How To Analyse a Visual Text?

What are the techniques used in analysing a visual text? Erwin Cabucos lists important areas which affect the meaning of an image.

What angle is used in this image? How significant is the angle shot to the scene in the whole story of Coraline?

An image is a text on its own. It can be read and interpreted just like any other text. The symbols, objects, people, color, gaze, angle and other elements used in the picture can be decoded in order to fully understand the argument, message or meaning of the visual.

Read the following list of techniques that experts use to analyse a visual text. At the end of each technique, one or two exercises are given.

Body Language and Gaze

Notice the presence of people or individuals in the image. Their facial expressions and gestures reveal their attitude or feelings on the issue or theme. The stance and position of the individual also reveal their personality and dispositions. When the person or the character in the image looks directly at the viewer, it may mean that the viewer is invited to enter into the world of the character, or to engage with him or her. Also, when the person or the character looks at an object or other characters, the viewer may be invited to engage in similar interest.

Exercise: Comment how body language and gaze are used in the following advertisements?

Australian Red Meat Ad
Australia Zoo Ad
Coca-Cola 1960 Ad
Domestic Violence Australia Ad

Composition

What is included and displayed in the frame is important. Meanings and significations come from the subject of the image, including the surroundings, the people the objects, the background, etc. The decision what to include in that image has a strong bearing to the kind of meaning that the creator would like us to understand.

Omissions

Often viewers are preoccupied with the presence of peoples and objects in the picture, but just as important are the absences from the image. Who is left out? What has not been included? Why are they not portrayed at all? The decision of the creator to omit the individual or the object from the frame directs to a particular meaning that the creator would like us to form. Often the absence of Aboriginal characters in our mainstream Australian TV shows contributes to the silencing of their culture.

Exercise: Examine the Dove Soap Ad below. When it was published, it received a number of criticism including the absence of other female body types from the group. When representing women and their diversity in society, is there a good reason not to include big-sized women, older women, disabled women and shorter women? What might be the effect of excluding models of women from other body types or age groups?

Exercise: Comment on ‘Bosch washing machine’ ad below. Why are men absent when domestic chores are portrayed? What does it say about our culture?

The Dove Soap Ad
The Bosch Washing Machine Ad

Color,Hue and Tone

The choices of color and the manipulation done with regards to color have a significant contribution to the overall meaning of the image. Colors have been popular to depict feelings and emotion. They may also reveal identities and drama. For example, blue has been used for peace, harmony and coldness. Red has been used to depict anger, hell or vitality. In black and white, the contrast created by light and darkness reveals a sense of timelessness to the image.

This Volvo advertisement below was used by the company to support Australian Olympic athletes by transforming the athletes foot to an accelerator. Notice the clever use of colour through the shoe and through the accelerator.

Exercise: How does color, then, contribute to this meaning?

The Volvo Car Ad

Contrast

The use of opposite elements creates drama or intense emotional response from the viewer. Contrast may exist through the use of lighting, where brightness and darkness is shown. Contrast can also be detected through the use of opposite objects or people, such as large and small, rough and smooth, fair-skinned versus dark-skinned, people in authority versus people with no authority, country versus city and outdoors and indoors.

Exercise: Identify other contrasting elements that may be present in visual texts.

Framing and Shots

The use of camera angles and sizes significantly contributes to the meaning of the visual. Low angle is used such that the viewer is placed low with the camera looking up high. The image then demands respect or authority. This form of angle is often found in dialogue where one character is more powerful than the other. High angle, on the other hand, is the opposite of the perspective where the viewer is invited to show sympathy to the powerless or vulnerable character.

Similarly, close ups, extreme close ups, medium shots, long shots, very wide shot and bird’s eye view have effects on the meaning of the visual. Close ups are used to invite viewers to engage more closely with the subject. Extreme close ups are used in documentary of minute things. Wide shots are used to establish setting or reveal a scene. Mid shots are used to engage viewers at an ordinary distance and proximity with the subject.

Notice the angle of the shot taken for Baby Moses in ‘The Prince of Egypt (below). What effect does it have the way viewers are positioned to see and feel towards the infant?

Exercise: Watch ‘Coraline’ trailer and find examples of angles and frame shots discussed above. Screen shot your examples and place them on your OneNote document with a brief explanation.

How does your chosen angle and shot contribute to the meaning of the image? You can view ‘Coraline’ trailer from this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LO3n67BQvh0.

A scene from the movie ‘Coraline’
Baby Moses and Ramses from the perspective of the Princess, from the movie ‘Prince of Egypt’

Vectors

Vectors refer to the imaginary line that is somehow created by the arrangement or placement of the people or the objects in the image. Image creators deliberately direct the viewers’ eyes through the path of vectors to show cause and effect, then and now, or narrative or plot of the picture.

The image of adult Moses and Ramses below uses vectors to accentuate the movement that occurs in the story. Notice the direction to where their bodies are leaning, the hairs of the characters that somehow parallel with the direction of the ropes, and the pinkish sands that divide from the blue sky background – all of which contribute to the formation of the imaginary horizontal lines. These create vectors to give a sense of action which film creators wish to invite viewers to engage in.

Exercise: Examine the image from Shaun Tan’s ‘The Lost Thing.’ How does this image use vectors to signify cause and effect?

Adult Moses and Ramses, from ‘Prince of Egypt’
A scene from Shaun Tan’s Picture Book for Older Readers ‘The Lost Thing’
Photography on Vietname War, by Marc Rebould, Magnum Photos, the Guardian, c.1975

Symbolism

This refers to the use of an image to represent one or more complex ideas. Notice the use of the white flower in the image above distinctively placed in the middle of confrontation between the men in uniform – the police – and the woman protester who holds it. The symbolism of the flower to represent peace in world conflict has been popularly featured in films, books and advertisement. The use of the object – flower – signifies peace, but in turn the photo itself becomes a symbolic image for advocacy on peace to send a message that it is achieved through non-violence and disarmament efforts. Can you think of similar or related photographs where an object, person or na image is used to depict a bigger idea or campaign? Why do you think it worked?

Placement and Rule of thirds

The source NSW HSC English Paper 2010 describe this technique: “Divide an image into thirds from the top and sides and look at the placement of people and/or objects. An object in the top third is usually empowered whereas anything in the bottom third is disempowered.”

Exercise: Take a look at the Gucci Guilty Ad which is aimed at male viewers or readers. Which part of the page is the male actor placed, as opposed to the female? Which is portrayed as powerful or dominant and which is portrayed as submissive? Why?

Gucci Guilty Ad

Source:

Interpreting the Visual: A Resource book for teachers by Helen de Silva Joyce and John Gaudin

NSW HSC English Papers, 2010

How to source this article?

Cabucos, E. (2020), ‘How to analyse a visual text’, from sayaeducation.com, downloaded on today’s date.

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