Interpreting Images

I’ve been seeing a lot of Roland Barthes these days.  Since the semester began, I’ve been reading his book Mythologies for my Media Criticism class, revisiting and discussing his theory many times in said class, and now coming across a summary of his work in an article for Digital Communications.  And after several weeks of Barthes on the brain, I’m finally gaining a firmer grasp of the concepts of semiotics.

Semiotics Summary

Semiotics can be summarized as the study of the construction of meaning, or how meaning is created and how it functions.  Meaning is created within sign systems: languages, mathematics, music theory, etc. The signs in a system are composed of the signifier and the signified.  We’ll use the object of a dog as an example.  The actual word “dog” (made up of letters and sounds) is the signifier.  The mental image of the furry four-legged animal with a long tongue and tail that is associated with that word is the signified.  Together, the word and mental image make up the sign. However, the signifier and signified can vary, which then gives different meaning to the sign.  In German, for example, the signifier would be the word “hund,” and “dog” would have no meaning.  The mental image of the signified could differ as well.  The signified may bring to mind a small, docile dog for an individual who owns a small dog, or an image of a large, snarling, dangerous creature may be evoked for someone who has had previous unpleasant encounters with dogs.

Roland Barthes and Myth

Barthes wrote extensively of the concept of myth, which he defined as a form of ideology in which the conventions of a certain group (usually the dominant bourgeoisie class in his essays) are hidden or disguised in meanings that seem universal or natural.  For example, take the common tradition of going out to eat.  For members of middle to upper-class America, the practice of going out to a restaurant signifies the celebration of something special, or the even the outing itself is seen as something special.  The popular Italian restaurant chain Olive Garden appeals to this tradition in its advertisements: “When you’re here, you’re family.”  The phrases indicates that by eating out at an Olive Garden restaurant, a family or group of friends is participating in an activity that will allow for fellowship and bonding that can only occur in the setting and atmosphere of a restaurant, specifically Olive Garden.  Rather than recognizing the reality that such family time can be experienced just as easily in the kitchen and around the table at home, Olive Garden makes the act of going out to eat seem natural and even necessary in order to spend quality time with family.

When applied to images, this method of interpretation can be very revealing.  Barthes discusses the connotative meaning of images a great deal.  Basically, the denotative meaning of an image is simply what is presented, the first layer of meaning.  Connotative meaning goes a step further and includes the underlying message of an image, which is more subjective depending on the viewer’s experiences and interpretation.

Myth in Images

Barthes’ famous example is the cover of the popular magazine Paris Match.  Pictured is a young Algerian soldier saluting.  The denotative meaning of this photo includes the basic objects that are  pictured, and goes further to assume that the boy is saluting a French flag, because this is a French magazine.  On one level, image is meant to communicate French patriotism and perhaps even support of the military.  But taken a step further, the connotative meaning is more revealing. Given the time period this particular issue of Paris Match was published, the 1950s, we know that Algeria was a French colony at the time.  The fact that the soldier pictured is an Algerian and not a native Frenchman communicates that not only are the colonies part of France as well, but that they accept France’s authority and embrace French nationalism.  Therefore, the connotative meaning of this image is the myth that French imperialism is both natural and accepted. And even this deeper, connotative meaning of the image will have a different effect on a native French citizen in Paris versus an Algerian in French-occupied Algeria.

This method of interpretation can be applied to not only still images, but videos, films, advertisements, and television programs.  It shows the potential influential power images can possess over the viewer, as well as the meaning the viewer contributes to the image.


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