Reading visual images
Reading visual images

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1.4 The context of photographs

When this picture first appeared in newspapers and magazines in 1972, it was to be found next to a caption and in many cases a supporting article as well. The caption text might have been simply descriptive (in most cases, probably taken from the agency caption supplied with the photograph). Where there was also an article, this would have been a text that placed the image in context, either in terms of the specific event of which the photograph is a direct record, or in terms of a wider account of what was happening in the Vietnamese War. The point is that the picture formed part of an ongoing narrative of images and text about the Vietnam conflict. By 1972 this had reached a point where public opinion throughout the world took the view that this was not a just or honourable war. Its prosecution by the USA and its client regime in South Vietnam was seen widely as oppressing the civilian population of the country.

These meanings, and the information they supply to us, are transmitted from both the image and the context of its use, and are made up from the relationship between both parts of this equation. We cannot read or interpret the entirety of the meaning of the picture from the image itself. It serves as a base from which a meaning or interpretation can be constructed: it is evidence that something happened, but what conclusions we can draw from that event involve us in activities other than simply looking at the picture.

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