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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Informing Contexts – Viewing Context…Does It Make A Difference?

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

– Henry David Thoreau

A picture is worth a thousand words — but which words should we use to describe what we see?  We are aware that photographs are a powerful medium and can communicate information to the viewer. But they can also misinform.  This is especially true if we’re not careful how we read a photograph or if the photograph is placed in a viewing context that disrupts and alters the intended interpretation. A photographer makes decisions about a photograph when creating it.  In the same way, the viewer makes decisions about how to read a photograph. In addition, a viewer has to also interpret the context in which the photograph is viewed.  They will then makes links to their own knowledge and experiences to determine an interpretation of the image before them.

Every photograph is situated in a context in which it will be interpreted (intentionally or unintentionally). Museums and art galleries attract a particular type of person.  Not everyone will go to visit a gallery to look at photographs. In a gallery the photograph is usually viewed along with the addition of text.  It is easy to alter the meaning of the photograph with the text that accompanies it.  We are also forced to interpret the image alongside the aesthetics in which it is presented. The aesthetic of the gallery and associated labelling can both facilitate and hinder the viewer’s interpretation of the image. In the gallery context the viewer is more likely to be someone who likes artworks.  Photographs appear more interesting when placed in a frame on the wall and we are more likely to spend a longer time viewing and studying the image than we would if we saw it on the internet.

Photobooks offer a different context for us to consider.  They represent a more intimate space in which to view and interpret the intent of the photographer.  This is in stark contrast to images presented in an online gallery, where they are subjected to a fleeting glance and potential misrepresentation / misinterpretation from many different viewers.

So, where to present my work? I have been giving a lot of thought to this over the last couple of weeks of the module.  My work in progress images are bright and playful and the viewing context needs to represent that.  A gallery exhibition sounds like a dream, however I am concerned that the forced aesthetic will impact on the reception and interpretation of the work.  The demographics of viewers will be limited.  I want my work to be seen by many, not just a few.

I am considering the possibility of a billboard type display, out in the open for all to see.  This resolves the issue of a limited demographic spread of viewers and will allow me to remain playful with my images.  This context would enable me to add some clarity to the communication in terms of my intent and concept.  This could be enhanced through the use of text to support the image.  The text would not need to be a label, but could be part of the image, much like the text in an advert.

I am also considering the publication of my images in a magazine.  This would add to the fashion feel of some of my constructed work.  Again the audience will be limited to the readership of the work, but would allow the intended interpretation to be clear.  I would be able to be specific with text to help ensure this.  I am currently developing and nurturing contacts in this area.

Large installations and structures displaying my work are also under consideration. A member of my cohort suggested a suspended cube containing images might be a possibility.  This would add drama and uniqueness to my diverse portfolio.  I am currently exploring this theme further.

Whatever way forward I choose, I am aware that a good photograph is a good photograph.  However, presenting my work in the wrong context or inappropriate form could lead to misinterpretation of the work and will end up being be a huge disappointment to me.


Thoreau, H. D. From BrainyQuote. 2017. It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. – Henry David Thoreau – BrainyQuote. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 March 2017].

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