Images, Text, and how they interact

Cut out some pictures from a newspaper and write your own captions.

• How do the words you put next to the image contextualise/re-contextualise it?

• How many meanings can you give to the same picture?

Try the same exercise for both anchoring and relaying. Blog about it.


I chose to “cut” images from online sources rather than from physical newspapers.  I had a quick look through today’s offerings on the news stand and decided that more illustrative content would be available from the web. 


Yorkshire Dam Attack – The market town of Pickering was flooded following the terrorist attack on the Barnsley reservoir (Fig 1)


The real caption referred to events in a known flood risk area and had nothing to do with a terrorist attack. But the above caption anchors the meaning of the image by telling us what it is and also directs the viewer to consider it in a particular context, that of terrorism, providing relay.  Relay adds information, anchor confirms what is already visible.  In the process of anchoring, the text fixes the process of signification and limits the polysemic possibilities of the image.  Barthes explains relay thus:

“[in relay]… text and image stand in a complementary relationship; the words , in the same way as the images, are fragments of a more general syntagm and the unity of the message is realized at a higher level, that the of the story, the anecdote, the diegesis…” 

Barthes 1977

I had to look those two up, of course…  A syntagmatic relationship is one where signs occur in sequence or parallel and operate together to create meaning.  [my emphasis]  –  And diegesis…..  refers to the information related by the narrator  

In previous writing on this subject I invented for myself an Ambiguity Index  which places any image on a scale somewhere between “could be absolutely anything” and “no mistaking what that’s all about”.  I have since discovered that this is an aspect of the polysemic nature of photographs.  In the above illustration the contents are fairly unambiguous; it’s definitely a flood, the bridge suggests it came from a river overtopping its banks, it’s in the UK, it is very disruptive but not catastrophic.  Let’s try something which offers more leeway…


Met to take £33m cut in operational funding over 3 years  (Fig 2) 

Here the image ‘anchors’ itself – there is only one of these signs and most UK viewers would know what it signifies.  It’s not about a yard, nor is it anything to do with Scotland, but the text within the image signifies a very specific entity.  Seeing this image we expect to learn about either the activities of the Metropolitan Police or about matters which are of concern to them, such as cuts.  Although the contents of the image are unique, the context can vary considerably.  The image is used extensively as shorthand for crime, London, police, investigation, justice, detection and to a certain extent for authority, power, competence, incompetence etc.  The caption relays information and contextualises the image.  Taken together, they may prompt the viewer to consider the efficiency of the Met and whether such funding reductions are justified, but in a semiotic sense they work together to both channel the meaning, narrowing the possibilities, and at the same time to expand on the meaning by offering more information.  The original caption read: GP Manish Shah has been charged with 118 sex assaults against patients.


Three brothers victims of Grenfell fire (Fig 3)



Three defendants in Harrods bomb trial (Fig 4)

The images above (Figs 3 & 4) are from the same file.  I noticed when appropriating it that the mouse-over popup title read _97166537_976musketeers-brighter.jpg and I wondered why it would need to identified with the word “brighter”.  It was published originally by Times Online and may also have appeared in print.  Why brighter?  The word appears nowhere in the accompanying text; I wonder if an editorial decision was made to change the appearance of the men?

I altered it myself to see what would happen with a different caption and it does read differently, the darker appearance seeming to support the kind of prejudicial views about guys with dark skin one might expect from some news groups.  There is anchor and relay here, in contradictory stories, but each equally credible.  The original caption read:  “Naweed Ali, Khobaib Hussain and Mohibur Rahman were sentenced at the Old Bailey  – Three would-be jihadists who dubbed themselves the Three Musketeers have been jailed for life for plotting an attack on a police or military target.”


Pilot dismissed for being intoxicated in flight (Fig 5)

The image and text above may provoke some indignant responses – lives at risk, position of trust, airline safety and so on; and she’s smiling, for heaven’s sake.  A single word changes the whole meaning of the diegesis; the choice of the term intoxicated rather than drunk implies a clinically transgressive judgement, much more serious – after all many of us just get ‘a bit drunk’ occasionally.  That one word bounces around the cockpit, jarring against the other signs  of precision, accuracy, high technology and order.  In fact Yvonne Kershaw has just retired after 45 years blameless years on the flight deck.



Barthes, R. (1977). Rhetoric of the Image. Image, Music, Text, 32–51.


List of Illustrations:

Fig 1 –   Getty Images:   Times Online. (accessed August 9, 2017).

Fig 2 –Getty Images: Times Online. (accessed August 9, 2017).

Figs 3 & 4 – West Midlands Police file image:  2017. ‘Three Musketeer’ jihadis get life sentences for UK terror plot – BBC News. Times Online. (accessed August 9, 2017).

Fig 5 – Lauren Hurley/PA 2017. UK’s first woman to captain jumbo jet retires after final flight – Times Online. (accessed August 9, 2017).