They say that every picture tells a story. They are completely wrong. 

The idea that an image can be conveniently associated with a single narrative contradicts everything that we know about language, semantics, art, philosophy and human beings.

To illustrate the idea that every picture does not tell a story, we could think back to Christmas 2012. A tourist in New York City took a snapshot of a random act of kindness. Within a few days of sharing the photograph online, it went viral. I remember it being at the top of my newsfeed every time I logged on Facebook. The thousands of positive comments were full of adjectives like beautiful, heartwarming, touching, inspiring and heroic. The story that this picture told, apparently, was a Christmas fairytale.

Perhaps you remember it. It depicted an interaction between two New Yorkers from two very different backgrounds. The hero of the story was the one on the left - a police officer. He kneels on the pavement, his hands clasped and his eyes looking downwards: saintly, angelic, humble.

Underneath the officer's sympathetic gaze was the recipient of the act of kindness - a homeless man, sitting barefoot on the pavement, accepting the police officer's gift of a brand new pair of boots which had just been purchased from the shoe shop behind them.

Very quickly, the police officer started to make headlines and TV appearances. Meanwhile, a very different story involving the homeless man started to develop. After being investigated and identified by the mainstream media, he was accused of being ungrateful, dishonest and, worst of all - still barefoot. He was reported to have expressed ingratitude at the public attention that the image was generating, asking what was in it for him. He was also reported to have been a difficult case for New York's agency for homelessness. Some even questioned whether or not he was actually homeless.

Rather than fitting into the standard narrative as the passive object of pity, he was complicating things and in doing so, ruining the Christmas tale as is should have been.

Writing for the Guardian newspaper, Jonathan Jones, said: "Let's pause to absorb the absurdity of this. A picture that started as a seasonal heart-warmer has now become a reason not to feel sorry for the homeless as Hillman (the homeless man) is painted as a wilful eccentric."

Every picture does not tell a story. Every picture can be associated with an infinite number of constantly developing and changing narratives. Importantly, we are the ones who create the narratives in response to the pictures, not the other way around. In other words, we tell the stories, not the pictures.

The stories that we tell, or rather, the subconscious narratives that we create in response to any image, depends on many things including:

  • who we are and what we know
  • how well we understand the media
  • the diet of images that we have been fed throughout our lives
  • the degree to which we intellectually explore the images around us and become aware of the subconscious narratives that we create in response to them.

We are language teachers. It would be wrong to assert that we have a responsibility to deal with issues of visual literacy and critical thinking in the classroom. However, these are excellent areas for any teacher who is a proponent of communicative classroom activities.

In order for our students to become image aware, we first have to train ourselves. Perhaps there are three levels for narrative and language construction that we can associate with any image - three perspectives which are as follows:

1. The objective perspective (the image and itself)

This is the most obvious perspective for use in the language classroom. The objective perspective deals with descriptions, appearance, places, colours, spatial relationships, actions and genre. Here, we are dealing with what you can see and say about the image, with a degree of certainty, just by looking at it.

2. The affective perspective (the image and you)

This is when we start to get deeper. The personal perspective deals with speculation, interpretation, opinion, analysis, criticism and emotion. Perhaps the image reminds you of something. Perhaps you judge the people within it negatively or positively. Or perhaps you put yourself in the picture. When we verbalize our thoughts, questions or associations, we are considering the affective perspective.

3. The contextual perspective (the image and the world)

This perspective deals with the image as an artefact. What are the stories behind it? How does it affect or contribute to the world? Who is behind the image and what are their motives for creating it? How was it created? Has it been manipulated? Does it portray people and events fairly? Or does it perpetuate stereotypes?

By Jamie Keddie

Reference and image:

* Note that there are a number of activities on the author's website that deal with issues such as the ones mentioned in this article:

Watch Jamie's talk from the Barcelona Image Conference


Submitted by isagc on Wed, 12/11/2013 - 18:04


While I was reading your article and I was picturing your story in my head. Then I went to the link to compare it and I realised it was totally different. If you would have asked me to start a story with just some information, I would have changed it all. I totally agree with you. Pictures can be associated with thousand of different narratives. Same thing happens when I paint an abstract work, people make different inferences of what image it could be. Here comes the mixture of what we already know with what we are learning. Thanks for sharing!

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