Exercise 2.1 The Dangerous Medium

Find an example in the press where you feel that a photograph (with or without caption and text) has portrayed an individual or group as ‘others’

  • Preferred reading: what photographer set out at time, reflective of dominant ideology
  • Negotiated reading, which should be understood as the viewers accepting some of the intended meaning based on their world view
  • The Oppositional reading, whereby the reader rejects the commonest of readings

Refer to Stuart Hall’s Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse. http://epapers.bham.ac.uk/2962/1/Hall%2C_1973%2C_Encoding_and_Decoding_in_the_Television_Discourse.pdf (Link to incredibly meaningful PDF copy of the original typed paper, complete with typewriter idiosyncrasies and even a few typos).

  • Before I begin I am intrigued and encouraged to see Hall refer to ‘production elites’ within the first few sentences. This country with its deeply embedded class system is particularly affected by the issues which arise from having always recruited a good deal of its TV studio executives from Oxbridge, which was perhaps especially true at the time of writing. This arguably has led to the plethora of  reality TV, where elites have made programs about and for non-elites, creating narratives which invited derision and scorn, and perhaps contributed in some way to the demonisation of those living outside the elites privileged lifestyle. Programmes that claimed to be teaching us about child-rearing, for  instance, can also be interpreted as not much more than a chance to put unfortunate children, whose parents are struggling with rigours of the structural reality they find themselves in, into some form of metaphorical ‘stocks’, giving the ‘village’ audience someone to laugh at. And to feel superior to. Hall suggests “… in societies like ours, communication between the production elites in broadcasting and their audiences is necessarily a form of ‘systematically distorted communication”.(1)
  • By page 2 it is clear this is a paper written in the same vein as Barthes’, “Rhetoric of the Image” which refers to advertising. Hall is looking a the way in which the whole production process of TV is consciously and unconsciously utilised to support the dominant ideology and structure of society.
  • “In the moment when the historical event passes under the sign of language, it is subject to all the complex formal ‘rules’ by which language signifies. To put it paradoxically, the event must become a ‘story’ before it can become a communicative event” – Hall is addressing how we make sense of reality, i.e. we form narratives. Without the ‘interface’ of narrative, events are abstract, raw material.
  • “The ‘message-form’ is a determinate moment, though , at another level, it comprises the surface- -movements of the communications system only, and requires, at another stage, to be integrated into the essential relations of communication of which it forms only a part. – ‘Message-form’ seems to be a critical phrase one must remember and perhaps use to satisfy academic exceptions… and here Hall seems to be looking at how ideology is packaged for cultural dissemination.
  • “They draw topics, treatments, agendas, events, personnel, images of the audience, ‘definitions of the situation’ from the wider socio-cultural and political system of which they are only a differentiated part.” – In other words, the production-elites are the ones controlling the dominant narrative, which in effect suggests the lens through which they see the world colours absolutely everything in relation to the message-form.
  • “….is both the source and the receiver of the television message. Thus circulation and reception are, indeed, ‘moments‘ of the production process in television, and are incorporated, via a number of skewed and structured ‘feed-backs’, back into the production process itself.” Readers not only have an effect on meaning as in Barthes, Death of an Author, but collection of data which is fed back into the production process effects further narratives. Moments – Not identical but related.
  • Production requires breaking down appropriate message into accepted structural form, which consequently leads to meaning a understood by audience. i.e. must be encoded as such to be understood (thinking of game shows for instance, regular format, and subsequent surreal pastiche Shooting Stars with Bob Mortimer and Vic Reeves).
  • “Clearly, /hat we have called meanings I and meanings II may not be the same. They do not constitute an “immediate identity”. The codes of encoding and decoding may not be perfectly symmetrical. The degrees of symmetry – that is, the degrees of ‘understanding’ and ‘misunderstanding’ in the communicative exchange depend both on the degrees of symmetry/ a-symmetry between the position of encoder-producer and that of the decoder-receiver: and also on the degrees of identity/non-identity between the codes which perfectly or imperfectly transmit, interrupt or systematically distort what has been transmitted. The lack of ‘fit’ between the codes has a great deal to do with the structural differences between broadcasters and audiences: but ^^ also has something to do with the a-symmetry bet een source and receiver at the moment of transformation into and out of the ‘message-form’. That is called ‘distortion’ or ‘misunderstandings’ arise precisely from the lack
    of equivalence between the two sides in the communicative exchange.” i.e. The Price is Right – audience must be aroused and drawn in to product (message-form) by objects they would like to own on carousal, in order to entrench desire for consumption. The received meaning is related but not the same – audience reads excitedly, look at all those things one might own.
  • Hall goes on to discuss the influence of TV and the sign, uses violence as an example, researchers concluded children watching westerns understood violence not actual violence but rather a sign pertaining to it. Ends by asking what the structural ‘shapes’ and signs of western film genre symbolise?
    “But it is worth asking what this recognition of the.Western as a ‘symbolic game’ means or implies.”
  • Leeds to coding, which equals ‘genre’ – understood as such. But how does convention arise, stop and start? His answer re westerns is “It is the land of men, of independent men, isolated in their confrontations with Nature or Evil: and thus stories of masculine prowess, skill power and destiny: of men ‘in the open air’, driven to their destinies by inner compulsion and by external necessity – by Bate, or by ‘the things a man just has to do’: and thus a land where morality is innercentered, and clarified – i.e. fully objectivated not in speech but in the facticities of gesture, gait, dress, gear, appearance” (sic)
  • Encoding- how are a set of ideas, words, gestures packaged into a recognisable format – message form –  that audiences will understand without very much trouble
  • “I have been trying to suggest – without being able to take the example very far – how an attention to the symbolic/linguistic/coded nature of communications, far from boxing us into the closed and formal universe of signs, precisely opens out into the area where cultural content, of the most resonant but ‘latent’ kind, is transmitted: and especially the manner in which the interplay of codes and content serve to displace meanings from one frame to another, and thus to bring to the surface in ‘disguised’ forms the repressed content of a culture” Disguised forms – the ideology is masked and is transmitted via narratives that appear benign
  • “Whereas, in societies like ours, linguistic competence is very unequally distributed as between different classes and segments of the population (predominantly, by the family and the education system), what we might call ‘visual competence’, at the denotative level, is more universally diffused,” interesting to consider in terms of how powerful and ubiquitous image communication has become since social media exploded  – and “…whereas most people require a lengthy education in order to become relatively competent users of the language of their speech community, they seem to pick up its visual-perceptual codes at a very early age, without formal training, and are quickly competent in its use.”

  • “In the advertising discourse, for example, we might say that there is almost no ‘purely denotative’ communication. Every visual sign in advertising ‘connotes’ a quality, situation, value or inference which is present as an implication or implied meaning, depending on the connotational reference, .’e are all probably familiar with Barthes’ example of the /sweater/, which, in the rhetoric of advertising and fashion, always connotes, at least, ‘a warm garment’ or ‘keeping warm’, and thus by further elaboration, ‘the coming of winter’ or ‘a cold day’ – advertising signs are so powerful because there is little room for misreading what the advertisers set out to say, lacks subtly and contains no ambiguity.
  • These codes are ‘contracted’ to the ideologies of the culture – history and ethnography
  • “Fragments of ideology” – advertising coded signs utilised by production to hammer home the story (look at Christmas advertising – a veritable sledgehammer)
  • Dominant because there is a set of preferred readings in a society  -this is what the broadcaster is setting out; i.e. SuperNanny; children must be treated as such and to veer from this formula makes you a bad parent, totally reinforces UK class system bias due to choice of children, the middle class Victorian etymology of child-raring manuals
  • A lot of research has gone into how audiences understand the message, how to overcome misunderstandings and misreadings. Producers do all they can to avoid this, and this leads to formula, easily digested, visual, signposted,
  • Negotiated readings  – spectrum on either side of dominant ideology; in a pluralist society that is functioning, one would expect to have a measured response to this; think of European flag nowadays, difficult not to see utterly polarised rations to that particular symbol
  • Sub-cultural, oppositional, readings are not happening outside of a culture but within it, in response to it – and are therefore part of of, the other side of a coin.
  • Discusses oppositional readings – a lot of that taking place right now with Brexit – page 18.
  • Ends by suggesting scientists unconsciously collude(d) with dominant ideology at times “To ’misread’ a political choice as a technical one represents a

    type of unconscious collusion with the dominant interests, a form of collusion to which social science researchers are all too prone”



Might be useful to consider Areilla Azoulay’s advice to ‘watch’ photographs as their semiotic content will invariably keep changing dependent on the reality in which they are viewed; “no photographer, not even the most gifted, can claim ownership of what appears in the photograph.” (11) And “Photography is much more than what is printed on the paper. The photograph  bears the seal of the photographic event, and reconstructing this event requires more than just identifying what is shown in the photograph. One needs to stop looking at the photograph, and instead start ‘watching’ it.  …. the civil spectator has a duty to …negotiate the manner in which she and the photograph are ruled”. (14)

The owner of the DuckRabbit blog tweeted on February 20th 2017 in response to this image, “Strong photo in the Guardian today. But yeah. More refugees represented as ‘the other’.”

Preferred: Given this image was printed in The Guardian, a paper known (and hated by some) for its liberal stance, it is perhaps tempting to read simply that the photographer wanted us to see the awful situation that people fleeing and nearly downing in the ocean are subjected to. The image also tells us an agency is spending time and resources saving the people they find from death, and helping them to survive by offering them flimsy but effective material to warm their bodies. However, they are nevertheless subjected to sitting on the open deck of the ship that saved them, huddled together with little dignity. The two people looking in into the camera are hidden in different ways. One has his face hidden by shiny gold material meant to for keeping him warm, and the other has his face showing, but his body is hidden. The photograph is taken with a wide aperture, making it ‘aesthetically’ attractive as it conforms to romantic notions of photographic beauty, i.e. it is taken with a similar aesthetic to how one might photograph a family portrait. The colours are vibrant and underscore the ‘exoticism’ of the people on the boat. Blankets and scarves further emphasise the ‘foreign’, exotic signalling of the people. However, the young man, whose head peeks out from behind the person whose face hidden person is wearing a branded woolly hat which signifies youth, materialism, pop culture and western commodification of youth culture. The man with his face hidden has wrist labelling bracelets on, the sort you might get if you’re in hospital. This combined with the fact his face is hidden makes him less of an individual and more of an objectified (in a purely literal sense) sign i.e. ‘refugee’.

The preferred reading is the west, despite immense tension and conflict within its extended borders, continues to do the ‘right’ thing and save people from their deaths.

Negotiated: Duckrabbit’s comment is a negotiated response. Great photo – he appreciates the aesthetics and the underlying message, i.e. “We in the west aren’t all that bad, because look, we are saving refugees from drowning, (and isn’t it awful?), even though there is immense political difficulty associated in doing so; but points out that the image reinforces ‘heart of darkness’ terror and voyeuristic, titillating fascination with Africans that Europeans have had since highly educated elites went off to explore the Empire and beyond, and returned with stories of black magic, head-shrinking and cannibalism. And continue to have, albeit perhaps unconsciously in many cases (but not all!)

Oppositional: There are two possible and highly polarised oppositional readings. 1) The west are not doing even remotely enough. The people forced to flee should not be risking their lives in the first place. There should be freedom of movement regardless of colour, class, wealth. What’s more, this is not ‘other’. Other is a construct that needs deconstructing and ‘the real’ revealed. Colour does not equal exotic. Head scarves do not equal frightening ‘alien’. It is our history and contemporary context that leads us to view things that way. AND Borders may not be the most effective way of managing global realities. (2) The west are not being kin by saving people, and in fact, being irresponsible by allowing the boat crossings to continue at all, and the people should not be saved. By doing so, further crossings are encouraged. Borders must be upheld.

Nearly all the above readings fail to render the ‘refugee’ as a group of separate, potentially valuable individuals. Instead, they are reduced to ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’; words that mean different things to different readers, but invariably carry separate but low value. The word ‘refugee’ arguably helps to dehumanise, turning the west into ‘saviours’ and people arriving in Europe into ‘victims’; even though the resilience and tenacity of people who find a way to survive such a journey makes them anything but. Migrants are somehow viewed as less valuable, or worthy than refugees within the dominant ideology, which is that borders are ‘normal’ and necessary, and must persist, despite the human cost.  And that the movement of people is a ‘crisis’ because extra people are not needed, nor do they fit into western countries.


(1) For anyone not convinced by the argument that an elite education continues to dominate in top professions, and within the media sector, this might convince a little (although references newspaper rather than TV studio, but it’s no different there): “I remember asking around at the Guardian, where I had been hired to investigate the City of London, why this progressive newspaper did not put the school system centre stage. This is how the elites clone themselves, is it not? The answer: most of our management and prominent writers went to private school themselves and most are sending their children there, too, so that would invite the charge of hypocrisy. I struggle to blame those former Guardian colleagues knowing that two-thirds of all top jobs in England today go to the 7 per cent of children who have attended private schools. Are you really going to sacrifice your child’s prospects to make an individual stand which will change nothing?” (Luyendijk, 2017)






Azoulay, A. (2014). The civil contract of photography. New York: Zone Books, pp.11, 14.


2 thoughts on “Exercise 2.1 The Dangerous Medium

  1. Nearly 45 years since that was written and you did well to ‘translate’ the terms. Shows how one can get ‘not used’ to types of writing though because I read some of his work in the 1970s and it made sense to me at the time, yet I needed your ‘translation’ to get through it this time.
    His theories seem to have stood the test of time as well. I think this is all part of the reason why I’m so cynical because nothing seems to change much. Maybe in a hundred years!

    • Two steps forward, one step back. And so on. We are heading forward, I think. But we’re in a period where society is pulling back, because it’s frightening to change. But the movement is there and can’t be stopped, no matter how hard a conservative base tries.

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