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Anchorage and Relay

Photograph 1

Image Capture

Figure 1. Photograph with original caption published in the Irish Times 18.10.14

My invented caption for Figure 1 (above) reads: ‘Ebola continues to spread despite awareness campaign’. This caption removes the geographical information from the original caption and adds ‘continues to spread’ (true at the time of the photograph’s publication). Barthes (1977) points out that all images are polysemous and that a photograph’s caption ‘helps me choose the correct level of perception, permits me to focus not simply my gaze but also my understanding’ (Barthes, 1977:275). In the case of Figure 1 the original caption (or ‘linguistic message’) ‘helps to identify purely and simply the elements of the scene and the scene itself’ (Barthes, 1977:274); additionally the caption here reinforces the idea present in the image that Ebola is not a threat (at the time the photograph was published) in the industrialised West — the non-Western dress and method of carrying used by the people shows the mural is not in a Western country. The invented caption, in contrast, by adding ‘continues to spread’ but not reinforcing the geographical location of the photograph as did the original caption (see fig. 1. above) changes the connotation of the people who are walking purposefully in different directions as if in the processing of dispersing. Thus by rewriting the caption (i.e. changing the anchorage function of the linguistic message) the connotations or context of the image has been changed from one of mild reassurance to mild anxiety.

Photograph 2


Figure 2. Photograph (scan) with original caption published in the Guardian 18.10.14 The caption written on the image reads: Tell-tale signs Glow gel shows remaining evidence of infection after handwashing in a experiment at King’s College in London Photo: Matt Alexander/PA. The front page headline beneath the photograph read: ‘World warned: increased Ebola action or face scourge like HIV’

Barthes (1977: 274) suggests two functions of the linguistic message, namely anchorage and relay. Relay is rare in the fixed image (Barthes, 1977: 276) and the two functions can ‘coexist in the one iconic whole’ (Barthes, 1977: 276). However, I suggest that the image above (Figure 2) does not (as is the case with anchorage) ‘detain the informational charge’ but instead it is the caption and the image which complement each other and ‘the unity of the message is realised at a higher level, that of story, the anecdote’ (Barthes, 1977: 276). It is interesting that the caption is printed on the image itself testifying to its importance in the reading and understanding of the image.

The invented caption for this photograph reads: ‘Experiments are ongoing at King’s College in London’. This leaves the denoted (literal) elements present but removes the opportunity for the image and caption to form the ‘unity of the message … that of story (above).

Photograph 3


Figure 3. Photograph (scan) with original caption published in the Guardian 18.10.14 The caption reads: ‘Primary school teacher Osian Rhys Edwards and the £15,000 Vodafone bill, below, he says is blighting his life Photograph: Gareth Phillips’

In Figure 3 the caption has complete control of the image – the anchorage function predominates. The caption is made more essential by the echo of the facial expression in the entertainment poster in the background – this visual ironic levity is not matched by the context added by the caption. Invented captions are easily generated for Figure 3 because of the strong anchorage function i.e. the ability to invent the context for the facial expression with or without including the ironic humour of the background poster. For example: ‘In today’s economy many people have money worries’; ‘Worry can cause stress’; ‘Does watching downbeat  drama induce misery?’

 Photograph 4

Image 1

Figure 4. Photograph with original caption published in the Guardian 18.10.14

In this image (Figure 4) the caption anchorage function controls the meaning. However an invented caption could easily make the relay function dominant. For example: ‘Many people in business attend personal development classes to advance their careers’. Now the text and the image ‘stand in a complimentary relationship; the words, in the same way as the images, are fragments of a more general snytagm and the unity of the message is realized at a higher level (Barthes, 1977: 275).


Barthes, Roland (1977) ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ In: Trachtenberg (ed.) Classic Essays on Photography. New Haven: Leete’s Island. pp. 269-285