What does this image represent to you? What does this image represent to someone else? Chances are, although you are physically looking at the exact same image, the finer details and meaning you gain from that image will be completely different. Complex images can be extremely controversial as opinions are bound to collide based on individual context.
For example, if you completely skim through this entire blog post, it will be nothing but a heap of jumbled up words and letters! However, if you take the time to read through this post and interpret the words and their meaning, it becomes a connotation.
Our first and most basic interpretation of a text is called the signifier, which is rarely the final meaning a viewer will be left with. On the other hand, the deeper meaning conveyed by the text is called the signified. When looking at a particular text, we usually associate them with our own personal experiences or socio-cultural influences. As such, our age, gender, societal class and ethnicity all play a massive role in the way we read various media texts, sometimes both hindering and helping our understanding.
As Fiske stated, “denotation is what is photographed, the connotation is how it is photographed”. Therefore, denotation is the literal image audiences see, whereas connotation is the meaning given to the image by the creator/photographer.
For me, there are few images as powerful as Richard Drew’s ‘The Falling Man’. New York Times ran this photograph in their paper after the 9/11 Attacks, resulting in the image being labelled “disturbing” and “exploitative”, before being taken off the record for two years. The denotation and signifier within the image are quite simple, described by Brian Anderson as “a quiet, intimate image”. The connotations and the signified aspects of the image, however, are extremely diverse and complex. These snapshots of people falling to their deaths, and this falling man in particular, depict the heartbreaking decision approximately 200 people made that day; to jump rather than be consumed by the fire and shear heat inside the Towers. The connotations I get from the photo will differ greatly from those of others because of my culture and personal experiences. For example, I was only 5 yrs old at the time of the 9/11 attacks, as an Australian citizen and student I’ve only experienced the event from an analytical point of view. Although I find this image both confronting and truly heartbreaking, I don’t have any personal connections to the victims, nor am I a member of the affected nation.
Furthermore, the photo represents the connotations linked to the counter memory of the 9/11 Attacks. Photographer Richard Drew, has called it “The most famous photograph no one has seen.” As the years have progressed, various images have emerged remembering this tragic event in history, “The Falling Man was unidentified, yet he encapsulated the day’s horror. And even without a name, he personalised it too.”
A picture really does say a thousand words… but what those words mean is really the big question. Whether it be positive or negative, controversy and debate will always be among the main tools utilised by media outlets to generate discussion, furthering individuals differing perceptions.