Week 4 - Into the Image World

Many images we see have a intentional way of being read by the viewer, something the image maker wants the viewer to understand, to interpret from the image. This dominant, or preferred, interpretation of the image is particularly important in advertising. The image makers (advertisers) want you as the consumer, to infer a message from the image that will make you purchase their products.  

As I’m sure many people are aware, advertisers do not always get this right and many adverts have “failed” in communicating their intended message. Viewers may look at an advert and read an entirely different message from it; the oppositional reading.

Of course some adverts, or indeed any image, fall somewhere in the middle; the message may not be conveyed as completely as intended, and many people may read other un-intended messages from the image, but still they understand at least part of the message or concept, and react mostly favourably to the image; the negotiated reading.

The semiotics, the language of signs, within images can be difficult to get right as images will be read by each individual differently, to a certain extent. Everybody approaches images with their own individual knowledge and experiences, so whilst some may be able to understand the intended message, individual view points may create an oppositional or negotiated reading of the image. With some images this is not necessarily an issue, for example within the fine art world; fine art photographs may be interpreted differently by different people but this is deemed acceptable. However in advertising, where viewers, consumers, are being asked (from a brand perspective at least), to engage with the image to ultimately buy a product this may not be so acceptable. As Williamson writes adverts communicate the “qualities and attributes of the products they are trying to sell, but also the way in which they can make those properties mean something to us”[i]. If the advert does not mean something to us, as an individual, we are not likely to purchase the product it is trying to sell.

Writing about the development of modern surfing post-WWII, Heimann writes that “surfers were considered to be unconventional free spirits, with the media images generated after the War setting the stage to transform surfing from a sport into a lifestyle”[ii]. As surfing migrated during the 1950’s – 1970’s from Hawaii to California, to Australia, and beyond, it was seen as the exotic pastime of young people, something free-spirited, anti-corporate, and anti-establishment. It is this image and lifestyle of exotic freedom and adventure that advertising today still communicates as a desirable quality for one’s life, something to attain.

If we look at this advertising photograph from surf brand Roxy, shown on their website as the gateway image to shop for swim wear, we see a beautiful young woman, somewhere tropical, sunny and warm, her long her flowing in the wind, of course wearing nothing but a Roxy bikini – the product being sold, and we see the tag line “make waves move mountains”.

Roxy - website advertising image: http://www.roxy-uk.co.uk/  Photographer unknown

Roxy - website advertising image: http://www.roxy-uk.co.uk/

Photographer unknown

We read that these bikinis are for the young and beautiful, they are for the tropics, and the tag line tells us that they are for strong and adventurous women. If you buy these bikinis you too can be like this surfer-model.

However, on another level we, as consumers, also read that these bikinis, this brand, represents that exotic freedom and adventure promised by the lifestyle of surfing – from the 1950’s to date. Surfing as a lifestyle equates to this woman – and she isn’t even surfing, there’s not even a surfboard visible in the photograph. This brand solely makes and sells clothing and equipment (surfboards, snowboards etc.) for women and girls. Therefore we can confidently presume this advert is aimed at women, rather than men, and yet the composition of this photograph is reminiscent of this poster below – from 1967. This was produced at a time when female surfers were even more of minority than they are now, and even a cursory glance at surf photography and advertising from that period shows a distinct objectification and sexualisation of women within surf culture.

Poster from 1967 - photographer unknown  From  Surfing: Vintage Surfing Graphics  by Jim Heimann

Poster from 1967 - photographer unknown

From Surfing: Vintage Surfing Graphics by Jim Heimann

I can see the message being communicated in the Roxy advertising photograph above, I can see and feel the desire to identify with the woman in the photograph and consider oneself a part of that culture, to be included in the tribe of young beautiful adventurous women in that tropical paradise. I can read the dominant message being shared. However, I can also see the objectification it shows, I can see the somewhat archaic view of women in surf culture, and as a woman older than her, who doesn’t live in that tropical paradise, and who doesn’t look like her, I don’t actually identify with the lifestyle being shown, if anything I feel alienated from it. I read an opposition to the intended message. Yet because I do read the dominant and oppositional messages, and I’m perhaps a little ashamed to admit part of me does desire that lifestyle, I have negotiated the signs in this photograph to a point where I am still likely to purchase from the brand.

It is this form of advertising and brand photographs that so many other female surfers I have spoken to have said it is hard to identify with. Through my project I intend to show that this is not the normality for many female surfers in the UK, and to provide an alternate view of who female surfers are – for surfers and non-surfers. I work with non-model female UK surfers to take documentary style photographs of them in the reality of surfing in the UK, and having to surf in wetsuits because the weather and waters are cold. I hope to show that this is so different from the desirable lifestyle portrayed in the media, but that it doesn’t exclude them from the tribe of “surfer”.

To date this has been marginally successful in reaching some other female surfers via social media (judging from those who have reached out to me about the project/wanting to take part in the project). I don’t think there has been much success outside of this area, and I need to re-think the strategy for sharing the project, and/or re-think the format or style of the photographs I am taking. Whilst I personally may not always read only the dominant message in advertising photographs like the Roxy one discussed above, they are (presumably) generally successful as adverts for the brand. It leads me to question whether my project would be more successful if the style of my photographs were more similar to those of brand advertising images, or if I more directly contrasted my photographs with advertising photographs.

However, this may change the direction of the project to be more of a commentary on surf brand advertising, and it could take away from the original aim of the project; to show the reality of surfing in the UK/who female UK surfers are. I would need to consider whether the reach of the message I am intending to communicate is a greater concern than the message of showing and recording who female UK surfers are.


[i] WILLIAMSON, Judith. 2005. Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. 15th edn. London: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd.

[ii] HEIMANN, Jim. 2004. Surfing: Vintage Surfing Graphics. Köln: Taschen GmbH