mind but with a mind already primed with memories, knowledge, prejudices; there is a mental set or context to be taken into account.

Visual Communincation: Images with messages; Paul Martin Lester [Chapter 6: Visual Analysis]

  • David Lodge, Small World: An Academic Romance 1984, lists 14 different analytical perspectives. Allegorical, Archetypal, Biographical, Christian (religious?), Ethical, Existentialist, Freudian, Historical, Jungian, Marxist, Mythical, Phenomenological, Rhetorical and Structural. “Analysis reveals the person making the analysis, not really the piece itself”
  • Through analysis of art, we discover/understand ourselves.
  • As creators, we must understand the diversity of the intended audience and be aware of how the symbolism we use will be understood by our audience.
  • David Perlmuter – 8 ways to help understand an image
  • Production (how it was created),
  • Content identification (what are the elements and the story being told)
  • Functional (what is the context and how was it put to use)
  • Expressional (what emotions are conveyed and how are those feelings translated across cultures.
  • Figurative (how the symbols & metaphors are employed and what are the culturally sensitive elements)
  • Rhetorical/Moral (philosophical justifications for the work and what are the responsibilities of the producer to the subject/viewers)
  • Societal/Period (how does it reflect the culture in the time it was produced, what does it communicate to future generations.
  • Comparative (how is it similar to previous works and how does it fit within the body of work of the image creator)
  • Analysis – notice details – greater truth and meaning.
  • Become familiar with the biography of an artist, their culture/life that led to the creation.

13 steps to prepare for analysis

  • Detailed inventory of all you see
  • Compositional elements (camera angles, position of photographer, time of daylight/shadow, DoF, crop etc)
  • Colour, form (shape- triangles/line), depth (what’s in focus, how is depth achieved) and movement/static, how does eye move around the frame, source & direction of light. Work singularly and in combination to add interest and meaning.
  • Gestalt laws of Similarity, Proximity, Continuation and Common Fate. Who is the subject looking at? Gaze? Focus of the image? Leading lines, visual interest, where is your eye being led?
  • Identify iconic, indexical and symbolic signs.
  • How the 4 semiotic codes of metonymy, analogy, displaced and condensed contribute to it’s understanding.
  • Isolating cognitive elements. Memory, projection, expectation, selectivity, habitation, salience, dissonance, culture and words contribute to the understanding of an image. Is the subject aware of the camera, where are they looking?
  • Consider purpose of the work – where was it made? What was it’s purpose? News, scientific, personal, political?
  • Whether it is aesthetically pleasing – beautiful? Do I want to see more work by this artist?

Metonymy – figure of speech, using one thing in place of another, “the pen is mightier than the sword”
Analogy – life is like a box of chocolates
Indexical sign – smoke signifies fire
Symbolic sign – suits = power/superiority
Displacement – eg suits in a camp site.
Memory – does it remind us of anything?
Selectivity – what stands out and catches your eye?
Habituation – does the place carry meaning to you?
Salience – knowledge of the elements may make them more noticeable/prominent to you
Dissonance – distractions/contradictions
Culture – City v country, Men v women

Now ready for in-depth analysis. Take the subjective/emotional – objective, reasoned and critical.

  1. Personal opinion/reaction
  2. historical – when was it made? What was happening at the time/place/rest of the world? Is there an artistic style being imitated?
  3. Technical – high/low quality? Care/time taken, attention to settings/scene. Techniques used, aperture? Wee exposed?
  4. Ethical – people, govt, environment, society, what “should” they have done.
  5. Cultural – symbolic/metaphors/social. Clothing, posture, placement, juxtapositions, power, dominance, focus.
  6. Critical perspective – draw conclusions. Redefine initial personal perspective to a universal conclusion. What lessons does it have for viewers?

Ethical Philosophies

  • Golden rule: Do to others as you wish them to do to you.
  • Hedonism: Seize the moment – personal motivation/gain
  • Golden Mean: Middle ground between two extreme points of view (toning down the effect)
  • Categorical imperative: Unconditional duty/rules
  • Utilitarianism: Given individual moral rights met, the outcome that helps the most people is the correct one
  • Veil of ignorance – every person equal, remove privileged bias. Walk in someone else’s shoes. – gets people to think of others differently and thus donate or become better people.