In many ways, we live in an age of misinformation and disinformation. Academics and the media recognize the need for careful evaluation of textual information online and in the news. However, this same attention is rarely given to images. Conversations around the manipulation of information in images largely focus on contents manipulation – where images, often photographs, are deliberately altered – but missing or misleading the contexteven unintentional, can just as well distort the interpretation of the images.
Context shapes our understanding and interpretation of all visual material we encounter. The context of images can take many forms, including accompanying text, other images of the same subject, and even cultural knowledge of the audience. When context is missing, obscured, lost or forgotten, meaning becomes distorted and difficult to discern. An investigation of the context of an image can recover some of what is missing.
When presented with a single image, it is easy to draw conclusions about the subject based on what is visible in the frame, especially when the subject is unfamiliar.
The first step when approaching an unfamiliar image is to start looking closely. This is followed by a hypothesis, asking, “What am I think I see? What strength happens? Why I think this image was created? What visual cues led me to these assumptions? Viewers tend to downplay the uncertainty and speculation inherent in this line of questioning when first encountering footage. They also rarely go beyond this step to seek additional background information, satisfied with the conclusions they have reached.
But consider the following image.
Preliminary identification up close: a color image of a crowd of young people gathered around a picnic table, seated and standing. Some smile, others look attentively to the left of the frame. Text information may provide more context: the title of the image identifies this as a protest against divestment and the title of the collection points to Wellesley College as the site of this protest. Looking at the image, the matching black and red clothes of the characters and the little buttons that read “DIVEST” corroborate the information provided in the title.
Finding information in the image’s own metadata provides context in the form of a time and place that leads to additional context: In October 1986, Wellesley students participated in protests urging their university to divest itself of investments with South African ties due to apartheid policies and practices. in South Africa. Yet different viewers may interpret this differently based on their own experiences in the campus protests or during apartheid. For viewers without direct experience with the subject, it can be difficult to draw conclusions or make connections to anti-apartheid divestment protests, in general.
It is, however, impossible to draw reasonable conclusions about entire historical moments, groups of people, or any other subject matter based on an image. Nevertheless, single images are frequently used to define an event or illustrate a story, which can skew viewers’ understanding.
Even the October 1986 divestment demonstration pictured here cannot be accurately described by a single image. To complicate matters: additional visual information can sometimes provide clarity, but it can just as easily confuse and cloud interpretations. The image below, for example, paints a very different picture of this divestment demonstration despite having been taken only hours before.
Here, the scene photographed could evoke the drama, even the violence, of other highly publicized demonstrations. Most of the characters are faceless except for the central character. Viewers may be quick to read the anguish and distress on this person’s face, which the bodies lying on the sidewalk and the lurking police presence seem to confirm. Taken in isolation, this image seems to fit perfectly into a familiar narrative of conflict and violence that viewers might accept without seeking context, as it confirms their existing beliefs and expectations. confirmation bias. Even from a few images like these, viewers tend to make initial assumptions about an event based on the first information they encounter and reflexively attempt to incorporate new information into their first guess, even when they are contradictory. This is sometimes called the “Semmelweis reflex” or “idea rejection”.
It is therefore essential to continue to investigate and seek additional context before drawing conclusions about an image. Ask: “What do I already know about the context? What additional information would help me better understand this? The answers to these questions vary from viewer to viewer. Yet each viewer must remember at all times that the things they consider “facts” may themselves be hypotheses warranting investigation.
Although the photographs in particular may give the illusion of veracity, they cannot be considered a complete and accurate representation of the events themselves. As Alan Trachtenberg asserts, “neither the photographs nor their experience are innocent acts”. Approaching photographs critically and exploring their context can reveal nuances and even challenge assumptions made at first glance. Often this means actively research related images, identify information and texts on the subject to expand understanding beyond the original context where the image was first encountered.
Consider that these photographs were taken on the campus of a women’s college, Wellesley College, in the 1980s, a time of rising anti-apartheid sentiment and action in the United States and around the world. Universities like Wellesley faced student movements and protests demanding divestment from South Africa-related investments. The context of these photographs extends far beyond Wellesley in October 1986, from other campus protests across the country to the 1960s origins of this growing discontent with apartheid policies and their consequences. The context extends even beyond these events in how they influenced and informed a legacy of action around divestment at Wellesley.
1. Students blocking the campus road to protest against the trustee’s vote on divestment, Wellesley College, October 23, 1986. 2. Part of a divestment demonstration at Wellesley College, 1988. 3. A leaflet announcing a demonstration against the apartheid in South Africa during a Bank Hunt in New York, 1977. 4. A sign reading “Sanction South Africa Now!” The sign is a bit larger than an average human torso. 5. A student is arrested for blocking a campus road to protest against the Trustee’s vote on divestment, Wellesley College, October 23, 1986. 6. A student rally against University of Pennsylvania investment in South Africa , organized by the Anti-Apartheid Coalition and 250-300 others. Photo by Ben Argov, Daily Pennsylvanian, University of Pennsylvania Archives. 7. Members of the Anti-Apartheid Coalition build a slum on College Hall Green as part of the movement to secure Penn’s divestment from businesses in apartheid South Africa. Photo by Marc Poulshock, Daily Pennsylvanian, University of Pennsylvania Archives. 8. An “Abolish Apartheid” button. 9. Students arrested for blocking a campus road in protest against a trustee’s vote on divestment, Wellesley College, October 23, 1986.
How does this added context clarify our interpretation of these archival photographs? What nuances do these images bring to our understanding of this era of political action? Reflect on these questions as you explore the images below and think about the additional context they bring to the images above.
And, of course, consider what context might be omitted from the images provided in this article. Always look for additional context to further enrich and complicate this narrative for yourself.
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