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Week 4: Reading of Constructed Photographs

In my previous article I discussed constructed photography. There is an industry which commonly uses constructed images to sell products - it is the advertising industry. They construct images in order to appeal to the potential buyers by playing on their needs/desires. What people need differs – based on what culture or background they are from. Also men and women desire different things. Therefore the ads are customized based on deep (cultural, historical and personal) knowledge of the potential buyers. In other words, in order to attract their target group the advertisers would encode a message into the image which is easy to decode by the target group. The message translates as an answer to their unsatisfied desires.

However, the advertisers do not turn the ordinary products into objects of desire, they rather create a dream the consumer desires and which he can obtain by buying the product. The dream is what is encoded in the image.

The purpose of publicity is to make the spectator dissatisfied with his present way of life. Not with the way of life of society, but with his own within it. It suggests that if he buys what it is offering, his life will become better. It offers him an improved alternative to what he is.

- Berger, John, 1972, Ways of Seeing These images are examples of how the message differs based on who the target group is. It is the same product and brand, however one is focused on men and the other on women. Note how they both build up on different desires of both genders and on different history and stereotypes associated with them.

Fig. 1: Gillete for men research, unknown Fig. 2: Gillete for men research, unknown

Fig. 3: Gillete for women research, unknown Fig. 4: Gillete for women research, unknown I had previously written an article where I discussed the use of ads and how they can objectify women (and men). You can read it here: The process of reading is the same with all kind of images. A message is encoded by the photographer and it is waiting to be decoded by the viewer. The viewer‘s ability to decode the message correctly depends on how much the photographer and viewer share in terms of background, history, culture, etc. For example, photography celebrating the beauty of the human form can be easily misinterpreted for pornography by people from cultures where the naked body is inappropriate in any kind of context. Also depending on people’s background, one message can have multiple readings, which some of them the photographer might not be aware of when creating the photograph. Another factor that affects reading of the photograph is up to what degree the photographer is conscious about what message he is encoding into the image. The photographer might use strong references borrowed from other images, history events or as a response to a current happening, etc. If the viewer is on the same wave length he is likely to decode the message. Let’s discuss this photograph below. I believe that even if you do not know the reference, the image looks somehow familiar.

Fig. 5: Tom Hunter, The Way Home, 2000

Tom Hunter, the author of this photograph is known for referencing and re-imagining famous paintings. In this case he re-imagined the painting of Ophelia, however in a more political sense in his case.

This is the painting of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that Hunter referenced.

Fig. 6: John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851

I believe that even if you did not recognize the reference at the first place, now after comparing these two images you would agree that Tom Hunter succeeded with re-imagining the Ophelia painting. The political question of his photograph is part of the reading, however a matter of deeper knowledge of the context.

Now on the other hand, if the photographer does not encode the message consciously, the meaning is ambiguous and the viewer might interpret the image in any way. This can cause misunderstanding and bring disappointment to the photographer. Here I am speaking from my own experience.

I know that my images are not very clear about what purpose they have and what message they contain. To be honest I have not consciously tried to encode a message into my work. This, however, does not mean there is not any. It is up to the viewer what they see. But giving the viewer the privilege of having free hands when interpreting the image, I have to accept higher likeliness that there might occur interpretations I would not like (than if I control the direction myself).

My work is quite versatile in terms of how and where I photograph myself. This is because I photograph what I feel like photographing at a certain moment, regardless of whether it is going to fit in any project. Therefore there is no particular project that I work on.

I have mixed feelings about it because I enjoy not being tied up by one style/theme and photograph anything I want based on my mood. However, I feel like I have no unified and solid body of work that could be used in a book or for exhibition purposes in intellectual circles of other practitioners. But do I care?

Well, there is no harm in trying to work a bit differently and more consciously.

I had a meeting with my tutor Colin this week, and he had some cool suggestions. One of them was to direct my work as if I was directing a film. It perhaps could help me to unify my work and take more control over the way how viewers read my photographs.



Fig. 1, 2, 3, 4:

Fig. 5 and 6:

52 views2 comments


Lucie Nechanická
Lucie Nechanická
Mar 02, 2021

Thanks Owen for the comment. I look forward to it, too!


Owen Evans
Owen Evans
Mar 02, 2021

this is cool. i look forward to seeing what projects or photographs you take that have encoded messages in them.

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