A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Connotations

Photos: Huffington Post, Getty Images


I chose to compare two images to discuss the complexity between what is being shown and what is being said. With one denotation seemingly given, their true meaning and context are entirely different to what is actually being portrayed. What seems like two romantic moments captured in time, is far from what is signified.  The first image, titled ‘V-J Day in Times Square’ by Alfred Eisenstaedt is one of the most iconic images from the 1940’s; Portraying an American soldier kissing a woman during the celebration of ‘Victory over Japan Day’.

Ask anyone and they will most definitely recognize this photo. The vivid white draws your attention, the black & white image showing the contrast and complexity. When viewing the photograph, most people conjure in their mind an image of romance. On the surface that this is what this image suggests. In reality, the denotation is vastly contrasted. The two were strangers, the man reportedly identified as George Mendonça stated he had had “quite a few drinks that day” and kissed her, caught up in the celebration. Edith Shain claimed to be the woman in the photo and said that “…she might as well let him kiss her since he fought…in the war” and had reportedly been uncomfortable with the famous encounter.

Correspondingly, a photo taken by a Getty Images freelance photographer, dubbed the “Vancouver Riot Kiss” first sparked outrage when it was published in 2011, of what appeared to be a man assaulting a woman in the midst of riots in Vancouver.  The image is focused on the two locked in embrace, framed by violent haze of reds. Another interpretation was of a couple embracing in a spontaneous moment of affection during the violence and aggression of the riot. Scott Jones and Alexandra Thomas were knocked over and attacked by police, mistaken for rioters. After the hostile encounter, Thomas was hysterical and traumatised by the event, so Jones tried to calm her down by kissing her. The scene was described as “such tenderness among such chaos” by a witness, as Jones tried to comfort his girlfriend.

Both images show how meaning and interpretation can be altered by our perception. The denotation and connotation conjured by our knowledge of the events shown can significantly differ. Each images are figures of their social contexts, the 1940’s painted by ideas of romantics and spontaneity from the war, and our culture so dominated by negative stories of violence and rape that we immediately assume the worst without context.

Why is it that in a photo from the 40’s we assume the best, yet in a photo from 2011 we assume the worst? When really, VJ Day in Times Square is more violent than The Vancouver Riot Kiss.
Were V-J Day Kiss captured in today’s social context, would a random man kissing a woman alone in the middle of a busy street be seen as a ‘moment of celebration’ or indecent assault? Would have a photo showing the effects of police brutality on innocent bystanders have conjured outrage in the 1940s, or be seen like VJ, as a moment of love? These images are representations of their social times, different levels of opinions positive or negative are influenced by our personal experience and view of the world.


2 thoughts on “A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Connotations

  1. Cool points re different interpretations. Also, great contrast of signifiers and signified, vividly portrayed through “When in reality, neither was what was happening”. Would’ve been cool to see examples of what different readings there could’ve been, though you touched on it briefly, great post nonetheless!

  2. A photograph connotation and denotation can has a big difference. We can not simply define it on a photo but we will do often in life. You use a very good example to explain it.
    Well done.

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