See: UVC Project 3-1

The course notes ask that we examine one of our own images featuring signs that could be interpreted differently be viewers. As I reread Barthes Rhetoric of the Image, his thoughts on the relationship between image and text and the concepts of anchorage and relay that particularly resonated with me, and it is these that I will consider here.

Notes on anchorage and relay:

  • From Rhetoric of the Image In: Evans and Hall (1999):
    • “the image is felt to be weak in respect of meaning…signification cannot exhaust the images ineffable richness.” (p. 33)
    • “all images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others.” (p. 37)
    • The linguistic message is one way that floating signifiers can be fixed to “counter the terror of uncertain signs…At the level of the literal message, the text replies – in a more or less direct, more or less partial manner – to the question: what is it?” (p. 37)
    • “anchorage may be ideological and indeed this is its principal function; the text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others; by means of an often subtle dispatching, it remote controls him towards a meaning chosen in advance.” (p. 37-8)
    • “The text is indeed the creator’s (and hence society’s) right of inspection over the image; anchorage is control, bearing a responsibility – in the face of the protective power of pictures – for the use of the message.” (p. 38)
    • “Anchorage is the most frequent function of the linguistic message and is commonly found in press photographs and advertisements. The function of relay is less common…Here text (most often a snatch of dialogue) and image stand in a complementary relationship; the words in the same way as the images, are fragments if a more general syntagm and the unity of the message is realized at a higher level, that of the story, the anecdote, the diegesis.” (p. 38) 
    • “When the text has the diegetic value of relay, the information is more costly requiring as it does the learning of a digital code (the system of language); when it has a substitute value (anchorage, control), it is the image which detains the informational charge and, the image being analogical, the information then ‘lazier’.” (p. 38)
  • From Art, Common Sense and Photography by Victor Burgin In: Evans and Hall (1999):
    • The polysemy of the image is controlled through juxtaposition with a verbal text:
      • “Roland Barthes has identified how different functions which the verbal message can adopt in relation to the image; these he calls anchorage and relay. The text adopts a function of anchorage when, from a multiplicity of connotations offered by the image, it selects some and thereby implicitly rejects others…In relay, the image and the linguistic text are in a relationship of complementarity: the linguistic message explains, develops, expands the significance of the image.” (p. 47-8)
  • From Semiotics: the Basics by David Chandler:
    • Anchorage – linguistic elements in a text, such as a caption, can serve to ‘anchor’ (or constrain) the preferred readings of the image. (p. 244)
    • “Roland Barthes introduced the concept of anchorage…Linguistic elements can serve to ‘anchor’ (or constrain) the preferred readings of an image: ‘to fix the floating chain of signifiers'”
      • The concept primarily referred to advertisements but also applies to other captioned photographs. (p. 204)
    • Barthes argued that the principal function of anchorage was ideological – perhaps most obviously used in contexts such as newspapers.
      • The captions/labels present themselves as neutral while expressing how an image ought to be read. (p. 204)
    • Relay – the term Barthes used to describe text-image relationships which were complementary.
      • E.g. Cartoons, comic strips and narrative film. (p. 204)
  • From Visible Signs by David Crow (p.74):
    • Barthes asserts that text on an image constitutes a parasitic message designed to quicken the reading of additional signifieds.
      • Text is a powerful method of altering or fixing the meaning of an image.
    • Anchorage – directs the beholder through a number of possible readings of an image (floating chain of signifiers) which causes the reader to ignore some signifiers and read others.
      • “The text answers the question ‘What is it?’ (p. 74)
      • Text on the connoted image (coded iconic message) helps the reader interpret the signifiers they are presented with.
      • Text on a denoted image (non-coded iconic message) describes how a reader is ‘remote controlled’ to a meaning that has been chosen in advance.
        • Often this has an ideological purpose – anchorage text can have a repressive value when applied to an image.
    • Relay – much less common than anchorage. 
      • Text works in a complementary way to the image.
        • (e.g. Snippet of dialogue, comic strips – particularly important in film.)
      • Relay text advances the reading of the images by supplying meanings not found in the images themselves. 
        • (e.g. Film dialogue.)
    • From Visual Methodologies by Gillian Rose:
      • Anchorage text allows the reader to choose between a potentially confusing number of denotative meanings.
        • E.g. text in advertising.
      • Relay-function refers to text that has a complementary relation to the image.
        • E.g. film subtitles.

This image is part of a series I made in response to a scandal in January 2021 about the provision of food parcels to children eligible for free school meals. (See here.) I appropriated images posted to Twitter by parents who had received the parcels and overlayed text by food writer and campaigner Jack Monroe onto them. One of the interesting aspects of the debate that emerged following this was how some commentators tried to attack the legitimacy of the campaign by stating that they were not representative of the offer being given or that the recipients should be glad to receive anything at all. I found the response by Monroe eloquent, moving and borne out of personal experience – my intention was that the combination of text and image would make the testimony that both represented more difficult to refute by fixing meaning and directing the reader into how the images should be read. By converting the images to black and white, I also wanted to play on the relationship between monochrome and the tradition of documentary realism. Barthes assertion that anchorage is ideological is borne out by my use of image and text in this instance – there is certainly a conscious intention to ‘remote control’ the reader toward the meaning I intend to be derived.

Initially I considered the images to be an example of anchorage – the text fixes meaning towards a preferred reading. However, there is also a relay-function at play, as arguably, the text is complementary to the image in a way that “develops [and] expands the significance of the image.” (Burgin, in: Evans and Hall, 2009: 48) The text is not a caption, but a quote written in a way that is closer to dialogue than labelling. I wonder if my analysis that these are an example of both anchorage and relay, or if this means I have missed the point both in my understanding of the terms and my analysis of the image? Barthes notion of a ‘third meaning’ created by the interplay between text and image is something that I find seductive and perhaps why I am struggling to identify whether it is anchorage or relay here. The idea that the addition of text can add to the ambiguity and polysemous nature of meaning in an image, while also directing the reader in a particular direction is something that has potential for further exploration. 


Barthes, R. (1977) ‘The Photographic Message’ In: Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press. pp. 15-31

Barthes, R. (1977) ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ In: Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press. pp. 32-51

Barthes, R. (1999) ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage. pp. 33-40

Burgin, V. (1999) ‘Art, Common Sense and Photography’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage. pp. 41-50.

Chandler, D. (2008) The Basics: Semiotics. Oxford: Routledge.

Crow, D. (2010) Visible Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics in the Visual Arts (2nd edition)Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA.

Evans, J. (1999) ‘Cultures of the Visual’ In: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage. pp. 41-50. pp. 11-20

Rose, G. (2016) Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials (4th Edition) London: Sage. 

Shawcross, N. M. (2013) ‘Roland Barthes’ In: Durden, M. Fifty Key Writers on Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.