23 september 2011

On visual quotations and clichés

ILLUSTRATIONS CAN PARAPHRASE other pictures. Pictures which the audience is supposed to know and recognize. You can produce powerful visual communication when standing on the shoulders of those who created iconic images, like this famous photo from World War II:

THAT THE IWO JIMA PHOTOGRAPH carries a lot of symbolism is beyond discussion. Over the years, a common agreement has been established as to what it communicates, almost turning this image into a statement. Thereby, using the Iwo Jima composition as the basis for a new illustration will provide you with an obvious advantage: Part of the story has already been told and memorized.
You can put a layer of new information on top of the old one. And if your analogy is appropriate, the humouristic aspect which paraphrases often contain can further reinforce the message.

HOWEVER, as the very nature of iconic images is that just about everybody knows them, there is a risk that just about everybody will use them. Which might gradually turn these new illustrations into visual clichés.

ANOTHER ASPECT for you to consider: Can we be sure that people will actually recognize the original image which we are paraphrasing? With the Iwo Jima photo, that is something you will hardly have to worry about. But as a media professional, you should keep in mind that your frame of reference is much broader and much more diverse than that of your average reader/viewer/user. You have seen – and probably thought about – a lot more images than your audience has.

THIS MORNING, I was confronted with a front page illustration which I had no idea was a visual quotation, as I had completely forgotten about the original.
Consequently, I was puzzled … as it is a very strange illustration.

TO MAKE THINGS WORSE, the paper did not even help me with a headline that might have led my thoughts on the right track. The meaning for which I was searching had been stowed away in the very last sentence of the caption: Information’s top story is about a new kind of trafficking, male workers who are being traded for forced labour.
When I realized this, I thought, what a ridiculous, dysfunctional way to illustrate that story! Five men (who might very well be members of the Information editorial staff) lying in fetal position and photoshopped into something that should probably have resembled a pack of meat but looks more like a wrapped condom. The notion of slave labour was pretty far away, to put it mildly.

I THOUGHT THIS IDEA STUNK so badly that I had to show the page to a group of copy editors who had applied for my Magazine and Feature Layout workshop at the Danish School of Media & Journalism. They were just as mystified as I had been, and we all agreed that this illustration did not work at all.
However, after a minute or two, one of the sixteen people began wondering aloud. The image vaguely reminded him of something. And a quick Google Image search on the word trafficking solved the puzzle:

INFORMATION was paraphrasing an advertisement from a three-year-old campaign against trafficking. The original illustration is great – much more professionally executed than today’s copy, and helped along the way by the fact that naked women put closely together in a plastic wrapping look a lot more like tiger prawns than fully-clothed male journalists can ever resemble raw meat, or whatever they were supposed to look like.

OK, ENOUGH of dissing Information – a paper which should in fact be praised for constantly experimenting with visual communication, and for succeeding much more often than it fails. My point is a different, more general one:
Visual quotations are great communication tools. Beware, however, of two pitfalls:
1) If people are exposed to an image too often, it may develop into a visual cliché. And
2) If people do not understand what you are quoting, they probably won’t understand what you are trying to say.

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