Visual Culture


What do you see when you view this image? I know what you’re thinking because it is an image that has become an icon all over the world. How did this picture of a wide-eyed, veiled, young Afghan woman become so popular? In their chapter on “Images, Power, and Politics”, Sturken and Cartwright go into detail about the methods behind representation, the myth of photographic truth, images and ideology, negotiating the meaning of images, the value of images, and image icons such as the National Geographic girl above.The first thing you need to know, if you don’t already, is that images are a way of communicating, similar to language. The use of images allow us to create meaning about the world around us, contributing to our society daily. Just think about it: images are all around us, constantly surrounding us and influencing our everyday lives. But, have you ever thought about why some images appear the way they do to you? Take a moment to watch the video below and think about what assumptions you make when you see an image.

The video above represents the concept known as the myth of photographic truth. First, the text clarifies that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge. Images can be biased without us even being aware of it. Think of images you see in People magazine or the news on various forms of technology. Do we ever really know how credible the images are? No, because we typically tend to invest deep emotional content into the images we see. For example:


Picture this magazine cover without all of the written text and just imagine the image of infamous Kim Kardashian. Clearly she appears overweight in the image, but how much do we really know? The magazine most likely altered the photo, but we don’t know any of the background information, which leads to Sturken and Cartwright’s next point and ideology. This concept permeates through the world of entertainment and serves as an assumption about beauty, desire, glamour, and social value. It’s something we want to believe, because after all, that’s all we want, right? It doesn’t matter what is true and what is false; we just want to hear something that sounds credible enough to believe.

Images and ideology were originally used as tools of science and public surveillance. But that was it. Then one of its main purposes was to be used as evidence for personal identification. In the 20th century, different uses of colors began to emerge, which brought a whole new dynamic to images and ideology, along with representation of photographs. When colors began to come into play, specifically during the O.J. Simpson trial, he appeared in many photographs, each time standing out due to his dark skin. Sturken and Cartwright describe this appearance as a tool of editors to make him appear darker than normal because viewers generally view dark colors and tones with evil. Another way of describing this is the way certain people associate darker skinned people with crime, which resonates with why some people viewed colors in the way they did.


Without having any prior knowledge to current events, anyone would be able to tell this man was in some sort of legal trouble. The positioning of his head and upper torso reflects that of a mug shot, complete with tag numbers below the subtitle of the Times. However, due to the society we live in, it is easy to make references in images due to various clues, as mentioned in the next point in the chapter regarding how we negotiate the meaning of images. It’s simple; we use the context from our everyday lives that help us make inferences in images we see every day. We are taught from a young age to recognize certain symbols, such as a STOP sign or male and female signs for bathrooms. These are all images we have grown up not thinking twice about. However, when more complex images come into play, we are okay because we can use the context clues around us to determine what the image is portraying to us.

Something I found very interesting in this chapter was the relationship between signifiers, the signified, and a sign.

Signifiers: an image, sound, or word.

Signified: the meaning of that image, sound, or word.

Sign: the combination of a signifier + the signified = a sign

Signs are how we portray an image or ideology, so it is important that the message is made clear and is relatable. If there is no relationship to reality, it loses its connection to the interpreters (i.e. YOU).


Lastly, I want to talk about image icons. As you saw in the first picture of the blog, the iconic image of a young Afghan woman circled the globe because of the look in her eyes. You could see the dirt on her face and clothes and made interpretations about her life that you were not aware of at all. However, because of the context clues, you are able to identify universal concepts, emotions, and meanings that make a statement.

Sturken and Cartwright touch on a lot of excellent points that have helped me envision my next project, the slideshow. I know that my images are going to have to tell a story without words or texts at all, which will be hard, but possible!That’s all for now though, so until next time, keep jogging!


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