Reading visual images
Reading visual images

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Free course

Reading visual images

1 Images and history

1.1 Why look at photographs?

Age Concern poster: age and identity
Figure 2
The Cenotaph: nation and identity
Figure 3
Images of the family
Figure 4
Happy families in the 1950s

This course is an introduction to analysing and interpreting photographs as social data. Most of us look at photographs almost every day of our lives: in the media, on billboards, perhaps in a gallery, even at work. Often we afford them only a passing glance. Most of us also make them ourselves: pictures of our family, loved ones, friends, events, interests. Few of us, however, look closely and carefully at photographs as visual evidence, yet they often illustrate and support our ideas about society. It follows, then, that in order to be effective as social scientists, we need to examine how images can be analysed and interpreted.

This course is about the methods we can use to study photographs as if we were studying numerical data, interview records, a journal article in an academic journal, or a textbook such as those we find as part of Open University courses.

What is the status of photographs as evidence? Is there any real difference between news and advertising pictures, for instance? How, as social scientists, should we approach the ‘reading’ or analysis of documentary photographs? Can we use photographs to inform us about key dimensions of modern society such as gender, ethnicity, class and nationality? In each case we must relate our answers to these questions directly to our wider course themes: to uncertainty and diversity; to structure and agency; and to knowledge and knowing.

Visual images are examples of evidence that forms part of the circuit of knowledge and supports the claims made by social scientists. Such evidence is part of the whole social science endeavour to provide explanatory theories and to produce knowledge as well as to deconstruct how knowledge is produced. This links to the course theme of structure and agency and raises questions about who produces the images that can be used as evidence. Who has control? Is it the photographer, the viewer or those who may be represented in pictures, or can wider structural forces, such as culture, social expectations or governments and corporations, determine what is produced? Images can be used to express uncertainties and as examples of change and of social and cultural diversity.

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