How Do I use Content Analysis to Analyse an Image?


Whether you are doing a Foundation Course in the Arts or a course at degree-level,chances are you will be asked to systematically analyse an image at some point, in order to demonstrate your theoretical knowledge of the visual form. A particularly popular assignment is the analysis and subsequent critical evaluation of a photograph. Content analysis is a form of image analysis that is more suited to studying historical or propaganda images, as it centres on the symbolic value of the image (or it's message) - rather than it's technical value, composition or what can be gleaned from the image at 'face value.'

The process of content analysis is as follows:

Content analysis  
  • What do you see?
  • What is the image about?
  • Are there people in the image? What are they doing? How are they presented?
  • Can the image be looked at different ways?
  • How effective is the image as a visual message?

'What do you see?'
This initial question should be answered with a brief summary of what is visible in the image. Do not yet go into the meaning of what is visually represented.

'What is the image about?' 
This goes beyond the visual content to explain the SUBJECT of the image. So if the image was a photograph of a man harvesting potatoes in a field, the image would be ABOUT agriculture.

'Are there people in the image? What are they doing?' Describe in detail the activities of the people in the image. 

This third part of the question is the most important one: 

'How are they presented?' This is specifically relevant to the analysis of historical and propaganda imagery. The farmer and his potatoes may be presented in a heroic light (as in much soviet propaganda) or as haggard and worn-out. 

These two angles would produce widely varying messages within the image - so it is very important to consider whether the persons pictures are presented in a POSITIVE or NEGATIVE light.

Is the image made for us to feel pity for the people pictures, or for us to aspire to them? All of these questions feed into the purpose of the image and it's efficiency as a visual message.

'Can the image be looked at in different ways?'
This question about the plurality of interpretations (ie. more than one interpretation) of an image is relevant to the audience that it was created for, and teaches us to cast a critical eye on it. 

Propaganda essentially relies on us taking images at their base, image value and not questioning them, so this is an important step that reinforces the value and importance of casting doubt on imagery.

'How effective is the image as a visual message?'
Consider why or why not people would be taken in by the image. Efficiency can hinge on factors such as: overall visual composition, if there is a metaphor or alternative meaning in the image: how inspiring is it? Did the author of the image communicate his concept clearly or is it am ambiguous image that is hard to decipher beyond basic visual cues?

Once you have answered all these questions to the greatest extent that you can, you have completed your visual analysis!

I will be following up this article with some further titles, detailing how to conduct a visual analysis, contextual information, and assessing the image source. Hope this has been a help to all you art student!

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