OCA Level 3: Body of Work/Contextual Studies

Tag: Free School Meals

Roland Barthes: Rhetoric of the Image

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.

Free School Meals

In January 2021 the subject of free school meals and the Tory mishandling of this hit the news for what seemed like the umpteenth time of the Covid pandemic. However, this time it was different – rather than being about failure of the government to maintain the provision of free school meals during the holidays, quickly followed by an embarrassing U-turn, this scandal featured reports of poor quality and value food parcels being supplied to parents instead of vouchers that could be spent in Supermarkets. (These had been stopped due to a fear they were being misused by some parents and spent on alcohol and cigarettes.) 

I came across the story via a twitter thread written by food writer and anti-poverty activist Jack Monroe. The writing was impassioned, angry and written from a place of personal experience – I quickly shared Jack’s anger at what was happening. There was also something that interested me from a digital/visual cultural point of view – many parents had sent Monroe photographs of the food boxes they had received. This was significant – the ability to make a visual record and provide evidence and then share this to an audience was a demonstration of changing power relationships within image making – these were real people able to make a direct challenge to the government and challenge power directly. Instinctively I saved a random selection of these images without any preconceived idea about what (if anything) I would do with them. 

After a period of a couple of months I kept thinking about the story and the way it was challenged in the days afterward. Despite a public apology by Boris Johnson in Parliament, a narrative emerged refuting the documentary evidence that had been provided – accusations that the images were not accurate representations or that the food parcels were not for the number of days stated abounded. What seemed at first as a powerful example of ordinary people challenging power had been turned into something else – seemingly there had been enough doubt sown to make people question what they had seen and be taken along by narratives that attacked the poor such as they should be grateful for anything they get or that they could not be trusted to spend money responsibly which is why they had to be given food parcels. I decided to make some work that tried to redress this. 

I wanted to incorporate image and text and allude to the language of photographic realism. First I converted the images to black and white and added captions selected from Jack Monroe’s Twitter thread. I also tried to a halftone effect to simulate news print but the low resolution of the images made them difficult to identify so this is not an approach I pursued:

Ill thought through, offensively meagre scraps
There seems to be a prevalent train of thought that if you’re in poverty you should be grateful for anything you can get
People in difficult situations are PEOPLE, no less ‘deserving’ of a good meal than anyone else
The vouchers were a good idea…mouthpieces on Twitter with there own austerity agendas claimed there was widespread misuse. With no evidence
The demonisation of the working class in this country has been in plain sight for years now. Programmes like Benefits Street, Jeremy Kyle, ill fortune as gladiator style entertainment
Because of a noisy few objecting with fabricated v rare examples of abuse of the system…the vouchers, which were a lifeline, have been replaced with a foodbox
Its value at supermarket prices is under a fiver. To replace a £30 voucher
Who is making an absolute fortune out of scamming the poorest and most vulnerable in our society now?
It’s always the people who can afford the least that are asked to bear the biggest burden

I wanted to push the idea of image and text further and literally embed the message contained in the captions onto the images so there could be no doubt about what people were looking at. I added text over the pictures using the Mono 45 Headline font (a bold typeface that I wanted to give the impression of newspaper headlines.) I applied a difference blending mode to the text which gave an interesting effect with the words have an inverted look. I like the way this looks, although some of the text is difficult to read it is still legible – I am undecided as to whether this adds to the overall effect or not:

Next, I experimented bringing all of the images together to show the complete narrative. First, I kept each image at the size they had been when I saved them and arranged in a haphazard fashion:

Next, I applied a grid to the blank canvas to act as a guide and changed the size of each of the images to make them as consistent as possible:

Although I like the different sizes in the first attempt, neither of these really work. Perhaps if I had a set of images that were the same size this would be an approach worth pursuing.

Lastly, I experimented with some layer effects to improve the legibility of the writing. First I applied a subtle drop shadow which helped improve the definition without being too intrusive:

Next, I applied a red colour overlay at 25% opacity – the effect I was going for here was to reference red top, tabloid newspapers with the image/text being in opposition to that sort of simplistic/sensational reporting:

I have been interested in the combination of image and text for some time and this is something that was a major part of my final assignment for my previous course, Digital Image and Culture. I am not sure if this will form part of what I want to make for my BoW, but think this is something I should definitely spend some more time researching and thinking about.

As a final point, unrelated to the experiments made here but relevant to thoughts about digital/social media photography and copyright, I came across this tweet by Twitter user @RoadsideMum who was credited with sending the first, and most widely reproduced image to Jack Monroe which is credited with starting the discussion:

Although my intentions are quite different from any news outlet that has used the image(s) without permission, credit or payment it struck me that I was still complicit in taking the images without credit and wondered what anyone connected with this would think about what I had done. It struck me that this was another example of power relationships that were unequal – copyright laws only work if you have the means to be able to defend them.


Jack Monroe (@BootstrapCook) Twitter thread


Blackhall, M. (2021) ‘What am I supposed to make with this!’ Parents on schools’ meagre food parcels. The Guardian, 12th January 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jan/12/what-am-i-supposed-to-make-with-this-uk-parents-on-schools-meagre-food-parcels (accessed 25th March 2021)

Bryant, J. (2021) Give Families Cash, Not Paltry Food Parcels. The Guardian, 14th January 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/jan/14/give-families-cash-not-paltry-food-parcels (accessed 25th March 2021)

Campbell, L. and Weale, S. (2021) Rashford: something ‘going wrong’ with free school meal deliveries. The Guardian, 12th January 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jan/12/not-good-enough-marcus-rashford-condemns-free-school-meal-packages (accessed 25th March 2021)

Dawson, A. P. (2021) Give families cash to feed their children – there’s overwhelming evidence it works. The Guardian, 16th January 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/commentisfree/2021/jan/16/give-families-cash-to-feed-their-children-theres-overwhelming-evidence-it-works (accessed 25th March 2021)

Elgot, J., Weale, S., and Butler, P. (2021) Fresh U-turn over school meals as Labour criticise guidance on parcels. The Guardian, 13th January 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jan/13/fresh-u-turn-over-free-school-meals-as-labour-criticises-guidance-on-parcels (accessed 25th March 2021)

Williams, Z. (2021) Jack Monroe on food poverty and fury: ‘I wake up, look at the news and get angry.’ The Guardian, 16th January 2021. At: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/jan/16/jack-monroe-on-food-poverty-and-fury-i-just-wake-up-look-at-the-news-and-get-angry (accessed 25th March 2021)

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