Information or stories?

Is the photographer providing information or a story?

Terry Barrett said in his article, ¹Photographs and Contexts, “The meaning of any photograph is highly dependent on the context in which it appears”. He sights the example of a photograph taken by Robert Doisneau of two people enjoying a drink in a Paris bar.  The photograph was taken with their permission and it subsequently appeared in a magazine: Le Point.   Some time later the photograph re-appeared in a leaflet produced by a temperance league warning of the evils of alcohol abuse, without Doisneau’s permission, and later still appeared, again without permission, in a paper entitled “Prostitution in the Champs-Elysees”. Barrett used this as an example of how any image may be interpretted in different ways, depending on the viewpoint of the interpreter, and may be far removed from the original intention.

Couple in a Parisian Bar: Robert Doisneau 1958

Barrett’s view is that an image may be interpreted according to three different types of information:

  • Internal Context: the information in the picture.
  • External Context: information surrounding the picture
  • Original Context: information about the way the picture was made, why and what was the photographer’s intention.

¹Barrett, Terry. (date unknown) Photographs and Context. [online] Available at: (Accessed 1/7/2019).


The Napalm Girl: Nick Ut. 1972


Internal context: this refers to the information shown in a photograph, without any explanation.  So for example to photograph taken by Nick Ut during the Vietnam War, shown above, later referred to as the “Napalm girl”,  could be (and was by some) interpreted that she was running from the soldiers.  There was no obvious reason from just observing the photograph as to why she was running or why she was naked. And Doisneau’s photograph simply shows two people enjoying a drink.

External context: This is the information surrounding the photograph, where it is being displayed, and in what context.  The photograph taken by Robert Doisneau of the couple enjoying a drink in a Parisian bar was taken with the intention of showing life in Paris, and Nick Ut’s photograph showed children running from something, but it is not clear exactly what they are running from, perhaps the soldiers.

Original Context: In Barrett’s view this relates to the story surrounding the photograph, why it was taken, the intention of the photographer, the background, any political or social cultures which would have influenced the photographer.

Returning to Nick Ut’s photograph, The Napalm Girl, it turned out that the children were not running from the soldiers, but were running from a Napalm attack and the soldiers were helping them to escape.  The naked girl had torn her clothes off a few minutes earlier as they were burning her skin from the effects of the Napalm. Later Ut helped her by pouring water on her burns.


In whatever form the information in a photograph is interpreted, that information is created by light and an under or over exposed image will not contain the same information as a well exposed image.  In the image below the subject is so over exposed that the detail is impossible to see.  Only the outline indicates that it is a flower, and the blurred areas in the background may be further foliage. The image is taken from Kawauchi’s series: Illuminance, but the image itself is untitled.  

Rinko Kawauchi


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