When it comes to understanding how people consume pictures either as news, information, or entertainment we need to think in terms of how social reality is constructed for us by the gatekeepers and agenda setters of the world.
How do we know what something is supposed to represent or mean without some sort of reference to relate it to?
For those fortunate to have the gift of sight, much of our informational system is based on the repetition and recall of images.
In reviewing the front page display of three lead images in The New York Times today there is an interesting example of how social realities are constructed through the use and positioning of images in the news. In this case, viewers are presented with three distinct impressions of the conflict in the Middle East.
However, the signification of the overall message is dependent on how the pictures interact with one another. In another sense, there is a gestalt to the display as each image builds meaning off one another. In other words, the collective meaning of the three pictures subordinates the power of reading the images individually.
The New York Times editors have a hierarchy of importance in mind when they arrange the picture of a Marine escorting evacuees off a beach above and bigger than two smaller supporting images – one showing Hezbollah fighters and the other depicting a corpse.
There is symmetry to the arrangement of visual elements here that provides a sense of authority for the narrative. The arrangement of the pictures -- two below and one above --is a structurally semiotic triad of meaning -- icon, index and symbol.
From a semiotic perspective, the combination of these images tells a story through a relationship of signs -- some more symbolic in nature than others. All three images are iconic, but the two images below rely heavily on the juxtaposition of index against symbolism.
The picture of the fighters on the left acts as an index or something that is pointing to the symbolism of the corpse on the right. In other words, this combination of images is a construction with a very pointed message. In this case, the picture of the fighters signifies death, terror, fear, and insecurity in relation to the adjacent corpse. Meanwhile, the picture of the Marine above signifies security, safety, and escape from the two images below.
No doubt, the editors are carefully constructing a visual narrative for the reader designed to frame the current crisis in a specific way.
There is a visual hegemony to the arrangement of these pictures – one that suggests how viewers are directed to a specific ideology in ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling about events. Antonio Gramsci observed that people are not only subordinated to the will of a dominant group through physical and mental coercion, but also through repeated exposure, cultivation and indoctrination to a set of prevailing values, attitudes, and ideas.
This is what I read through the editor’s selection, scaling, and positioning of images on a page. In some ways, perhaps, my interpretation is a bit too excessive and paranoid. It could be that my reading may be too critical for some in that it suggests that the gatekeepers of information have an agenda and motive for deciding what is news that is not always objective and unbiased.
Then again, for others, thinking about how images construct realities may be well worthwhile considering.