Visual Analysis

Seeing is believing?


Visual analysis involves acknowledging that the visual world is constructed and this construction often suits those in power. Interpreting meanings can reveal the way that identity is organized. Despite the established role of photography in culture for providing visual evidence, there can be no way to observe from an objective standpoint.

There are three approaches to visual analysis:

  1. Semiotics
  2. Psychoanalysis
  3. Visual discourse analysis

Semiotics if the study of signs, in which the sign is the most important code of meaning. This analysis is Marxist in perspective and textual in its approach, it is derived from the concept that the way knowledge is constructed as legitimate. It is made up of the signifier and the signified, for example the picture of a cat and the word c-a-t, it’s all about seeing the difference between what is there and what is not there. There are three ways of analysing the sign:

  • Icon – designed to look like the thing
  • Index
  • Symbol – conventions of meaning

When you consider the difference between them, you can begin to consider the ideology behind the signs and icons. An indexical sign is on that has a connection to the thing represented and the symbolic sign resembles road signs, logos and colouring, that which has no meaning other than through convention. The syntagmatic is signs and words around the image also construct meaning and the paradigmatic is the way the word is in relation to other words, what difference replacement might make to the meaning. Barthes also contributed to the discussion proposing ideology and mythology; the connotation is how the image is taken, the denotation is what is photographed and mythology references the naturalisation of power. The function of the myth is to naturalise power.

Psychoanalysis is interested in subjectivity, unconscious and sexuality, non rational dreams, fantasy and pleasure, visual confusions, blind-spots and mistakes. Subjectivity is how the other is important in understanding our own sense of self, the internalisation of the other; this takes place within sexual difference. Abjection is an important part of psychoanalysis and refers to what culture constructs as something abnormal and disgusting. Most cultures construct birth as something that is both beautiful and repulsive at the same time, in addition to this death is the most abject thing. There is are also discussions around the uncanny, which refers to the uncomfortable feeling when confronted with something slightly different from the expectation.

Visual discourse analysis considers the concept of discourse, which refers to constructed sets of meaning. Discourse is both multiple and connected but sometimes in complex ways and always creates subject positions (for example on Valentines day discourse creates the lover, the single and the anti). There are two approaches to discourse analysis:

  • Image as discourse
  • Wider contexts in which the image is seen

The image as discourse considers the idea of the image as truth and engages with what kind of truths are being discussed within the image. However as a researcher, we have to hold the truth of the image in suspense in order to deconstruct what versions of truth are being represented and presented. The image as institution moves the researcher away from individual and decontextualised analysis and towards considering the means of production, the medium and the platform. It questions why the image was produced and what subjectivity does it create. The way through which the image is viewed also shapes the way the viewer will engage with it, for example the iPad takes what might have been a private experience of viewing into the public sphere, which means the viewer might withhold their full emotional response.


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