Morris, 2017. Berries
Audience theory informs us that authors identify a target audience and subsequently design, or “encode” ideologies into an advert in such a way as to convey a specific message. This message is “decoded” when the audience view the advert. Dominant readings arise when the message is encoded and then decoded in the same way.
The “preferred” meaning is the way in which advertisers “expect” viewers to interpret an advert.
Oppositional readings occur when images are viewed by an audience separate to, and outside of, the target audience. The non-target audience forms a view which is based upon their personal experiences or opinions, and which causes them to reject the preferred reading.
According to audience theory, “negotiated readings” are the result of an audience both accepting and rejecting elements of an advertisement simultaneously.
The dominant message is acknowledged, but it is not accepted willingly. Instead, the preferred reading is modified according to the audiences own experiences and interests.
Adverts, therefore, are “polysemic” in nature – they are open to different interpretations which are dependent upon the audience’s identity, cultural knowledge and opinions.
Authors will identify the target audience. They design the advert to convey a specific message, the preferred message, to that audience – this is encoding.
Decoding occurs when the audience views the advert.
Audience members from outside the target audience may have their own experiences or opinions that mean they reject the preferred reading, receiving their own alternative message in an oppositional reading.
Carousel is a photographic exploration of the relationship between diet and mental health: the images being derived from journal entries maintained over a three-year period by a female suffering from anxiety, depression and fibromyalgia.
Berries is an image from the Carousel series.
How does audience theory relate to this image?
The preferred reading is that there is a link between diet and mental health. Furthermore, it assumes that the audience accepts two fundamental ideas. Firstly that there is a positive correlation between mental wellbeing and nutritionally dense food, and secondly that not all individuals have equal access to quality food.
Negotiated reading viewers will accept that diet affects our mental wellbeing but will do so on the basis that all individuals have equal access to quality food, rejecting the idea that some individuals might only be able to afford nutritionally poor food.
Or accept that diet affects our physical wellbeing but not our mental health
Oppositional reading is the view that diet does not affect our mental wellbeing.
‘Advertising only “makes sense” when it resonates with certain deeply held belief systems’ (Frith, 1997: vii).
So writes Katherine Frith in “Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising”. She goes on to suggest that in order to “deconstruct” adverts, we must take them “apart layer by layer”.
First, the surface meaning: this is the overall, initial impression obtained upon viewing an advertisement. Breaking the advertisement down into a list of its component parts shows the meaning of an advert at surface level.
Secondly, the intended meaning is the sales message that advertisers wish to promote – this is the “preferred” meaning, the way in which advertisers “expect” viewers to interpret an advert.
Finally, the cultural meaning. The interpretation of this meaning is dependent upon the cultural knowledge and social background of the viewer, the shared “belief systems” to which Frith refers.
Barthes and Heath (1977) inform us of a signifier, something which is identifiable in an advert and which conveys a denotational message, and the signified or the connotational (implied) meanings, ideas or ideologies which the advert attempts to communicate to the viewer.
Interviewed in 2012, Francis Hodgson discusses not only the way in which we analyse images, but also the quality of the way in which we do so (Quality Matters, 2013). Hodgson suggests that we frequently perceive and discuss images as being “of something” without attempting to consider that images are also “about something”, an idea which links strongly with Barthes concept of the signifier and the signified.
Selective focus leads the viewer’s gaze to items of food consumed by the diarist which are shown alongside the pharmaceuticals used to treat her medical conditions. Self-help and recipe books related to the sufferer’s conditions complete the story of an individual struggling to live with debilitating disease. Sheets from a tear-off calendar represent the passage of time. These are the signifiers referred to by Barthes and Heath, the ‘of something’ referred to by Hodgson.
The signified is the effect our diet has on our health. Berries invites the viewer to ask whether greater emphasis could be placed on nutrition as a means of not only treating mental illness, but preventing it.
It does this by linking healthy, nutrient dense food with a mineral supplement and a recipe book specific to the individual’s disease.
Other images in the series link highly processed, nutrient poor foods with pharmaceutical treatments and books aimed at managing the diarist’s conditions.
The inference, then, being that healthy foods are linked with mental wellbeing, and poor nutrition is linked with mental (and in some cases physical) illness. This is the ‘about something’ referred to by Hodgson.
How does this type of analysis benefit my photography?
I think the benefit to my photographic practice lies in the development of the visual narrative which derives from an understanding the polysemic nature of the image.
For me, as a photographer, the value of audience theory is in knowing the way in which different meanings can be attached to images, in understanding the polysemic nature of photographic images – the way that each viewer can have a unique interpretation of an image as a result of their own experiences and values.
Viewers find interest in images which are multi-layered and which contain some ambiguity in terms of the message that is being conveyed – they like having something to find, something to search for. Knowledge and understanding of the meaning attached to images and semiotic analysis allows me to produce images which appeal to an audience on a deeper level because of their multi-layered, slightly ambiguous and subjective nature.
Furthermore, this information allows me to make informed decisions about the images I make. Ultimately, as a photographer, I have two goals. The first is for the images I make to be viewed by an audience, and the second is for the images to evoke a reaction within that viewing audience. At the very least, audience theory allows me to correctly identify my target audience.
Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Rhetoric of the Image in Image Music Text. London: Fontana
Francis Hodgson: Quality Matters (2013) YouTube Video, added by Huis Marseille, Museum for Photography [Online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dj3Wq-I7tc (accessed 19 February 2017)
Frith, Kathleen Toland. (1997) Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising. New York: Peter Lang
Hall, Stuart. (1997) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage in association with The Open University