Aesthetic or Anaesthetic?

“The Big Meal” was an advertising campaign launched by McDonald’s in 1971.

Big Meal

The Big Meal” (McDonald’s, 1971)

The poster shows a metal tray holding a large-sized beef burger, a very generous portion of [French] fries, and a large cup drink. The tray is being presented by a smiling waiter. A card placed next to the food on the tray features the words “The Big Meal”.

The advert clearly intends to promote a tasty and nutritious meal which is obviously offered at an attractive price – indeed, the advert describes accordingly:

“Grab the Big Meal at McDonald’s. And you’ll have yourself a Big Mac, a very large order of fries and a great big drink. All of which should make your stomach very happy. Not to mention your wallet.”

Food is an absolute necessity of life, however eating together, sharing food and sharing time with family and friends, is culturally important to us – it is something that we enjoy and which is a cornerstone of family life, it is an important “social lubricant”. However, this advertising campaign would appear to subvert the desire for social eating by placing the emphasis on selfish eating – a large meal to be consumed presumably alone, there is no mention of a bargain meal for the family, because “you deserve a break today”.

So, devoid of any reference whatsoever to social dining, the intended audience would appear to be those with some disposable income who are attracted to eating in a fast food environment, quite possibly accustomed to eating alone, and also quite possibly time poor.

Was this advertising campaign successful?

Yes, undoubtedly so. Not least of all because this and similar adverts appeal to a fundamental instinct at a time when we are vulnerable, in other words, when we are hungry.

Fast food companies invest huge amounts in advertising, including research and development for the most effective way to design adverts – they are well aware that we “eat with our eyes”.

Perhaps this was the start of the obesity crisis in the Western world – a fast food company prompting, urging, cajoling, manipulating us to “go large”.

Sischy informs us that “the photographs that have made Salgado’s reputation also have punch, but it comes from the pathos of the lives of his subjects” (Sischy, 1991). Whilst I actually find this an extremely patronising and condescending point of view, perhaps largely due to the way in which the point of view is expressed, it may have some foundation and seems to connect quite well with the “hypodermic syringe” theory which suggests that an adverts audience sleepwalks into yielding to the will of the advertisers.

And this is not something that is limited to a specific era – a decade upon decade McDonald’s staple offering is “The Big Mac”, with a more recent and extremely popular offering being the “Big Tasty”.

Nor is the insistence that we succumb to “upselling” unique to McDonald’s with other fast food chains also promoting large size meals.

They all want us to go large. And invariably we are obliging … …

So, how does this relate to my photographic practice?

I think it is extremely relevant because, as photographers we have a duty to act responsibly – we need to be aware of the various ways that different audiences may interpret our work, and the consequences associated with these interpretations: could it have been foreseen in 1971, for example, that “The Big Meal” campaign might act as a catalyst for what is now our obesity crisis?

We should question what we are doing, and why, and how to ensure we are working in an ethical way. And we should be aware that the way in which images are interpreted may not be the way that we as photographers intended.



Sischy, Ingrid (1991) ‘Good Intentions’ in The New Yorker (9th September 1991) (Online). Available at: (Accessed: Wednesday 29 March 2017)

A Force for Change?

French sociologist Émile Durkheim first used the phrase “collective consciousness” to refer to the set of shared beliefs, ideas and moral attitudes which act as a force of unification within society.

Nachtwey informs us that “when an image enters our collective consciousness, change becomes possible and inevitable” (Nachtwey in Ritchin, 2013, p.74), whilst Frith writes that: ‘Advertising only “makes sense” when it resonates with certain deeply held belief systems’ (Frith, 1997: vii).

Here then, Nachtwey is clearly in agreement with Frith in believing that there has to be a link between the “collective consciousness”, or system of shared values, and the images we see before any change is effected by those images.

Whilst not all images are propaganda, it would appear that Hitler clearly had an understanding of the fundamental way in which mass media must operate within society in order to be effective: ‘propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people. All propaganda must be presented in a popular form and must fix its intellectual level so as not to be above the heads of the least intellectual of those to whom it is directed’ (Hitler, 1925).

Fundamentally, images work in the same way irrespective of whether they are documentary shots informing us of wars or disasters in faraway lands, or images promoting the latest “must have” – images need to tug on our emotional strings, they need to appeal to our sense of what is right and what is wrong in some way (either positively or negatively), they need to create a desire in us to act in a specific way: to go out and change the world, or make a new purchase.

Images of the war in Vietnam placed the American public much closer to the front line than many were comfortable with, images such as Ronald L. Haeberle’s “And babies” taken in the aftermath of the My Lai Massacre in 1968.


 Ronald L. Haeberle, 1968. And Babies

Outrage at such atrocities, viewed by the American public from the safety of their homes, proved to be a catalyst for the withdrawal of American forces from the conflict. This is, therefore, a clear example of photography influencing change.

There is an obvious case for filtering sexually orientated material away from mainstream viewing and especially away from minors, but is there a case for the censorship of “shocking” material?

No, I don’t think there is. We all live in one world, and the events that happen in that world are not always pleasant, but they are real, as are the people who experience these events. I think we have a duty to ourselves and to society to be informed as to the events taking place in our world – it is only when we are aware of disaster or injustice that we can bring about change. Ignorance does not put food into the mouths of starving children in Africa – only by being aware of the plight of others can we target those that need our help. I wonder if those who propose censorship enjoy life in their little sanitised “bubbles” of existence?

Ignorance is bliss? Or does ignorance breed ignorance?

This is perhaps something to which Sontag alludes when she writes ‘shock can become familiar, shock can wear off. Even if it doesn’t one cannot not look. People have a means to defend themselves against what is upsetting, one can become habituated to the horror of certain images’ (Sontag, 2003, p. 73).

Sturken and Cartwright would appear to agree with my view when they write ‘the enhanced circulation of images, even ones as troubling as these, play a key role in exposing injustice around the world, even when the making and circulation of the images can be bound up in that injustice’ (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009, p. 259).

So, do we become desensitised to and by the images that we see?

Szarkowski suggests that ‘after a while people get inured to the suffering in the photograph and that is not good for anyone. In that sense, each successive image has less impact than the one that came before it’ (Szarkowski in Carr, 2003).

Gardner also informs us that ‘if the same message and same tactics are being used all the time, then it just becomes wallpaper to a person and makes it far easier to ignore’ (Gardner in Williams, 2009).

Really? Honestly?

These are sentiments that I cannot wholly agree with.

Look at this image of a starving Ethiopian child taken during the 1984 famine. It is an iconic image, widely regarded as summing up the suffering of millions at that time. Can anyone look at this and tell me they don’t find it as harrowing now as they did then? Like a sticking plaster ripped off an unhealed wound, this image allows the “blood” of emotional memories to pour forth … …


Untitled (BBC News, 1984)

Ingrid Sischy is very scathing of an aesthetic approach to documentary images, saying that ‘to aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action’ (Sischy, 1991, p. 22). This raises an interesting question, if a particular aesthetic is applied to a documentary photograph, is that in itself a form of censorship?

I think integrity is extremely important in relation to photojournalism. We expect our news to be unbiased and factual. The integrity of photojournalism is brought into question when images which are “constructed” are held out as being truthful depictions of events.

These topics are highly relevant to my project, the aim of which is produce a body of photographic work which not only has a painterly aesthetic reminiscent of the old Dutch masters, but which also provides a narrative on the social issues associated with our relationship with food.

The images I produce will have an element of “construction”, the mise en scene will be staged in order to tell a story. Doing this in a way which gives the story credibility, which convinces the viewer to question the way we produce and consume our food, and the implications of the way in which we do so will require some balancing.



Carr, David (2003) ‘A Nation at War: Bringing Combat Home: Telling war’s deadly story at just enough distance in The New York Times (7th April 2003) [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: Monday 27 March 2017)

Frith, Katherine Toland. (1997) Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising. New York: Peter Lang

Hitler, Adolf (1925) Mein Kampf [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: Monday 27 March 2017)

Ritchin, Fred (2013) Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary & the Citizen. New York: Aperture

Sischy, Ingrid (1991) ‘Good Intentions’ in The New Yorker (9th September 1991)

Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. London: Penguin

Sturken, Marita & Cartwright, Lisa (2009) Practices of Looking. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Williams, Matt ‘Does Shock Advertising Still Work’ in Campaign (24th April 2009) [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: Monday 27 March 2017)


Jean Cazals – Positioning Practice

Paris-born Jean Cazals is a London based food photographer and winner of The Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year 2012 award.

Without question a dominant player in the industry, how did Cazals become a photographer? “It’s like a lot of arts, you actually feel it, I don’t think you become one just by accident, making (a) living of it” he informs us.

And what does he suggest is the reason for specialising in food photography?

In an interview with, he points out: “If you don’t like to love to eat then there’s no point being a food photographer” – applies to all forms of photography.

Barthes suggests that photographs are irrefutable evidence of the subject having existed: “In photography, I can never deny the thing has been there” (Barthes, 1993, p. 76).

Fontcuberta, however, reminds us that images can be false: “My mission is to warn people about the possibility that photography can be doctored…” (Fontcuberta in Bainbridge, 2014).

He goes on to state: “I use photography in the sense of it being an authoritarian tool. When we see a picture, we believe it is a picture of a fact, but this is just a convention” (Ibid.).

Credibility is something Cazals feels strongly is a key element in terms of being a successful photographer: “I’d say integrity, I think it’s integrity in everything you do”. He explains accordingly:

“You’ve got to follow the brief but you’ve got to follow the brief with your integrity. So, I think integrity and believe and love what you do is the main thing. Otherwise you become just a number doing something”.

Photographs in themselves do not narrate. Photographs preserve instant appearance” (Berger, 2013, p. 52).

In terms of appearance, the importance of unique personal style is something that Cazals is very clearly aware of, and utilises in establishing and maintain his niche: “don’t fall into the trap of trying to satisfy someone, you have to satisfy your client but you can satisfy with something that you like and you believe in. Because if this client comes to you, it’s because he likes what you do.”

Cazals is in great demand, with work being used in advertising campaigns, consumer magazines, food industry journals, and recipe books. Be in no doubt that this is quality work. But is it truly differentiated from the work of other contemporary food photographers?

Yes, I think it is. I say this because Cazals does indeed have a unique approach to food photography owing to his ability to demonstrate an “under-the-skin” understanding of his subjects. Understanding a subject on this level is one thing, conveying the characteristics of a real-world experience using two-dimensional medium is another. This Cazals achieves through the use of unique materials to bring in a range of colours and textures which, by comparing or contrasting with the subject, place the viewer in the frame. Consequently, images appeal as much to the senses of touch and smell as they appeal visually.

Cazals macarons

Jean Cazals, 2013. Cosmopolitan

Observing that “websites are the key of everything nowadays”, Cazals points to the internet being a significant factor in his promotional armoury, allowing him to reach a global audience. More specifically, he refers to the successful marriage between and his own website: “because you show some example of your image then it goes forward to your own personal website”. is an online promotional tool for artists working in visual media. It may very well be the case that Cazals interview has been rehearsed as a promotional video, however, Cazals answers are consistent with sentiments he expresses in other forums and therefore have some credibility, which we have is important to Cazals.

At this juncture, as I prepare to write my critical review of practice, and in terms of my practice in general, Cazals interview underlines the need to identify and evaluate contexts for consumption.

Furthermore, it reinforces the importance of staying true to a personal vision, understanding that this is something which develops organically over a period of time. Undergoing constant evolution, being refined by personal experience, and informed by continuing critical contextualisation, but never redefined to meet the requirements of any one commercial brief – your style needs to remain exactly that, you own unique and personal style.


Bainbridge, Simon. (2014) ‘Spanish Lies’ in British Journal of Photography, 20 July 2014 [Online]. Available at: Accessed: 03 March 2017)

Barthes, Roland. (1993). Camera Lucida London: Vintage

Berger, John. (2013) Understanding a Photograph London: Penguin


“Photography can only reveal the surface of things” (Ruff in Dorment, 2003). To find meaning in Cramer’s work we have to look, we have to search because, without doubt, these images are packed full of content. We need to scratch to reveal that which is beneath the surface.

Daniel Gustav Cramer’s “Trilogy” is an exhibition in three parts.

“Woodland (Trilogy Part One)” exhibited in 2004 and is a series of images which capture woodland landscapes. Nature moves very slowly – minute changes being made incrementally over a long period of time. Consequently, it is not the element of “freezing” a moment in time that Cramer brings to the subject, because, from our point of view, nature is pretty much “frozen” anyway. What Cramer’s photography does bring is a sense of nature having been left untouched by human intervention.

This is also true for “Underwater (Trilogy Part Two)”, and “Mountain (Trilogy Part Three)” exhibited in 2006 and 2007 respectively.

Interviewed by Chiara Parisi for Klat Magazine in October 2010, Cramer states that one intent behind his work is that of it being an archive. However, he goes on to say that whilst the archive is a “concept”, it is also merely an initial idea, a point from which his work can grow: “the concept is rather a starting point from where I can freely explore the potential that has been laid out” (Cramer, 2010).

Speaking more specifically about the “Trilogy” exhibition, Cramer points to the documentary value of his work:

“These days I probably spend an hour a day researching on YouTube and other sources into what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico right now. The worst thing, next to all the fatalities in the animal world, is that BP is not questioned or criticised. The media accepts things as they are.”

He goes on to state “Using photography to document nature as an abstractum is working so well.”

So, how can we, as viewers and photographers, interpret Cramer’s work?


Daniel Gustav Cramer, 2007. Mountain 09

Frith (1997) suggests that there are three meanings associated with an image, and that these operate at different levels.

The surface meaning, the overall, initial impression obtained upon viewing the above image from Cramer’s “Mountain”, shows towers of rock which appear to show sedimentary layers. The rocks are surrounded by swirling mist, possibly cloud.

The intended meaning is what the photographer wishes to portray – this is the “preferred” meaning, the way in which Cramer “expects” viewers to interpret an image. Here Cramer is trying to portray a feeling of isolation in nature, but it is not an isolation that excludes the viewer, rather the ambiguity of exactly what it is that the viewer is looking at draws the viewer into the image.

Finally, the cultural meaning. The interpretation of this meaning is dependent upon the cultural knowledge and social background of the viewer. Cramer is showing us that much of the natural world remains unchanged by human activity, and in doing so reminds us of the great harm that is done when human activity does take place. He is providing a socio-political commentary in addition to documenting some of the world’s more remote places.

In semiotic terms, the rock towers are indexical in that they are providing direct evidence of this piece of landscape having existed, whilst the rock towers may not always exist, Cramer’s image provide trace evidence of their existence. Furthermore, the rocks are symbolic of the ruggedness of nature, of its ability to endure and, in cases where human’s drastically change a landscape as a result of their activities, to reclaim the “land” once human occupation has ceased.

Barthes (1977) makes reference to the signifier, something which is identifiable in an image and which conveys a denotational message, and the signified or the connotational (implied) meanings, ideas or ideologies which an image attempts to communicate to the viewer.

With reference to Cramer’s image, the signifiers are clearly the rock towers and the swirling mists. The signified could be an order, within a randomness, within an order. Natural objects, trees for example, are unique – it is a basic requirement that trees have leaves, but no two trees will have the same leaf arrangement – and this is due to randomness. Despite this, trees still conform to a basic body plan – a form of order – and it is this which makes trees recognisable as such. Alternatively, the signified could be the simple beauty of the natural world which is captured by Cramer’s abstract images, or it could be Cramer’s intention, by contrasting that beauty, to remind us of the damage we, as humans, do to the natural world in order to make it more “hospitable” for us as a species.

Again, it is this sense of ambiguity which makes Cramer’s images so appealing.

Something which is very striking, devoid of any artefacts of human existence, it is impossible to apply any sense of scale to the subjects in the Cramer’s images, despite the subjects themselves (trees, rocks, etc.) being easily recognisable features of a natural landscape.

Hodgson (2013) points out that we are familiar with discussing images as being “of something” but not so adept at seeing that images are also “about something”. For me this is a fundamental point in the analysis of any image, accepting that we have to keep looking until we see.

In terms of my practice, Cramer’s “Trilogy” illustrates the importance of understanding the reason for embarking upon a particular project, of having a “roadmap” to clearly define the starting point and the intended destination. It is so easy to become side-tracked during a project, especially a major project which is developed over a protracted period of time, and in so doing lose a sense of purpose or identity. Understanding the reason, the “intent” behind a body of work helps to maintain focus.


Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Rhetoric of the Image in Image Music Text. London: Fontana

Cramer, Daniel Gustav. (2010) ‘Daniel Gustav Cramer’. Klat Magazine, #04, October 2010, pp. 46 – 63

Dorment, Richard. (2003) ‘Photography in Focus’, The Telegraph 29 May 2003 [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 08 March 2017]

Francis Hodgson: Quality Matters (2013) YouTube Video, added by Huis Marseille, Museum for Photography [Online]. accessed 19 February 2017

Frith, Katherine Toland. (1997) Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising. New York: Peter Lang


The Media, Power and Stereotypes

“The tendency to subjugate the mission of gathering evidence to the demands of pictorial appeal becomes especially obvious in the pictures taken by the magazine’s staff and freelance photographers within the last several years. But it is also an inevitable consequence of the Geographic’s modern definition of itself as a magazine of mass appeal.” (Grundberg, 1988).

Grundberg begins his article “A Quintessentially American Point of View of the World” by outlining the role that National Geographic had in informing him at a time when exposure to the world and world events was greatly restricted: fewer publications were available and television was a new technology still in its formative stages.

According to Grundberg, the 1988 exhibition “Odyssey: The Art of Photography at National Geographic” – an exhibition of 200 photographs from the National Geographic archives, was interesting for two reasons: the wealth of images on display and what it said about the way editors and photographers choose to portray the world. This is the limit to Grundberg’s generosity.

He went on to write that the exhibition lacked anything which might give even the merest clue of how the magazine and its photography had developed since its inception.

Rather, it appeared to Grundberg that the purpose of the exhibition was a demonstration of “style” rather than a study of serious photography. I think it is fair to say, from the tone of Grundberg’s writing, that his view on the exhibition reflects his view on the journal itself – overly concerned with style and lacking in any substance.

What would appear to be quite clear is that this sea-change arose when the publication changed from being a “dry scholarly 19th century journal” into a popular magazine intended for consumption by the masses. What is perhaps not so clear is why it might be considered necessary to remove any informative academic content in order for the magazine to appeal to the wide audience targeted by the publishers.

Is it not possible to write articles which present academic material in a way which makes it appeal to a non-academic general public? Or is that the masses are not to be educated or informed? Who decides?

Surely it is feasible to provide a narrative which presents a balanced account of the “world and all that is in it”. However, Grundberg appears to suggest that National Geographic choose, at the time of writing at least, to offer a weak, stylistic portfolio of travel photography seen through the rose-tinted spectacles of a someone akin to a Victorian-era explorer.

National Geographic photography”, focusing on a wide range of subjects including “wildlife, exploration, foreign cultures, scenic vistas and so on”, is observed as having a wide and lasting influence on the way that Americans perceive the world. Grundberg states that National Geographic “currently has a circulation of 10 million copies a month”, America alone had a population of 244 million in 1988 when the article was published, setting aside the fact of a worldwide circulation, how great an influence National Geographic has had on shaping the “American view of the world”, its people and places at any one time is arguable.

Notwithstanding the latter point, why would a publication, any publication, seek to influence perceptions as a result of the way it presents information? Why, for example, would National Geographic choose to “sanitise” what it shows to its readers?

Why would National Geographic choose to portray subjects in “ethnographic pastoral” mode which, as Grundberg informs us, results in “much of the writing found on the magazine’s pages” having a tendency “to verge on the rhapsodic, depicting foreign lands and cultures as exotic and alluring”?

Why not portray the reality of life for the people, and in the places, that are the journal’s subjects?

Foucaldian power discourse focuses on power relationships which exist in society, it is a form of discourse analysis which extends to include semiotic critical analysis.

Looking beyond Grundberg’s evaluation of the “Odyssey” exhibition specifically and National Geographic generally, it would certainly appear that the media works to a definite agenda in order to achieve its aims. It is in a position of immense power – and it makes use of that power.

People are not only told what to think but also, as is the case with much media coverage, what to think of in terms of the subjects that are presented by the media.

With power comes responsibility. It is inevitable that news stories will have a hierarchy, some events taking place in the world will always have a high level of importance whilst others, arguably, are not news at all. But what drives the decision-making process which determines what news stories become headlines, what imagery and copy is used in adverts? And again, who makes the decision?

As tentative as the link might be, is this a symptom of politically correct thinking?

Stereotypes can be insulting at best, and offensive at worst. The use of stereotypical images, even “gendered” images, by the media to force home a point would seem at odds with political correctness. But nevertheless, we should ask the question whether or not the media operates, to some extent, to an ideology of political correctness, even if only to dismiss that question.

Are we really being increasingly told what to think by the way in which the media chooses to present some images and not others? Is there a commonly held perception in the media that the “masses” cannot think for themselves and so should be spoon-fed news and adverts?

Karl Marx is frequently paraphrased as stating that “religion is the opiate of the masses”. Perhaps media, especially “social media”, is the new religion? And perhaps selective and manipulative use of imagery by the media is the “opiate” that induces us to sleepwalk through a subliminally suggestive landscape? The “hypodermic needle” effect cited in reception theory certainly suggests that audiences passively view adverts and unquestioningly accept the preferred message.

Without doubt, photography can help establish or perpetuate stereotypes depending on the agenda the photographer or user of the image is working to.

However, the relationship between the author and the audience is not one-sided as models of passive audience viewing might suggest.

Audience theory suggests that “dominant readings” arise when audiences readily accept the “preferred” message.

Audiences do, however, question what is presented to it by the media, and, again, audience theory informs us that this is an “oppositional reading”. In Barthes terminology, the “source of emission” is held to account by the “point of reception”, a notable example is the case of the “You Can Ride Me All Day for £3.00” adverts being removed from Cardiff buses within hours of the advertising campaign being launched. This is an example of not only how the media manipulates through the use of stereotypes but also how audiences can question and successfully challenge institutions. Seemingly, though, such stereotypes are commonplace.


Ride Me All day for £3” (New Adventure Travel, 2015)

Advertisements make use of “gendered” images, and the use of the “male gaze” with its active, quite often “aggressive”, masculine, and its passive, nurturing feminine roles, is prevalent.


I can’t cook. Who cares?” (Wonderbra, 1999)

By way of example, television adverts for cleaning products do feature male characters, but ask how often that is the case. Advertisements for cleaning products are predominantly aimed at female members of the household.

At a time when gender seems more mutable than ever before, in real terms, gender roles seem just as immutable in the advertising world as ever.

Whilst negative stereotypes might seem to be commonplace in advertising, positive stereotyping can be seen.


The More Women at Work” Campaign Poster (U. S. Office of War Information, 1943)

So, how can I apply all this to my photographic practice?

For me, the value of this discourse is in appreciating how to engage with audiences, the judicious use of images to ensure appropriateness, and in maintaining integrity. I think there is much more mileage, much more credibility, in an approach which promotes how to think, rather than preaching what to think.

There is no such thing as a single, homogenous audience. Audiences will always demonstrate a spectrum of perceptions, viewing the same thing will elicit a range of different responses ranging from acceptance to opposition. Perhaps the most important message is that people are less prepared to accept if they feel patronised or manipulated, put another way, people are more willing to accept ideas, even opposing views, if they feel they are being spoken to and involved in resolving an outcome, rather than spoken down to as non-participant.


Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Rhetoric of the Image in Image Music Text. London: Fontana

Grundberg, A. (1988) Photography View: A Quintessentially American View of the World. The New York Times [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 03 March 2017)

Recycling, Repurposing and Re-framing

All media, newspapers, magazines, etc. could once have been described as “social media” in the sense that they were intended for consumption by a non-restricted audience with, in many cases, increased consumption equalling increased profits. Whilst such forms of media continue to exist and perform their function, the extent to which they do so has diminished greatly. Today, “social media” refers to computer-mediated technologies which facilitate the creating and sharing of information and ideas. This is differentiated from more traditional forms of media in that it is media-sharing with a social element – the people sharing the media are generally its authors and feel that they belong to one of various forms of networks or “communities”.

Barthes referred to the contexts in which images can be consumed as “channels of transmission” in a tripartite system where the authors of images he describes as the “source of emission” and viewers become the “point of reception” (Barthes, 1977, p. 15).

Barrett suggests that the “external context” is “the situation in which a photograph is presented or found”, this includes books, galleries, museums, newspapers, magazines, billboards, and classrooms (Barrett, 2005, pp. 106 – 111). Clearly for Barrett’s external context “situation” to exist in which images can be consumed, both Barthes “channel of transmission” and “point of reception” need to be present (it is given, therefore, that a “source of emission” has authored the image).

Barrett goes on to identify two other contexts: the internal, and the original contexts.

The “internal context” is appreciated by paying attention to the subject of photograph, the medium and form of the image, and the relationship between the three. The “original context” cannot be determined by an examination of the photograph itself as it is dependent upon a knowledge of art and the art world (ibid.).

Meaning is context base, as Price and Wells inform us “One determinant of the way in which we understand photographs, then, is the context within which we view them, and key institutions shape the nature of photography by the way they provide context” (Price and Wells, 2015, p. 61).

Media organisations exist to generate revenue (even not-for-profit organisations) and the sale of images or advertising space play a significant part in establishing that income. Organisations provide a specific context, a platform through which users can engage with the organisation and, in the case of social media, other users. Ultimately though, how the context is used, or able to be used, by users is determined by the culture of the organisation providing the context. For example, whilst there is a clear need for Facebook to safeguard against the dissemination of inappropriate images of minors, most people are familiar with the officious way in which Facebook quickly removes post-operative mastectomy images or images of breastfeeding mothers.

What, then, of the relationship between individuals and contexts?

Contemporary social media owes much of its popularity to its interactive nature where the community members are authors and contributors as much as they viewers and consumers. Images contributed to social media help individuals to define their online identity, where they “shape” the way in which others see them, where they portray themselves as they wish to be perceived, their “ideal”.

“A rapidly expanding system of networks, collectively known as the Internet, links millions of people in new spaces that are changing the way we think, the nature of our sexuality, the form of our communities, or very identities” (Truckle, 1995 p. 9).

In this virtual world of social media, image content is more important than any aesthetic quality, where images are distributed as a symbol of pseudo-status relating to the preferred ideal identity, where they act as a time-stamp confirming the author’s conspicuous-consumption as they “check in” to various social events, make us aware of those in their social circle (and those not), and share with us meals they are preparing to eat. These are the “casual” photographs referred to by Manovich (2016).

Additionally, social media provides individuals with a sense of being connected and belonging that is absent with other forms of media whilst organisations are able to take advantage of the larger audience which, in advertising terms, is accessible at a much-reduced cost.

Social media is a dialogic form of transmission, meaning that there are many sources of information and many users, or to put this in terms Barthes would recognise, there are both many sources of emission and many points of reception. This is opposed traditional forms of media which are monologic where the sources of emission are typically a very small number of powerful organisations delivering information to a wide audience.

Whilst social media offers an immediacy of dissemination, together with affording contributors a sense of belonging and an opportunity and means of assembling an online identity, there are negative aspects to this media form.

Images are, for example, subject to misappropriation, plagiarism and manipulation. Threats to which images placed into online galleries are equally prone if adequate safeguards are not put into place.

Additionally, citizen journalism is a double-edged sword, capable of both informing an audience but also provide an uninformed, unbalanced and biased view of events.

So, what of more traditional media forms?

Newspapers continue to play an important part in keeping us informed of world events because, quite simply, press photographers and journalists have a “journalistic privilege” which affords them access to contacts, news and locations which are beyond the reach of those outside the profession.

Magazines allow viewers to look at images in a way which is very much context based given that “feature” images in magazines work in one of two ways: either being supported by, or supporting text in an article.

Photobooks enable an audience to view, generally theme-based, images in a linear way. Unaccompanied by text, the clue being in the name, images are curated in order to provide their own narrative which takes the “reader” on a journey.

Advertisements on billboards provide a means for organisations to achieve purpose-specific mass-exposure and constitute part of the “out of home” marketing mix. This form of advertising makes use of “downtime” when consumers are engaged in other activities, for example, driving or waiting at train stations and consequently makes use of vivid colours, logos, simple copy and symbols in order to engage the audience and quickly, and effectively, implant the message in the viewer’s mind. The symbiotic relationship between newspapers and magazines who sell advertising space to advertisers, provides the same works on similar principles.

Almost irrespective of context, images can readily be assigned to new purposes, in other words, they are open to be being used in a context different to that originally intended. Sontag (1977, p.174) refers to “new meanings” which can be attached to images either purposefully or incidentally as a result of this “recycling”.

Price and Wells indicate that in such cases of “repurposing”, the original intent for the image can be forgotten “with the passage of time the original motive for the making of a photograph may disappear, leaving it accessible to being ‘re-framed’ within new contexts” (Price and Wells, 2015, p. 70).

It is widely cited that there is no such thing as bad publicity. That may or may not be the case. Whilst Protein World received some negative press for their “Beach Body Ready” ready advert, they no doubt also saw enormous benefit from the pursuant media coverage surrounding the advertisement’s negative connotations. For me, the real winner is the spoof SimplyBe campaign whose adverts cleverly rode on the back of, and benefitted from, the momentum of the “Beach Body Ready” campaign. Here advertisers saw an opportunity to make use of copy, a colour scheme and a subject which were already established in the mind of the audience. Additionally, they built on the consternation of public opinion, portraying themselves as the “good cop” to Protein World’s “bad cop”.


Beach Body Ready” (Protein World, 2015)


Spoof Protest Advert (SimplyBe, 2015)

In terms of my commercial photographic practice, images are supplied to clients for use on business websites, in menus or for display in dining areas and these currently constitute the “point of reception” for my practice. Work is underway to develop other platforms for the consumption of my work including publication in books and magazines where my images will support text-based recipes.

The “channel of transmission” for this area of my practice will be a website in conjunction with appropriate forms of advertising literature (flyers, leaflets, and business cards).

In relation to my project, it is my intention to establish a dedicated online gallery. This mode of dissemination makes the project available to the widest possible audience, and range of audiences, whilst incurring least costs and is, therefore, the optimum context notwithstanding image safeguarding issues.

Looking beyond the project deadline, I intend to continue to work on the project, increasing the range of contexts through which audiences can view my work: the feasibility of an exhibition and a photobook are two options currently being explored.

Newspapers and magazines, especially local press in the early stages, will be appropriate contexts, or “channels of transmission” through which to make audiences aware of my project and any exhibitions, online or otherwise.



Barrett, T. (2005) Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images. New York: McGraw-Hill pp. 106 – 111

Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Rhetoric of the Image in Image Music Text. London: Fontana

Price, D. and Wells, L. (2015) ‘Thinking about Photography’, in WELLS (ed.) Photography – A Critical Introduction. Oxon: Routledge

Manovich, L. (2016). Subjects and Styles in Instagram Photography. [Online]. (Accessed: 28 February 2017)

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Truckle, Sherry. (1995) Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks

The Gendered “Gaze”

“Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men …”

Genderization in the media


Carl Jr Advertising Campaign, 2005

The “male gaze”, a term first referred to by Laura Mulvey, is the way in which women and the world are depicted from a masculine point of view, by the visual arts, as objects for male pleasure.

Feminist film critic Mulvey introduced the term in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. In her essay, Mulvey posits that gender power asymmetry is a controlling force in cinema and constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer, which, in turn, has its basis in patriarchal ideologies and discourses.

Consisting of three component perspectives, the person behind the camera, the characters within the text, and the spectator, the “male gaze” occurs when the audience is placed into the perspective of a heterosexual male by the camera. Females are typically (or stereo-typically) displayed on two different levels: as an object of erotic desire for the characters in the text, and as an object of desire for the “spectator”.

The male is portrayed as a dominant power, whilst the female is shown as being passive and subordinate.


Mulvey, Linda. (1975). ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 26 February 2017)



Voyeurism … or not?


Morris, 2017. Bacchus

The “gaze” is a tool of exploration, a means by which we can analyse the relationship between the image maker or viewer, and the subject.

Any commercial work that I undertake has to fulfil different criteria to that of my project work.

In terms of my project, my intention is to produce images with an aesthetic appeal in their own right. My commercial work is based on an intention to inform and promote.

To observe the visual characteristics of my subjects I have to be detached, and view from a distance. This is the “spectator’s gaze” and involves exclusively the sense of sight. To fully understand the physical characteristics of the subject itself, I have to “become one with it”. This leads to an almost direct address or “extra-diegetic” point-of-view and involves the senses of taste, smell, touch and sound.

Both kinds of knowledge are required to accurately portray the true “character” of the subject.

However, whichever hat I happen to be wearing, for images to be successful, I have to be an observer – this is a constant.

What changes, though, is the viewpoint and the distance from which I observe.

Angier (2007, p. 61) points to distance being a basic condition of a voyeuristic relationship between the “seer” and the “seen”. Pertinently he points out that whilst the popular conception is that there has to be a sexual element in order for voyeurism to be established, this is not actually the case. Moreover, what is needed in addition to the basic condition of distance, is an element of desire for the subject on the part of the viewer, that is to say, the “seen” must be wanted by the “seer” in one form or another.

Angier suggests that, in addition to the viewer “wanting” the subject, there must also be elements of both “unavailablity” of the subject and ultimate “non-desire” on the part of the viewer.

However, are the two latter “pre-requisites” really pre-requisites after all? Is it not the case that we have all viewed something in a voyeuristic manner when the subject has been available, and we have ultimately wanted it?

So then, is my “gaze” voyeuristic? Quite possibly.

With its root in the French verb voir – to see, are we not all voyeurs anyway? Especially given that Angier suggests that a sexual element does not need to present?

If the latter points hold true, is my “gaze” now voyeuristic? I think almost definitely.

Angier, Roswell. (2007) Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Guide to Portrait Photography. Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA

Decoding Advertisements

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.

Viewing adverts is not a passive process. However, models exist which suggest that this is the case.

The “Effects” or “hypodermic needle” theory suggests that the viewers of adverts passively view images and unquestioningly accept the message.

Conversely, “The Uses and Gratification” theory suggests that the audience takes an active role in consuming adverts, messages are questioned and put to use for the gratification of the viewer.

Both the Effects and the Uses and Gratification models have flaws and limitations. For example, the Effects model posits that children who view violent behaviour on screen will re-enact that violence in real life, the reality is that many people watch specific types of behaviour without going on to reproduce that behaviour themselves. The Uses and Gratification theory controversially suggests that some violent behaviour can be beneficial rather than harmful.

Reception Theory” was developed by Stuart Hall in response to these flaws.

This theory suggests that authors, say for example advertisers, will design an advert to carry a specific message – this is encoding. Decoding occurs when the audience views an advert.

Adverts can, according to Hall, be decoded in one of three ways which will be explored through the following analysis of images.

The first advertisement, The Famous Grouse “Perfectly Balanced” advert of 2016, provides an example of a dominant reading.

Reception 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 advertisement features a grouse, balancing on the peak of a rocky outcrop, the rock itself is truncated in order to create an impression of great height.

Whilst there is no reference to the product being advertised, Famous Grouse Scotch Whisky, anywhere at all in the image, the intended audience will instantly recognise the preferred message which, according to the distiller, is the bringing together of the “finest grains, pure Scottish water and carefully seasoned sherry and bourbon casks to create our uniquely rich, rounded and sweet whisky.”


Perfectly Balanced” – The Famous Grouse (2016)

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.

Vegans and vegetarians may take an oppositional view of the McDonald’s “Big Mac” advertisement because, in their view, it is unethical to kill animals and eat animal products. This is obviously in opposition to the advert itself which promotes the Big Mac specifically, and McDonald’s products in general, as being delicious and nutritious.


Big Mac Meal” McDonald’s

Finally, the beach body ready advertisement is an example of a negotiated 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.

Fundamentally, the advert is promoting a series of weight loss supplements. However, the advert received widespread criticism when the “viewing audience” perceived it as promoting lean body types and therefore discriminating against other body types.

Consequently, we can see that the audience will accept the promotion of the weight loss supplements, but objects to the use of exclusively slender models in that promotion.


Beach Body Ready” Protein World (2015)

Adverts, therefore, are “polysemic” in nature – they are open to different interpretations which are dependent upon the audience’s identity, cultural knowledge and opinions.

But what of the “deeply held belief systems” to which Frith refers?

Goodwin and Whannel suggest that messages are “socially produced in particular circumstances and made culturally available as shared explanations of how the world works. In other words, they are ‘ideologies’, explanatory systems of belief” (Goodwin and Whannel, 2005, p. 60).

Their definition of “shared explanations” is interesting because it relates to semiotic concept of symbolism.

Pierce introduced the philosophical system of semiotics in his book “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs” (1910), a discourse on the theory of language and reasoning. This system has since been utilised widely in attempts to establish the nature of photography and photographs.

Barthes, in his attempts to qualify how photography “exists”, has referred to the terminology introduced by Pierce’s system of semiotics, such terminology as: icon – the resemblance that a photograph has to its subject, and index – trace evidence of the existence of a subject once photographed.

In semiotic terms, symbols are agreed, standardised points of reference which can be used as a basis upon which to form discussions that are inclusive (e.g. a car is a car because that is what we are taught, and it is universally agreed and accepted that a “car” will have a chassis, four wheels, an engine, etc.).

If the symbolic meaning of a photograph is the “studium” referred to by Barthes, the polysemic “punctum” is the initial (conscious) pricking impression that is purely personal and dependent on the individual.

Ideologies are, then, the explanatory systems of belief suggested by Goodwin and Whannel and messages are the mode by which such ideologies are communicated. Consequently, it follows that symbolism is the agreed shorthand used in those messages.

It would appear then, in relation to decoding advertisements, that we have established the link between the “deeply held belief systems” referred to by Frith and semiotic symbolism.

How then, does theory relate to practice?


Morris, 2017. Tomato Soup

Analysed according to Frith’s meanings, the image “Tomato Soup” has the following characteristics.

Firstly, in terms of the surface meaning, the image shows tomatoes, onion, garlic and carrots, a number of pencils stand ready for use in a pot – which we can see is a tin which once held tomato soup, and there is a recipe with the title “Tomato Soup”.

The intended meaning of the image is clearly to portray tomato soup and its ingredients, at least in terms of this particular recipe.

Finally, the cultural meaning of the image. Whilst the image is clearly about tomato soup, the question is introduced as to what tomato soup the image is trying to portray. The fresh ingredients and the recipe suggest that the benefits of fresh, home-made tomato soup are being depicted. The tin which clearly held a well-established brand of tomato soup has been relegated to the position of pen pot – is this image promoting healthy, economical and delicious benefits of home-cooking? Or is the tin – now empty of soup and with its new contents of pencils – lurking in the background for an ulterior reason?

From Hodgson’s perspective, “Tomato Soup” is, again, clearly an image of the ingredients needed to make. But the same ambiguity applies with regard to what the image is about – is it home-cooked soup, or mass-produced soup in a tin?

Taking Barthes and Heath’s semiotic approach, the signifier is not quite so easily determined. In the case of “Tomato Soup”, is it the range of fresh ingredients and the recipe, or is it the tomato soup can in the background? The signified is, therefore, very much dependent upon what the viewer interprets the signifier to be.

On a final note, 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]. accessed 19 February 2017

Frith, Katherine Toland. (1997) Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising. New York: Peter Lang

Goodwin, A. and Whannel, G. (2005) Understanding Television. London: Routledge

Hall, Stuart. (1997) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage in association with The Open University

False Indexes

Postmodern photographic work in particular exploits and challenges both the objective and the subjective, the technological and the creative” (Hutcheon, 2003, p. 117).

In relation to my photographic practice, the objective is what is presented to the camera, or what the camera sees. The subjective is what I want the audience who will view my photographs to see – it’s the message contained within.

As a photographer, I rely upon the objectivity of my camera to reproduce accurately an image of the scene I have created. It is the ability of photography to be able to capture a true, iconic likeness of a constructed subject that is the “peculiar” nature of photography and which, arguably sets it apart from other forms of visual art.

My photographic work falls into two areas: commercial work and project work.

My commercial work is more objective, less subjective, and a more faithful representation of the subject aimed at portraying how a recipe should look when prepared, or persuading customers to make purchases in cafeterias or restaurants. Clients expect that this type of work will have documentary value.

In terms of my project, work consists of constructed images, incrementally developed over time, which have an aesthetic appeal but also carry a message. Using Wall’s terminology, these are “farmed” images (Wall as cited in Horne, 2012).

So, how do the “technological” and the “creative” relate to each other?

Familiarity with my camera is important in my work. Practicing with my camera enables a degree of proficiency which, in real terms, means I don’t have to think about using the camera which, in turn, allows my work to flow intuitively. This provides a balance between the “technological” and the “creative” because there are, as Hutcheon suggests, fundamental links between the technological and the objective, and the creative and the subjective.

It was asked whether photography could be art or not. The camera is a machine, and the machine has no spirit, so photography makes machine-made paintings’ (Sugimoto as cited in Cue, 2016).

This quote, for me at least, seems to deny photography of a fundamental quality – it’s ability to be indexical whilst also having aesthetic appeal. It also appears to deny any credit to the photographer who provides the “spirit” to which Sugimoto refers.

This seems in contrast with his description of having witnessed a sunset:

In late spring 1982, I watched from a cliff in Newfoundland as a beautiful sunset coincided with a full moon rise in the eastern sky. Standing up there in the crisp air, I felt like a figure in a Caspar David Friedrich painting; for the first time in years I was overcome by an out-of-body experience. I was far above from the earth’s surface gazing at the moon adrift over the sea, while another me ― a tiny speck ― remained spellbound on the ground.”


Hiroshi Sugimoto, 1982. North Atlantic Ocean, Newfoundland

The three photographs which follow are representative examples of photographers who have successfully married the technological with the creative: blending the “mechanical”, objective aspect provided by the photographic equipment with the subjectivity of the photographer’s vision.

American photographer David Hilliard constructs images, typically a triptych, using photographs of the same scene taken from different angle in order to add a dimension of time and span the gap between fact and fiction. It is the added dimension of time, something which is normally excluded from photographs, that I find particularly interesting.


David Hilliard, 1994. My Father’s Shirt

Christina de Middel’s project “Afronauts” used fictional photographs to narrate the story of the 1964 Zambian Space Programme.

This is what hatred did

Christina de Middel, 2012. Afronauts

Carl Warner’s “foodscapes” see him produce fantastical images constructed entirely of food.


Carl Warner, Date unknown. Candy Cottage

We have looked at the relationship between the technological and the creative. Is this affected by the context in which images are viewed?

Shore suggests that “the context in which a photograph is seen effects the meaning a viewer draws from it” (Shore, 1998, p. 26). Barker goes on to say: “All meanings depend on other meanings” (Barker, 2008, p. 482).

The viewing context informs how the image is made. There is an “assumed textual and visual lexicon” which is cumulative over time: the images we see, the things we hear, all the things we experience shape the way in which we perceive images.

Photographers make decisions about the images they take: how to frame the subject, what to include in the frame and what to exclude, what depth of field to use, etc. In the same way, viewer’s make decisions about how to interpret an image. There is a link between the “subjective” creative view of the photographer and the implicit content of an image. The more implicit an image’s content, the more open to interpretation by the viewer an image is. Critical thinking and visual literacy also play a part in the interpretation of images, in effect allowing image makers and viewers to communicate in a shared language. As mentioned in previous discussions, the language needed to evaluate photographs need not be unique to photography, barring technical aspects, the language used to describe and interrogate other forms of visual communication is quite adequate.

This is important, and relevant, to me because it determines how I make my images – the images have to meet audience expectations. In my case, as discussed earlier, the audiences for my commercial work and my project work will be different and will have different requirements. Consequently, I have to balance being overly explicit and providing the viewer with too much information to the point that the image loses its point of interest, and assuming the viewer has a much greater visual literacy than is actually the case, leaving the hidden meaning beyond reach and the image consequently too open to interpretation.

It is worthy, perhaps, to mention that the way images are viewed is partly dependent on who is looking at the images. Photographers, I think, can fall into different categories: the technical and the artistic.

The technically biased, although appreciating the visual value of an image, may predominantly notice the technical qualities of an image first. On the other hand, the artistic might predominantly look first to the aesthetic qualities of an image, and any message that the image is trying to convey.


Barker, C. (2008) Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice London: Sage Publications Limited

Cué, E. (2016) “Interview with Hiroshi Sugimoto” in The Huffington Post (1 June 2016) [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 9 February 2017]

Horne, R. (2012) “Holly Andres, “Farmer” of Photographs” in The Wall Street Journal (3 January 2012) [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 9 February 2017]

Hutcheon, L. (2002) The Politics of Postmodernism London: Routledge

Shore, S. (1998) The Nature of Photographs Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

Sugimoto, H. (1982) “Revolution”. Hiroshi Sugimoto [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 08 February 2017]