Reading visual images
Reading visual images

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3 Photographs and social science concepts

3.1 Photographic content and context

Can we analyse photographs to tell us something valid about gender, ethnicity, class and nationality? As the wedding pictures example begins to suggest, there are traces of social facts embedded in the images, as well as evidence of the social conventions and organisational practices that underpin their production and diffusion or circulation. What will be clear is that there is no simple interpretational tool or reading skill available to us that allows us to reduce the picture to a simple fact or number. However, we can approach the pictures in a disciplined and organised way. We can look at the information that the image itself supplies. We can also look at the context in which the image was made, and the context in which it is seen. This allows us to view such images as complex assemblages of information that we need to interpret.

We can look into the image to explore its informational content, that is, what is in the picture in front of us? We can also concern ourselves with context, with the social processes and operations that produce the image, and to the mechanisms of diffusion and circulation surrounding its consumption. It is impossible to understand a photograph as social data without performing both stages of the analysis, and it will become obvious that the two go hand in hand.

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