opening shot

Opening Shot

A picture is worth a thousand meanings
November 1, 2012

In October, Columbia J-School joined with BagNewsNotes, an almost decade-old site devoted to analyzing media images, for a discussion about visual coverage of the presidential race. Photojournalists, scholars, and audience members “read” a selection of news photos from this year, including the one above. The idea was to tease out layers of meaning in the images, to explore the (perhaps competing) narratives that the photographers and politicians were trying to convey. The danger in this kind of exercise is that, as one participant said, “Everyone reads into pictures what they want to,” and it’s easy to become caught up in “meaning” that is, well, meaningless. In other words, has the photo captured the candidate in a moment of anxious soul-searching? Or was it just bad lighting? Was the photographer, perhaps unconsciously, expressing her political preference, or was she just stuck in a press pen and unable to get a better angle? Exegetical risks aside, the salon’s larger message was an important one that tends to get overlooked: Voters are flooded with persuasive images; they need to think like critics if they are to discern the reality from the spin.

The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.