Encoding/decoding and context

Context and re-contextualizing, redirecting the narrative, provoking a response other than intended. In the forum discussion it was suggested I consider accompanying notes or captions for my work and using them to lead the viewer into the image to explain the concept and meaning. I am in two minds on this and how to go about explaining while avoiding detracting from the viewers’ free interpretation of the work. The caption can be seen as directing the narrative, interpreting or attempting to define to the content. Stated another way “Reliance on the artist’s intent unwisely removes the responsibility of interpretation from the viewer.” (Barrett, cited in Swinnen 2010, p.163)

Liz Wells in discussing the transfer and contestation of meaning refers to the Encoding/Decoding essay of Stuart Hall and his hypothetical three positions or interpretations of an image. (Wells, 2015, p.254) Of interest here is the dominant reading, which is the meaning of the work interpreted as intended by the producer. The obvious example here being advertising and the minimal room for any interpretation other than that intended by the sponsoring brand. Perhaps this is too strong and carefully chosen captions and notes can enhance the interpretation of an image and lead the viewer further into the work than if they are left to their own devices to figure out the intention.

Mishka Henner uses a variation on the notes format in his ‘Feedlots’ work, which I think is an effective compromise on individual image captions or an explanatory text prior to or accompanying individual images. Only after viewing a series of images and being left to decide on your own what it is that is being presented and what could it mean does Henner after the last image explain the concept and meaning behind the work. Curiosity on the part of viewer about the work may now be satisfied. However, the message enduring can ultimately be more important than the memory of the image.


Hall, S., Hobson, D., Lowe, A., & Willis, P. (Eds.). (1980). Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79 (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi-org.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/10.4324/9780203381182

HENNER, Mishka. 2021. ‘Feedlots — Mishka Henner’. [online]. Available at: https://mishkahenner.com/Feedlots [accessed 3 Jan 2021].

SWINNEN, Johan M. 2010. The Weight of Photography. Brussels: Asp-Academic & Scientific Pub.

WELLS, Liz. 2015b. Photography: A Critical Introduction. Routledge.

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