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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Informing Contexts – Image Interpretation?

Given the nature of photographs, do they need unique methods of interpretation and viewing?  To me, this depends on the intended interpretation of the image.  If an image is to be viewed as a representation of the truth or reality of the subject, then the image is best viewed via a media or documentary platform where the expectation is that the image has its roots in reality. This context for sharing the image is not one where paintings would be used to depict truth or reality.  

Whereas, a photograph intended to be viewed as a work of art is better suited to being viewed in a gallery where the expectation is that the work will require a degree of viewer interpretation, much in the same way as paintings are.

When an image is viewed, any accompanying text I provide will affect how my image is interpreted. I can affect the viewer’s interpretation by changing the text.  The types of text I can include with an image that will impact on the interpretation of my image and alter it by  providing further context are:

– a title – a quote or song lyric – a short story – a formal explanation – revealing that it is part of a set or sequence

When I publish my images, I need to ensure that the interpretation of my work will reflect my intent as far as I possibly can.  Paying attention to all aspects of the image is important as well as consciously and critically considering the subject.  The questions I need to ask myself about the images are those questions I expect others to ask when looking at my work:-

  1. Who is in the picture?

  2. What is in the picture?

  3. When was the photograph taken?

  4. What is happening in the photograph?

  5. Where was this photograph taken?

  6. Why did I select this subject and other elements to be included in the photograph?

  7. What don’t you see?  What did I leave out?

  8. Why have I emphasised certain elements and not others?

  9. What’s in focus? Why is the focus like that?

  10. What was the decisive moment?  Why did I take the picture at this moment? What happened before or after this picture was taken?

  11. Why did I take the picture from this angle?  What might the scene have looked like from another point — from left, right, behind, above, or below?

  12. What is the photograph’s composition?  How have I cropped the image?

  13. What moment in time does the photograph capture?

  14. What is the setting of this photograph?

  15. What is the focal point of the photograph?

It is then up to the viewer to make their own decisions about my work, deciding how to view and read the image.  Whilst I can give explicit information and visual clues about the my intent through the depiction of people, event, location etc, there will also be implied information that will not always be clear.  In this case, the viewer will need to fill in the gaps.  They need to make assumptions about the image interpretation and meaning based on their own experiences and values.

Viewers will do this subconsciously and may not even know they are doing it.  As a photographer, I quite like the idea of viewers having their own interpretations of my work.  However, I do need to be mindful that to make sure my images are successful, I need to make sure my communication is clear.  I need to ensure that the visual language of signs, clues and assumptions are clear enough for the viewer to interpret and understand.

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