Research point – Context

Part 5 – Viewpoint – Research Point:

Terry Barrett’s essay ‘Photographs and Contexts’ is an accessible essay that clearly explains how images are read and interpreted according to the context in which they are seen or displayed.

The essay refers to the image below, by Doisneau, which was taken as part of a ‘photo-essay on Paris cafes’ and has since been used in other publications: ‘a brochure of the evils of alcohol abuse’…and  ‘a French scandal sheet with the caption ‘Prostitution in the Champs-Elysees’ (Barrett).

Barrett’s essay says that ‘all three presentations were convincing’ i.e. the image could be interpreted as an image simply about Paris café culture, or as a social comment on alcohol misuse, or as a comment on prostitution.

Image 1

Barrett tells us that the image also appeared in the ‘galleries of the Museum of Modern Art…and a book, Looking at Photographs:100 pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, by the museum’s curator, John Szarkowski … in the book, Szarkowski describes what he sees as a ‘potential seduction’ (Barrett).

So, two more potential interpretations. The displaying on the gallery wall encourages the viewer, simply because of its location,  to see the image as something different to the usual image (i.e. ‘as serious art’) and to attach significance to the artist as well as the photograph itself.

I came across a news article following the recent (22.3.17) terror attack in Westminster. It showed an image of a woman wearing a headscarf, who was described as walking casually past the body of one of the victims on the floor, distracted by her phone and seemingly oblivious to the horror.  See the image here

I have included the image in my sketch book, together with my thoughts. What interested me was the extreme interpretation given to this image by people who saw the woman’s actions as without feeling. These people focused on her headscarf and concluded that the woman was Muslim and therefore concluded that she was somehow to blame for the attack. She was vilified by certain groups of people on the internet. A counter interpretation ran something like this:  the image shows a woman who herself is distressed, calling her family to let them know she is safe, or checking to make sure her family was ok; she hurries by in a state of shock. The image is shown alongside a similar image showing a white man walking by the same scene. The fact that the man was not the victim of similar hate comments illustrates how the image of the woman has been used to express and fuel racism.

Barrett describes three types of information that influence our interpretation of an image: Internal context: information in the picture itself, including any title, date and the name of the artist,  external context: information that surrounding the image – its ‘presentational environment’, and original context : information about how the picture was made –  what was known to the photographer at the time the image was made about the context in which the image was taken.

In Doisneau’s image, above, I see that the external context may be the most significant in any interpretation of the image. The internal context of this image shows me a man and a woman with uncomfortable body language, wearing outdoor clothes and drinking wine in a bar. The woman appears to be avoiding the man’s gaze, he appears to be waiting for a response from her. They each have a second drink waiting.

External context, Barrett explains, has given significant other meanings to this image. Its presentation in particular publications has encouraged very different interpretations. I speculate that should the image be published in a woman’s magazine of the time, the woman in the image could represent a fashionable independence to be admired and emulated by Parisian women.

In terms of original context, we are told in Barrett’s essay that  ‘Doisneau (saw) the two together (and) was charmed. (He) asked if they would allow themselves to be photographed. They consented’ (Barrett). With this information, the image can be seen as staged, rather than candid, and we are led to consider the moments just before and just after the picture was taken. Did these two laugh and smile and hug each other afterwards, flattered by the attention. Are they in fact trying not to laugh in this picture? This information, known to the photographer at the time, could impact on an interpretation of this image.

In terms of the image of the Westminster attack, external context has been used to attempt to persuade the viewer to adopt a particular interpretation. Text consisting of an extreme personal opinion has been used to attempt to influence the viewer to reach the same conclusion as the writer. In terms of original context, the photographer later added information that directly opposed the racist interpretation, defending the subject by confirming that the woman in the picture appeared ‘distressed and horrified’.

List of illustrations

Doisneau (photograph) At: (2017). doisneau images – Bing images. [online] Available at: (Accessed 23 Mar. 2017).


Barrett, Terry. (date unknown) Photographs and Context. [online] Available at: (Accessed 24 Mar. 2017).



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s