A4 Research: Images and Text in the Real World or the Politics of Captions

Steve Middlehurst 2016

Steve Middlehurst 2016

Clive Scott reminds us that “photography in its entirety is an unstable medium” (1: p.78); a point proven, at least to myself, when considering how the intentions of Dorothea Lange’s photographs have been interpreted and reinterpreted as their textual context has changed over many decades (here). We recognise that changing a photograph’s context alters, what Scott calls, its “genetical status and intention” (1: p.78) but its sensitivity to modification or appropriation by a small number of closely associated words is remarkable and at times disturbing.

On June 23rd Britain went to the polls, egged on by politicians and the media we voted on whether to remain part of the EU. The result came as a surprise to nearly everyone, especially those politicians whose chosen position appeared more biased towards career management than political conviction. Over the following forty-eight hours the world’s press gave their verdict on the decision using a surprisingly narrow range of photographs and some imaginative graphics. Partly because the EU referendum is the basis for my assignment 4 and partly because it provided a wonderful source of text and images working in tandem I collected a hundred or so of these front pages to look at how the reader was directed to interpret the photographs used to illustrate the result.

Taking 117 front pages as my sample I was able to group them together into nine loose categories based on the main image.

  • David Cameron
  • Other politicians
  • Celebration
  • Despair
  • Maps
  • Flags
  • Motifs and icons
  • Aftermath

Within each group different messages are communicated using the same or similar images, a fact that underlines the unstable nature of the photograph and the ease with which it is appropriated to support any particular political viewpoint.

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Cameron’s resignation led the news on the 25th June, and whilst few editors passed up on the opportunity to kick a man when he was down, the selection of images and their accompanying headlines and captions varied considerably. If we focus initially on the Times and Kleine Zeitung who use the same photograph of the Prime Minster and his wife we are directed to read his pensive expression in two different ways; The Times “Brexit earthquake” headline suggests that Cameron is distraught, a man coming to terms with a disaster whereas Kleine Zeitung asks “Europe, what now?” reinterpreting his expression as a baffled and confused man unable to answer the question on everyone’s lips. The Mirror (see below) takes a similar vantage point but cleverly infers that Mrs. Cameron is asking  the question, just in case we missed the point they have blurred Cameron so our attention is focussed on Samantha’s worried and quizzical expression.

It is worth noting that The Times and the Daily Mirror supported remain but sit on opposite sides of the political spectrum so whilst one just reports a disaster the other expresses their anger. The Daily Telegraph have the same photograph as the Mirror but as a paper that supported Brexit they are too busy proclaiming the “Birth of a New Britain” to have spent any time considering whether the photograph of the Cameron’s works with that headline; their politically loaded statement neutralises the image, it becomes a placeholder on the page but as The Daily Telegraph likes to have a picture of a woman on their front page it might have been the only option for a photograph that reflected the lead story and included an attractive women, shallow perhaps but possible.

Returning to the pages above El Espectador uses the Cameron’s leaving the podium and returning through the front door of number 10 to support their headline “We Left”, leaving the podium and moving through a door both offer metaphors for leaving Europe. The Financial Weekend uses a similar shot combined with the caption “Now Let’s Fix it”, a far more complex piece of direction that only becomes clear when we notice the pictures of Boris Johnson and Winston Churchill in the banner. Here the editor has established that Cameron is finished and walking away but the saviour is on hand, a leader who will harness the ghost of Churchill, the ultimate British symbol of defiance against the odds. A bright future indeed that looked less reassuring three weeks later after the dramatic fall of their hero.
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Poor old David, the editors aren’t done with him yet. We are back to the pursed-lipped expression in the domestic Sun, the “I” and four Australian papers. The Sun, a paper that proclaims its political orientations as a badge of honour takes the unique position of attacking the still pensive Cameron for walking away despite having played a significant role in undermining his campaign to “remain”, the caption writer directs us to interpret his expression as a bad loser, a quitter, the sulky child “it’s my ball and I’m going home” . The Australians begin to use what they suggest is a bewildered look to start wondering what it means for them and the “I” suggests he has the look of man whose political gambit failed, is the expression now to be read as guilty? A gambling motif is also used by The Sunday Times cartoonist to support their “What Has He Done?” caption.

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Bored with Cameron? I’m not surprised, very much yesterday’s man. Let’s look at how the other players in the great game fared. It is interesting to register who features but even more so who does not. No sign of Teresa May on any front page, the ultimate dark horse? The Express on-line positions Johnson, Cameron and Juncker as a trypich, all quite neutral photographs but the headline positions Johnson the hero and Juncker as the enemy; Boris can now been seen as the serious politician fighting for good and Juncker? Is that a smirk on his face? Obviously a “Johnny Foreigner” of the worst kind. Portafolio’s “Bexit: Shocked World” is supported by six shocked world leaders (The Express would be horrified to hear Junker described in such terms); the Cameron image is contemporaneous to the event, one doubts the other five are in their original context so we are not only being directed to see the worried faces in the aftermath of Brexit the images have been probably been appropriated from another time. Obama might be worrying about a golf shot and Merkel about immigration but now we are informed they woke up that morning worrying about Brexit.

The Independent, the Daily Record and Libération all warn us poor Brits about what comes next. Libération wish us “Good Luck” with an image that projects Johnson as a clown; the Daily Record take what in any other context is a strong image of a politician speaking but direct us through their caption to “Be Afraid”, so he quickly appears more evil, that smile is really a knowing smirk. The two images that more subtly question what Britain has got itself into are in The Independent and the Kuwait Times, Boris Johnson now looks the worried one with his ominous shadow large on the wall, “Welcome to Boris Island” indeed.

Allgemein Dagbland (AD) reference Edvard Munch’s The Scream to show the horror of three leading European politicians. I have included several cartoon front pages because it speaks to the idea that sometimes, when you need an image that directly gets to the point, a photograph might just be too ambiguous.

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Another politician who (thankfully) faded into the background quite quickly was Nigel Farage, the most embarrassing British politician of our generation. His celebrations lead papers from the UK to China, Greece, Japan and India; apart from at the Daily Mail the editors are unlikely to be interested in Farage per se but the use of his image by international editors tells their readers that Britain is celebrating, we have shocked the world, unsettled the major stock markets, become an island again, been somehow diminished yet “we” are joyful.

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A theme that, without Farage, is picked up by many newspapers at home and abroad. Britains are on the street celebrating; the Sun euphemistically sticks two fingers up to the EU. I have included one celebratory image that is interesting because it is unconnected to the EU; The Independent on Sunday 26th use over half their front page to display an image of the Pride parade in London. The caption for this image is actually the one above it and talks of Justin Greening but my first instinct was to look below the photograph and associate it with the “Go Now” caption which is of course part of the article at the bottom of the page. On the basis that front pages are carefully designed I suggest that this is intentional and uses the mass of union flags and a street celebration as a way to remind their readers that we have created chaos and caused great offence by deciding to leave the EU, yet here we are celebrating whilst bedecked with our flag.

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The choices of the celebration photographs are revealing. The Arabic language paper selects a suited, rather typical Brit, in a silly hat; the victorious “Leaver” is made to look foolish. The Daily Mail uses their cutout to direct us into seeing the victors as the “quiet people of Britain”, the ordinary folk who out manoeuvred the political classes, they have even managed to find a shot including one non-white man to prove that this wasn’t just middle England in revolt but the whole nation.

Many foreign newspapers couldn’t resist the London cabbie waving his union flag. This shot combines two  iconic British symbols, the London cab and our flag with the wild street party atmosphere that many wished to portray but in each instance the photograph is juxtaposed with warning headlines; chaos, shockwaves, global shocks, the day Europe divided. Turkeys voting for Christmas might be the message.

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In contrast the 48.1% get very little coverage. Panic, turmoil and shock are illustrated by a small number of disappointed Brits and three pictures that suspiciously look like the stock photos that come out of the draw whenever stock markets crash; the union flag in The Citizen’s Voice makes their choice no more convincing.

Maps are national motifs and are used in various ways by domestic and international editors.

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The star falling from the European flag was a much used devise to report shock, ask “what now?” or to call for solidarity. The most interesting use of a photograph in this set is from the Neue Westfälische who collage the fallen star emblazoned with the union flag and a Guardsman leaving the picture to the right. As we will see on the front page of  Gazeta Olsztynska below and later on when I look at icons the traditional red British military dress uniform remains a surprisingly strong motif to represent the UK.

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After a number of other uses of the European flag we begin to see the union flag as the symbol of Britain. A discarded plastic flag provides a metaphor for a fallen country, not just in crisis but in the gutter.

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The union flag was used in a wide variety of different ways, Bild chose a black and wite version to connote a sober mood accompanied by the simple caption “ouch”. The Mirror used a stock image of a face painted person with notably chipped paint that might esuggest tearfulness to accompany their “We’re Out” caption. The New York Post summon the Black Power clenched fist, (we assume that they are unaware of the reference to Wolfie Smith’s Tooting Popular Front), to run with a caption “Power to the People”; The Economist’s torn flag works well with their “A tragic split” but the most imaginative use of a photograph to connote a sad scene is the Potsdamer’s “Out” accompanied by a flapping flag hung over a window.

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Moving on from the flag motif we find a whole series of interesting ways to denote Britain in a simple image. The bowler hat, Shakespeare, Her Majesty the Queen, John Cleese in the guise of the Minster of Silly Walks and, below, Chelsea Pensioners, a fallen Guardsman, sandcastles, the British bulldog, Winston Churchill, number 10, Big Ben and even the disputed winning goal against German in the 1966 World Cup are all used as visual shorthand for Britain. Icons and Motifs that are instantly recognisable and understood by a worldwide audience.

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The Sunday papers were not ready to drop the story with the Mirror using a stock image of flipping a coin to support a caption that refers to the petition to hold a second referendum whilst the Sunday People again use a stock image, this time of people queuing at an airport which we are directed to believe illustrates the 500,000 migrants heading to Britain before we leave the EU.

This little study only confirms what we always knew; the photograph is an ambiguous medium whose meaning is more often dictated by a caption writer than by the photographer.

Sources

Books

(1) Scott, Clive (1999) The Spoken Image: Photography and Language. London: Reaktion Books

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This entry was posted in 1 - Captions and Titles, Assignment 4 - Image and Text, Exercises, Research & Reflection. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A4 Research: Images and Text in the Real World or the Politics of Captions

  1. Catherine says:

    Comprehensive survey Steve and a thoughtful analysis. It’ll be interesting to analyse the headlines in a couple of months time I’m thinking.

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