Context 3 initial

Essay sample

In a blog post McCabe (McCabe 2009) uses the framework provided by Barthes in The Rhetoric of the Image(Barthes 2007) to analyse a photo of a rock group. Adopting this approach offers the potential to provide insight into the workings of aftermath imagery. Consider for example McCullin’s The battlefields of the Somme, France , 2000. (McCullin et al. 2003)

Copyright image removed. It can be viewed on the Tate Gallery website

The literal or denoted message is clear. This is an image of a road or track leading across essentially featureless fields to a distant horizon which holds a few trees. There is a cloudy sky obscuring the sun. It is, too all intents and purposes a picture of nothing (or at best, very little).

However, as Barthes notes, it is effectively impossible to have a purely denotative image. McCullin has employed a number of visual techniques which imbue the picture and its individual elements with some symbolic meaning or message.

  • Monochrome rendering: traditionally associated with documentary photography, the use of monochrome could suggest a narrative, or could hint that the photographer wishes the work to be viewed as more than a simple aide-memoire or snap.
  • Low-key exposure: the scene is dark – but the sun is clearly high in the sky even if obscured by clouds. This is not a forensic type image of the type identified by Alexander (Alexander 2015), it is made deliberately dark by the photographer. In western culture darkness is generally associated with mystery or evil. In addition, it hides any visual information in the fields forcing us to seek clues from other elements.
  • The road: the pronounced perspective effects lead us into the picture, into the distance and perhaps metaphorically the past.
  • The clouds: could be interpreted as stormy – another common metaphor for troubling circumstances
  • Other elements: such as the trees barely seen on the horizon, or the apparent roughness of the track also feed into common cultural metaphors.

In addition to the denoted and connoted messages of the image itself, there are also corresponding messages provided by the physicality of the image and its presentation – messages which Barthes omits from his analysis.

At the simple denotative level the image is available in a variety of media, which tells us little, but at the connotative level the size of the image and its acquisition by the Tate Gallery (McCullin n.d.) indicate that it is to be considered a work of art, while its inclusion in a retrospective book of McCullin’s documentary work (McCullin et al. 2003) suggests that it should be seen in the context of a man who has seen much horror.

Taken together they could lead us to conclude that this was more than a simple snap, and cause us to draw conclusions about for example, the mental state of the photographer, and ourselves. But these are not issues unique to aftermath photography…the same approach could be applied in many locations and with many subjects to similar effect.

It is with Barthes’ third message type, the linguistic message (text) that aftermath photography takes on its particular character. He identifies two roles for the linguistic message:

  • anchorage: in a nutshell answering the question ‘What is it?’ In this case it tells us that we are looking at the battlefield of the Somme, and that the photo was taken many years after the event. The Battle of the Somme is etched into British consciousness. (Brosnan n.d.) which immediately moves the caption to its second role,
  • relay: the words and the images work together to provide meaning – in this case an invitation to reflect on the horrors of the Somme, and perhaps, given the absence of any visual information, the futility of the battle and by extension war. As Batchen, quoted in Short’s Context and Narrative (Short 2011) says in relation to a work by Taryn Simon: “…it is practically a hybrid of text and photography: it is charged.”

Obviously, this image provides only a subset of the techniques and symbols used in aftermath photography. It does however highlight the fundamental importance of the interaction between image and caption in aftermath photography.

This interaction raises questions of the impact of the image/text duality on the idea that a photograph is indexical and iconic – that it always portrays its referent. At what Barthes refers to as the ‘naïve’ level the image clearly does index its referent. This is a picture of a track crossing a field. But that is not the subject of the image/text – is not the subject of the artwork.

Much has been made of the idea of this genre being ‘a trace of a trace’ (Campany 2003). The referent of the image/text duality is the battle – and it is clearly not present, indeed it is arguable that even traces are present. The most we can say is what Gilman describes in the introduction to Cohen’s ‘On European Ground’ – that the ‘material memory’ of the past is hidden within the image (Cohen et al. 2001).

In the afterword to ‘On this site’ Sternfeld notes (Sternfeld 1997):

“It occurred to me that I held something within: a list of places that I cannot forget because of the tragedies that identify them, and I began to wonder if each of us has such a list.”

Representation of history

If Sternfeld is correct this suggests that one success of aftermath photography is the use of combination of image, text, materiality and context to tap into our memories, learned or experienced, and address Scott’s suggestion (cited in la Grange 2005) that photography cannot represent history.

Berger’s idea of the photograph being quotation from time is useful in this context (Berger et al. 1988). The image considered above quotes, as Berger puts it, a very small piece of time. It is, in isolation ambiguous, as Berger suggests. However, the inclusion of the text hugely increases the quotation, and in doing so taps into our memory, stimulates our imagination, to give presence to a referent event which is not indexed in the image.

This is perhaps even more obvious in Dewe Mathews work ‘Shot at dawn’(Dewe Mathews 2016) which also effectively utilises another tool of aftermath photography – the invocation of the sublime. {TO BE DEVELOPED}


Alexander, J.A.P., 2015. Perspectives on place: Theory and practice in landscape photography, United Kingdom: Fairchild Books.

Barthes, R., 2007. Rhetoric of the Image. In J. Evans & S. Hall, eds. Visual Culture: A reader. London: SAGE Publications.

Berger, J.Y. et al., 1988. Another way of telling, New York: Random House USA.

Brosnan, M., What Happened On The First Day Of The Battle Of The Somme? | Imperial War Museums. Website of the Imperial War Museums. Available at: [Accessed June 4, 2017].

Campany, D., 2003. David Campany. Available at: [Accessed January 1, 2015].

Cohen, A. et al., 2001. On European ground, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, in association with the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University.

Dewe Mathews, C., 2016. Shot at dawn. Available at:

la Grange, A., 2005. Basic critical theory for photographers, Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.

McCabe, H., 2009. The Rhetoric of the Image – Roland Barthes (1964). Traces of the real (blog). Available at: [Accessed June 1, 2017].

McCullin, D., “The Battlefields of the Somme, France”, Don McCullin, 2000 | Tate. Tate Gallery website. Available at: [Accessed June 4, 2017].

McCullin, D., Evans, H. & Sontag, S., 2003. Don McCullin, London: Random House UK.

Short, M., 2011. Basics creative photography 02: Context and narrative, Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.

Sternfeld, J., 1997. On this site: Landscape in Memoriam, San Francisco: Chronicle Books.