The Meaning Behind an Image: Context is Key

Indonesian women celebrate IWD 2017
International Women’s Day 2017 in Indonesia

This is a photo from the International Women’s Day festivities in Indonesia last week, taken by Ulet Ifansasti for Getty Images. It depicts a group of women, dancing and cheering in front of a brightly-coloured IWD banner. But through the study of semiotics, and a closer analysis of the above image, we can see it contains a much deeper meaning – or indeed, multiple meanings, as a viewer’s lived experiences can provide a wholly different perspective on what an image means to them.

The women form the ‘signifiers’ within this photo. But what does the entire image mean? Viewers who are aware of International Women’s Day (IWD), and the feminist movement or ideology that underpins the event, would most probably interpret the image as symbolic of the positive energy that surrounds IWD. To go further with this idea, would be to recognise the unrelenting drive for equality and global change that these women (and their counterparts across the world) represent, and their determination to make their voices heard. Perhaps this would be the dominant reading of the image, for those of us who agree with the sentiment behind IWD.

Hillary speaks the truth

However, this is not the case for everyone. There are many people who disagree with the aims and goals of IWD (some would argue that these people are why IWD is still necessary today) and for them, this image holds another narrative. Some believe that IWD is not the answer to the problems it seeks to address. Others may believe that there are no problems to begin with. These views could be classed as oppositional or negotiable readings, depending on the context of the viewer.

And that is precisely it: everything addressed above is entirely dependent on the contextual influences affecting a viewer. I have suggested only a brief number of likely interpretations of the above image; it would be near impossible to list them all. It is important to remember that this is true of any image, and indeed most things that occur in our day-to-day lives. To understand the varying meanings within an image, is to understand the varying lived experiences of one another; a skill that is becoming increasingly useful in the modern world.


2 thoughts on “The Meaning Behind an Image: Context is Key

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post! I agree about the significance of context in determining the meaning of an image, and found your relation to the contemporary issue of International Women’s Day to be particularly insightful and engaging, making it relevant to audiences today. Having studied semiotics in high school (history extension is good for something), the incorporation of conflicting views, that of feminists and their critics, was also an interesting perspective. The fact that the existence of “people who disagree with the aims and goals of IWD” directly correlates with the need for International Women’s Day is a notion I had not myself contemplated, though it makes quite a lot of sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks so much! I love that both our posts on semiotics touch on feminist issues, from over-sexualisation to liberation – really interesting to see a variety of perspectives and ideas.


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