A Picture Paints A Thousand Words

To what extent do you feel that your context affects how you interpret an image? Have you ever been unable to decode a sign until you understood the context surrounding it?

The philosophical variation between an object and its representation means any media can be interpreted in a plethora of ways. Thus, leaving the relationship between a sign (comprised of a signifier and signified) and what it stands for as arbitrary at best. A comparison of V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt and a Ri Coalition Against Domestic Violence social awareness poster displays the way in which comprehension is required to decode an image.


The signifier of this Ri Coalition poster is the salient image of the meat hunk hanging on a hook. The piece of meat is clothed, and accompanied by the prominent text “It’s not acceptable to treat a woman like one”. The clothing is signified to be stereotypically associated to femininity, and the smaller text indicates the poster is aimed at men. Thus, connoting a message about the objectification of women that is ever-present in society, especially through the sexualisation of women in the media. At first encounter the meaning is quite clear-cut and specific, although the logo in the bottom right corner suggests an alternative message associated to domestic violence, specifically sexual assault and the issue of consent. Upon further research, it became clear that the poster is part of a series, involving another image of the same nature which alternatively features a punching bag adorned in women’s clothing. So, this change in the context when viewing the image allowed a second meaning to became apparent.


Alternatively, the signifier in this iconic image by Alfred Eisenstaedt is the couple kissing: the man wearing a sailor’s uniform and the woman, wearing white. The picture is in black and white, indicating it predates colour photography. Signified in the image is V-J Day in Times Square, New York – a celebration of the end of the war. A loving embrace between the two subjects is also implied. Thus, the image portrays a spontaneous and celebratory kiss. However, a 2005 interview with the woman in the photograph offers an alternative deconstruction on the image. Greta Zimmer Friedman states in the interview “it wasn’t my choice to be kissed”, leading to much speculation that the kiss was in fact an act of sexual assault. As reported by the Daily Wire, the image has become not a “symbol for victory” but “an example of the mainstreaming of sexual assault”.

Through an analysis of both complex images, and an examination of both their signifiers and signified, it becomes clear that a range of possible interpretations are available, and are dependant on the context and ideological position of the decoder. So, what do you think: is VJ Day in Times Square a loving embrace, or an act of sexual assault?



Redmond, P 2005, ‘Interview with Greta Zimmer Friedman [8/23/2005]’ Veterans History Project, 23 August, viewed 18 March 2017,  <http://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.42863/transcript?ID=sr0001&gt;

Seleh, P 2016, ‘The Left Laments Famous WWII Kissing Photo: It’s Sexual Assault!’ The Daily Wire, 5 September, viewed 18 March 2017, <http://www.dailywire.com/news/8905/left-laments-famous-wwii-kissing-photo-its-sexual-pardes-seleh#&gt;

Turnbull, S, 2017, ‘Representation and Interpretation’ Powerpoint slides, BCM110, University of Wollongong, delivered 15 March 2017.

2 Replies to “A Picture Paints A Thousand Words”

  1. The knowledge that the kiss in the V-J Day photo wasn’t a consensual or reciprocated kiss does add a different layer of interpretation, but II’m not entirely sure it’s accurate to describe it as an example of mainstreaming sexual assault. The photo has been seen as an example of celebration and joy for 60 years before that interview, and there’s very little in the actual image to dispute that. Since there’s nothing in the image to suggest it’s an act of sexual assault, I feel that the audience is completely justified in interpreting is as nothing more than a depiction of celebration. This interpretation produces its understood meaning.

    Of course that isn’t to say that the mainstreaming of sexual assault isn’t a huge issue, I just feel the V-J Day photo isn’t the best example to use. Otherwise, I think this is a great post!


    1. Hi Elena,

      Thank you for your feedback, it is much appreciated. Whilst I do agree that the sexual assault is not clearly communicated by the image, I was simply offering an alternative perspective that could be gained through viewing the image within a different context, in order to display that images may have differing decodings according to the decoder’s ideological perspective and context.


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