Understanding Culture through Images

Understanding Culture through Images (2003, The Netherlands) by Blerina Berberi

Traveling from one place of the world to another one we immediately recognize the existence of other cultures. At the first instances, there is no need to have conversation with people not even read information about a place. Culture is what we see. And what we see are also images. These images and cultures are what constitute the differences and similarities in the world.

Imagine now a person who doesn’t speak the language of a distant village he/she is visiting. If we would ask that person about the culture of this village he would at once try to define it. How is this possible? The answer is first, the visitor already has a conception of culture and secondly, he defined culture just by looking at images, social actions, rituals, etc. This situation is also comparable to tourist trips. To take the first example one level higher let’s see the case of Egypt. Many people visit the pyramids and the sphinx there, and this is often named a cultural trip. Even though there are no people (pharaohs) living in the pyramids, still people are able to define that there existed a different culture, and they can tell this, as in the visitor’s example, by merely looking at images, pyramids and other elements in and out the pyramids. Furthermore, in everyday life we try to associate Egyptian culture as one, whose main features are pyramids, sarcophagus, mummies, sphinx, etc. Here we need to reflect. What people really see are just some images that represent a culture, Egyptian culture during the time of pharaohs. What they also see out in the Egyptian contemporary society is still a culture. But what is the culture is far fetched from what people might think.  

These examples show us that people find it possible to understand culture by looking at images (using only one sense, seeing), people are able to trace a culture. And how far they achieve in the understanding of culture through images will be the central topics of this paper. In more details, explaining the relationship between images and culture (and stating the definition of the culture) will give answer to the question of understanding culture through images. Next, the concept of a culture will be explained in relation with the ‘selection’ of images that do represent a culture. Later, the study of images will explain how far we think we do ‘understand’ cultures and here the study of images plays a crucial role. Finally how is the study of culture through images compared to other culture theories values the potential of images to the understanding of culture.


1) The relation between Images and Culture (The Culture and a Culture)

In many cultural theories, culture is related to human beliefs, social actions, institutions, etc. Some analyses of culture are done through the study of texts and language. But culture is also related to other human production and more specifically to images. To understand the image and culture relation, we will start first with a concept of the culture by Sewell. According to Sewell:

“…culture should be understood as a dialectic of system and practice…”(Sewell, p. 52) 

As we see, Sewell defines the culture as a system (of symbols) and practice. System and practice are concepts that imply each other. This means that in order to participate in cultural practice there must exist a cultural system, which holds symbols and gives meaning to actions. On the other hand, the system exists due to cultural practices.

So, how are images related to culture?

By taking into account Sewell’s definition of culture as system and practice, we have to accept that images are performed by cultural practice. Participating in cultural practice and more specifically in this case in the production of images, implies that there exists a cultural system. So images, as texts and language, can be said to embody the cultural system. This becomes clearer by simply looking at images, which always do convey a message that needs to be decoded within a given system of signs. Furthermore, images can be defined as cultural products. The study of images should guide us to the understanding of culture.


The Culture and a Culture:

Two other statements about culture stress the idea that culture can be understood through images. The following example will show us that where the concept of a culture derives from., why people in general think of a culture and not the culture.

Tylor and UNESCO consider culture to be represented and understood by objects. In the two following quotes there is a clear relation between culture and images, but still exist some contradictions.

Tylor’s definition of culture is:

“…the list of all items of the general life of people represents that whole which we call culture… ” (Tylor, p.8).

In this quote Tylor, refers to objects, images, to define culture. He implies that culture and its meaning is to be found in everyday objects, be those used in distant regions or in civilized societies.

The other statement that relates images and culture is from UNESCO. UNESCO is an organization concerned with cultural, scientific activities. In its early stages, before the concept of culture became politicized, it focused primarily in art works in order to understand different cultures. Leaving aside UNESCO’s principles of peace, cultural diversity, etc., the following quote clearly states the importance of art, images, in the understanding of culture (s):

“Art is the key to the understanding of our own culture and that of our neighbors” (UNESCO Report, p.6).

So far, the similarities of UNESCO’s and Taylor’s definition of culture are to be derived from images.

The difference between the two mentioned quotes about culture and images (UNESCO’s & Taylor’s) is mainly on the extension or limitation of the list of image production. In the first case, Taylor’s list of items that represent culture of a certain group of people is not narrowed to the idea of art. Furthermore, UNESCO’s chosen quote restricts the Tylor’s list of items as everyday objects that represent culture by associating the images with the concept of art.

The main problem here lies in defining which of the images have to be studied to understand culture. So, in order to understand culture, whose path we have to follow: Tylor’s or UNESCO’s? In general, do we have to study all images to understand culture or only some of them? For example, should tourists only visit windmills, museums, cheese production, coffeshops in order to understand Dutch culture?

These two different positions on the understanding of culture through images show us that it is possible to make a selection of images. To get back to the example in the introduction, here lies the reason why tourists for example see only a culture. There is certain hierarchy above tourists who decides which are the cultural monuments to be visited. So, from this limited list of images that UNESCO selects to make available for people to see in their trips and museums, people remain ignorant on the understanding of the culture. Let me give you some examples.

In the National Geographic Magazine, in the section of Culture pictures there are some images, such as:      

The following pictures are taken from UNESCO under the sections of Cultural Tourism and Intangible Heritage: 

Carnaval                           Tourism/ Cultural trips

As we can see from these examples, culture has to be understood by some images that: first, belong to the past, second, only one image makes possible to represent a culture, finally, are chosen by some photographers and other organizations.

To go back at the second example in the intro (tourists in Egypt) the similarities lie in the differences. People are  able to define a culture in comparison with a culture they know, be it similar then it will not be interesting and if different is more interesting. The is the reason why images of culture in National Geographic Magazine are the same as UNESCO’s images of cultural trips, and the same reason stands for the tourists visiting pyramids in Egypt. Is just the differences in a culture that drives people to the study of other cultures.

What about our contemporary culture? Is there any culture? Yes, there is but apparently at the present no one wants to deal with it and might just want to leave to the future to recognize it as such:

The question pops up again: Which images have to be studied?

The answer to a culture is: Pick some images. But for the culture it will be: All possible images!

So the concept of the culture is the same of all over world, while a culture is the study of a culture fragmented in time and place.


-How Images can be studied in order to understand Culture?

As we have already mentioned images are a product of culture. Images do have meanings and they try to convey a message, thus communicate with us. The meanings are in images and are transmitted by it. To understand culture we have to search for the meanings in images and how they are communicated.

Images are studied through iconology, technique, art history, ideology, etc. Iconography deals with the study of symbols in images.

Iconology deals with the meaning of symbols in images. See the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, by Jan van Eyck. In this painting many objects are part of everyday life but their meanings can be more than one.  In this painting  the couple has taken off their shoes and this suggests that marriage is a very sacred institution and the couple is staying on ‘holy ground’. The dog between them can be a symbol of fidelity. Also, the curtains of the bed which are open and Mrs. Arnolfini patting her rounded stomach suggest her potential for child-bearing. Another symbol easily recognizable is the candle that is lit in the candelabra. This symbol suggests the presence ofChrist, who is a witness to their marriage. Another witness is the painter. He is reflected in the mirror in the wall. Around the mirror there are biblical stories, which tell us more about the couple’s beliefs of life, marriage, etc., in relation to Christian religion. From this painting of the 15th century we can easily understand the couple’s culture, which is basically regulated by religion beliefs. If we compare these past paintings with post/modern ones, we can easily distinguish between them, since one of the main influences of life, which is religion, is not too much prominent in our daily life and comparisons always lead us to the understanding of different cultures.

The meaning of Arnolfini’s image is dependent on our interpretation and knowledge about symbols. We should know what they stand for and what is the meaning of these signs/ symbols in other personal, societal beliefs. Another factor that stresses the culture of Arnolfini couple, is the idea of a legitimate document. In the painting the couple is not in the City Hall or commune of the city to legitimize their wedding, but the painter which is reflected in the mirror is the testimony of this event. The painting was ordered by the couple not only to remember a nice day but also as an evidence of their wedding.

Art history studies images in relation to their time, subject, technique, rules, etc. Here, a certain order is given to images according to the changes and similarities between them. By defining certain features of images in a given time, we can refer to other images by comparing them with the already known rules. For example, we can say that during Renaissance, paintings were realistic, religious, main colors were blue, red, chiaro scuro, etc. Then if we take another painting from Impressionism, such as one from Monet, we can say that it is different because of changes in subjects, rules applied, colors, etc. Art history classifies these paintings under their common features. And it is not wrong to classify a culture in the basis of this image production. Because for example, during Renaissance there was a different culture, since people represented different subjects and associated their behaviors to their beliefs that we can find present in the images. Renaissance paintings were mainly religious, and also humanistic. Da Vinci’s Universal Man was a reference for many architectural proportions. Renaissance culture can also be compared to the Golden Age in The Netherlands by looking at the image production. During the Golden Age, there was a stream of high skilled painters and images. Golden Age, can clearly show how different the subject of images were (landscape, flowers, non-religious, etc.) and how artists were involved in everyday competitions out in the markets.

Images are also associated with different beliefs about society, sex, work, etc. More clearly the ideology in images is related to societal attitudes about class, race, gender and wealth. For example, nude paintings of women can represent women’s role in the society. In some painting’s they might also be nude and also have red socks, which means they are prostitutes. In some other paintings, such as the one from Paul Cezanne, represents an afternoon in Naples.                          

Here a black guy is serving to the couple. Its message doesn’t have to be taken as a racist one, but still tells us that the one who is a servant is a black man. Also, we can think that in Naples there are also black people. And black people might determine Naples culture, since in comparison to other countries black people were treated differently. This can be compared to many countries cultural policies that try not to segregate or under appreciate other people and cultures. Other images about gender and class, can represent women as the working class been exhausted by hard work. 

The understanding of culture should be related also to the interpretation and understanding of other images apart from paintings, such as advertisements, photography, films, etc.

So as we can see the understanding of the message of images is not always easy. It also depends on our knowledge about symbols, people, history. To understand images is also necessary to be or live in the society where and when the images were/ are produced. So far, the discourse of Foucault, cultural capital of Bourdieu, and other cultural theories explain how the knowledge is achieved and what it is. Foucault states that knowledge implies power and doubts any single truth, but this can be applicable not to all images. The skepticism about the message and truth could be applied in the difficulties of expression and communication between the receiver and the image in modern, abstract, postmodern images but not to the realistic ones. While Bourdieu would say that comprehension and the taste in these images would be depended on the cultural capital. In both cases these examples emphasize the role of the agent and structures.


-The study of Images compared to Semiotics and Hermeneutics

The idea of understanding culture through the study of images, bares comparison with other cultural theories, and more exactly with semiotics and hermeneutics.

Iconology is similar to the study of semiotics, and especially in relation to Barthes studies. In semiotics, Ferdinand de Saussure, studied language and stated that:


 “…language is a system of signs involved in a complex process of signification” (Smith, p. 99).

De Saussure distinguished between the signifier and the signified. The signifier, would be the letters of a word which in different languages would be different, and the signified is the idea we get when we read a word this idea can be unchangeable. While the sign, which is the union of the two is arbitrary and this is the key point of semiotics.

Saussure’s definition of meaning is:

“…the meaning is generated within the linguistic system via a system of differences” (Smith, p.99).

Barthes takes semiotics to the study of visual and popular culture. He used semiotics not only to reveal the text but also to find the ideological suppositions of the society, which created the images. In his Mythologies he tried to ‘decode’ magazine covers. He discusses the myth, where the combination of the signifier and the signified can form a sign which can be the signifier of something else. For example, the written/spoken signifier ‘dog’ (i.e. Arnolfini’s case) can signify at the same time fidelity.  He studies the cover of a magazine where a black soldier salutes the French flag. This cover shows that it has a lot of signs so that it can be interpreted as a salute of the French colony by showing honor to the French state. Barthes goes on saying that the myth is concerned with its intention, and this is also the case in the study of images.

In myths, societies, encode their desires, beliefs, values, etc., so their culture. But the sign here is not absolute and furthermore is dependent to the different interpretations. In Balzac’s novel Barthes tries to find the codes of the text, by which the reader can make sense. He goes on further by stating that myth represents the interests of the bourgeois, so in this case we have easily defined the ‘high’ culture that represents the interests of the dominant class. But since this is not always the case we cannot take it for granted and agree in the idea of myth in our contemporary society which is based on democratic and liberal formation (at least in most of the countries in the world). Today images do most of the times represent the desire, beliefs of any people be it famous, rich or not.

Barthes system is applicable to the study of images, since it is about how communication of meaning is made possible between two or more people. The myths in Barthes case are made up of components of sign systems.

In our contemporary society, images such as advertisements and magazine covers are becoming more and more important. The use of semiotics is crucial. Advertisements give us signs and the main motto is that if we buy the product our than our life will be different and of course a better one. Advertisements to be successful have to know what people ‘dream’ about so, advertisements as images are more about what we want, believe, and which our desires are.

Hermeneutics is :

“concerned with issues of meaning and mutual understanding” (Smith, p.197)

Clifford Geertz study of culture is a hermeneutic one. Culture, according to Geertz, is:

“man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning” (Smith, p.198-199).

 Geertz is concerned with culture, and the way in which cultural values and concerns are expressed in symbolic texts. He approaches culture through ‘thick description’. Geertz gives example of the wink and what does wink mean in different circumstances. So he seeks to separate the signifiers from the signified and still have an interpretative approach to culture. In general texts always say something about something. He insists, that cultural meaning can be discovered scientifically by an interpretive search for meaning. Geertz believes that interpretative approach is the best way to try and figure out the meaning of a cultural text.

This ‘thick description’ and the interpretative approach to meaning is applicable to images. The purpose of images in churches used to be to help the illiterate to ‘read’ images without having any writing/ reading text skills. But the (mis) interpretation of biblical images are the one that that led people to death in the early centuries. 


– Conclusion

In conclusion, as we see, the difference between many conceptions, understandings of meanings and culture, lies on the images we see and the way we see them.

The highlight on the relation of culture and images, gave us answers to the comprehension of culture. As culture can be understood by images, the next step was the study of images. The study of images required a certain knowledge in order to comment on the images (culture) we see. This study was somehow similar to the other culture theories, semiotics and hermeneutics.

And as none of culture theories has escaped criticism, it would be best to study images, text, language, social behavior, etc. parallel. This parallelism is necessary since still culture and its meaning can’t be completely understood from texts, thick description, language, discourse, etc. We all know that text and meaning are not easily comprehended so that is why images are always present in magazines, newspapers, etc.

We’ve mentioned that iconography looks at the content of images produced by signs, art history seeks order, semiotics sees the discovery of meaning as ‘science’, hermeneutics stresses the interpretive and temporary character of what we may find.

To understand culture, the study of images is concerned with the system of signs and breaking the codes. Coded meanings as language communicate by convention. Sometimes we need to be part of that culture or have cultural capital to understand them.

Iconology has similarities with semiotics, both are concerned with texts and images considered present the culture of a social group, which is set into an image or text. So, the culture of a society and its believes, norms, values, behaviors, items, etc., are embedded in images and texts and both the images and texts represent the story and culture of people for themselves.

In the end it is important to clarify the vagueness of culture. Sewell states:

“culture…as a system of symbols possessing a real but thin coherence that is continually put at risk in practice and therefore subject to transformation” (Sewell, p. 52)

This thin coherence of symbols is the main point on the understanding of culture and also images. This might be another reason why the culture is studied by fragmenting it into a culture of a given time and place.



-Gombrich, E, The story of Art, 1996

Sewell, Sewell, J. W. H. (1999). The concept(s) of culture. In V. E. Bonnell & L. Hunt (Eds.), (1999). Beyond the Cultural Turn. New directions in the study of society and culture. Berkeley: University of California Press

-Smith, Philip, Cultural Theory, An introduction, 1964

-Stenou, K. (ed). UNESCO and the issues of cultural diversity. Review and strategy, 1946-2003. A study based on official documents. Paris: UNESCO

-Tylor, E. B. (1929 [1871]). Primitive culture: researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, art, and custom (6th ed.). London: Murray





One comment

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