Victim of the Visual

There are no facts, only interpretations.”

If you take that statement by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and apply it to every advertisement, sign or image you see, it can become patent as to why ‘readings’ of visuals can impose a stance of superiority. Your interpretation can be completely different to my interpretation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that either opinion is inaccurate or justified. Our opinions are never truly exclusive, as there are seven billion other minds out there that offer varying explanations and standpoints. Nevertheless, it is the power of these interpretations that sees the collective acceptance of a message be stimulated.

In order to appropriately identify the message of a sign or image, the theory of ‘semiotics’ is required. This theory created by Ferdinand de Saussure, sees the signifier and signified aspects of an image reliant upon a person’s own knowledge and perspective regarding the message being portrayed. Therefore, the image or sign as de Saussure describes, can be analytically divided in parts by recognising the denotations and applying this knowledge to decipher the connotation.

Ingredients to make a connotation
There are certain ingredients in conveying a connotation.

Study the image above. Now you might be wondering why I am referring to an image of a delectable dessert… but I assure you it is all to prove a basic point and not to make your stomach grumble. The denotation of this image is of course the cupcake and candle, as these are the most conspicuous features of the image. Through the association of these two ‘symbolic’ representations, we are then compelled to lean towards the concept of perhaps a birthday, or more specifically, a girl’s birthday as suggested by the colour. Ergo, this is how the connotation of an image is constructed.

By living in a westernised culture, our interpretations are determined by our ideologies and interactions within society. The fact that the majority of us would of had some exposure to devouring a cupcake on our birthday, shows us that our final interpretation is reliant upon our familiarity with the subject of the image. Blowing out that candle not only granted us a wish, but it also implanted a collective visualisation of what a birthday should look like.

It is expected that many people see the media industry to exploit particular characteristics of a representation to alter the truth. As Ann Marie Barry describes in her novel, such actions can appear “truly sinister” and can further threaten the “whole superstructure of society.” As you can see in the image below, the idea that the media is spoon-feeding us daily tales of deception is quite a common one. However, it would be more appropriate to say that the media can direct our interpretation down a certain path from their intention. Ergo, it is the author’s intent that escorts the viewer to accept their opinion of truth on the subject being depicted.

Consume and comprehend the message.
Consumption vs comprehension.

Don’t be that guy sitting in the chair. Instead, be the guy who’s aware of the countless connotations. Just because something is black and white to you, doesn’t mean it’s the same for the next person. Allow yourself to distinguish the cogent attributes that contribute to the composition of a representation. Allow yourself to appreciate the multitude of meanings it may have.

Don’t be the victim of the visual. Instead, be the well-informed interpreter.


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