How Context Impacts Interpretation

WARNING: This image is NOT what most people assume it is. It is an example of how even the “literal” can “lie.” The context in which something appears can turn meaning around 180 degrees.

FatherDaugther

Copyright © 2013 Rehak Creative Services, Inc.

In the 1970s, I spent much of my spare time with a Nikon F2 wandering through a Chicago neighborhood called Uptown. It was a pretty rough neighborhood at the time – a cauldron of poor Hispanics, African-Americans, Whites who had migrated up from the South and (reportedly) the nation’s single largest concentration of American Indians. Gangs and poverty ruled the neighborhood., Bars, flop houses and halfway homes dotted the streets.

The Chicago Tribune published many of my photos, but refused to publish this one. I took it on a cold morning when I ducked inside a store to change rolls of film. As I closed the  camera, I turned and saw this pair staring at me. I immediately dropped to my knee and clicked off five frames with my motor drive as the Black man withdrew the cigarette from his mouth.

Eager to learn more about these two and to obtain model releases, I engaged them in conversation and found that my photo was NOT what it appeared to be. The man had adopted the girl after marrying her mother. Several days later, I brought prints from my negatives to the family as a gift. I met the mother and learned that she had been a single mom who moved to the city from West Virginia to find work. Instead, she found herself living on the streets, cold and hungry. The Black man had taken her and her daughter in, provided them with food and shelter, and eventually married the mother. It seemed to be a very loving, interracial family.

“What’s going on here?”

When the Tribune editors saw the image, their jaws dropped. “What’s going on here?” they asked. I told them the story, but they refused to publish the image even after they knew the story behind it. They feared “it would start a race war.”

For more than 35 years, the image remained unpublished until today. One of my clients, an African-American, saw it a few years ago and almost became physically ill from what the image implied. I told her the story behind it and we remained good friends, but the encounter taught me the editors had been right.

Sometimes even an unaltered documentary image can create a false impression. Because of the social context in which we live, most people see this as pimp and child prostitute, not as loving father and adopted daughter. What was your first impression? Did you leap to the wrong conclusion? Most people do. They see it within a cultural context that is filled with racial distrust. They see the hat. They see the gleam in the man’s eye, the smile on his lips, the leer on the young girl’s face, and they assume the worst.

I learned a powerful lesson from this image. Words and images taken out of context can misrepresent the true meaning of something innocent. They can inflame the reader, fuel prejudice, and ultimately harm society. I publish this example, not to do any of those things, but in the hope that it will teach others how images can mislead.

Sometimes, the reader’s past causes him/her to misinterpret the meaning. Sometimes, people simply jump to the wrong conclusion because of personal experience, prejudice or media conditioning. And sometimes, “authors” deliberately mislead readers by withholding information that would allow them to interpret things properly. When that happens, there’s no way readers can get to the truth.

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One thought on “How Context Impacts Interpretation

  1. I saw nothing amiss, looking at the photo. This is a perfect example of pictures not telling stories. In my opinion, you only see a split second exposure. You have no idea what has happened, what will happen, or even what is happening. A photo is just a photo.

    A pimp and a prostitute, really? Right.

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