As Peters (2017: 565) observes in relation to education and post-truth, ‘(c)riticality has been avoided or limited within education and substituted by narrow conceptions of standards, and state-mandated instrumental and utilitarian pedagogies’. In order to cultivate a more critical and deeper appraisal of images and their role in innovative and progressive pedagogy and research, this article proceeds to build on the discussion so far. This section introduces a novel media and postdigital inquiry method, a production-signification-consumption (PSC) method. The method builds on the premise of the three sites of image meaning making developed in visual research methods: (1) production, (2) consumption and (3) the image itself (Rose 2006).
Production-Consumption Site, Intentionality and Image Digital Life
When tackling pictorial meaning in visual research methods, Rose (2006) talks about three sites of image meaning making that are important to be considered in picture interpretation and its effects in the society: the image production, the image itself (e.g. its materiality and composition) and the site of image audience who consume images. The PSC method builds on this aspect of visual research methods (Rose 2006). In terms of digital image production and reuse, human intent is important in defining the meaning and intentions ‘behind’ image uses. Some key questions aligned with image production and consumption inquiry as well as affect are here exemplified with the focus on photographs:
Photo-production critical questions:
Where does the photograph come from? Who is the source of information?
Can its origin be defined (could possibly be traced via Google Image ‘Search by image’ function (the photo camera icon))?
Who created it, why that author/organization/group?
Where was the photograph taken?
When was the photograph taken (era/decade/year)?
Why was it created and with what purpose?
Does it look staged; is it a stock photo?
Photo-production affect questions:
Photo-consumption and reproduction critical questions:
Who consumes the photograph? Who are the photograph’s intended consumers/audiences (this links to production)?
Is the site of the photograph consumption the same as the site of the primary photograph appearance, provided by the author and creator? How can we know this (Google ‘Search by image’ could provide some clues)?
What is the photograph’s digital life? How is it repurposed and reused on the Web, to serve what purposes? Does it appear everywhere in the same form or it is modified (e.g. into a hybrid sign such as meme)? Where (what digital platforms and media) has it been uploaded on (use Google ‘Search by image’)?
What words are used with it, what labels and descriptions? Are they similar or different, how do they aim to define the photograph, and with what effects on viewers-consumers?
Photo-consumption affect questions:
What are (can be) the affective reactions to the photograph consumption by various audiences? Why? Was this reaction intended by the person creating and/or the person uploading the photograph?
Could a dominant reaction be identified in particular groups and across groups and why? Is there any evidence of how viewers react to the photograph?
What are/could be the differences in reactions by different viewers, and why?
In today’s postdigital landscape of photographic upload frenzy, it can be hard to trace the digital life, birth and reauthoring of photographs, as they are readily appropriated, repurposed, modified, collaged and/or labelled with new texts. Even if some questions above are hard to answer, considering them supports critical reflection and acknowledges that complex factors contribute to visual media meaning making, but they are not transparent and readily available to the public. In the frantic digital production and dissemination medley, the visual has become a part of a power game and media wars, where careful orchestrations of film, television and advertisement production go around in global circles (Mirzoeff 2002).
Signification Site of the Image Itself Via Focused Inquiry Graphics Analysis
The signification aspect of the PSC embeds an inquiry graphics (IG) analysis (Lacković 2018), as it is aligned with Peirce’s tripartite sign explained above. Each of the triadic nodes (representamen-object-interpretant) focuses the analysis and inquiry on the sign as follows: the embodied representamen focuses the analysis on researcher’s, learners’ or participants’ observing, naming (as singular nouns) and listing of the embodied content of the photograph; the interpretant-led analytical step focuses analytical attention on the researcher’s, learners’ or participants’ interpretations; and the object of inquiry (conceptual object, research object) step focuses attention on the symbolic meanings linked to theory, research questions or pedagogic goal. Such an inquiry of the relations between graphic embodied representamen, its symbolic object and interpretations concerning a theory or concept is a central tenant of turning any graphic sign such as digital photographs into inquiry graphics. For example, an inquiry graphic activity would encourage learners or research participants to find or make photographs that can represent an aspect of an abstract concept, such as the broad concepts of democracy or social (in)justice or more specific concepts of constructivist learning in Educational Psychology. The steps of inquiry graphics are explained below as: (1) digital materiality and photo content naming (embodied representamen), (2) descriptive interpretations (interpretant) as denotation and connotation descriptions and (3) object of inquiry (conceptual/research/thematic object, what the photograph refers to in conceptual and theoretical inquiry terms).
Digital Materiality and Photo Content Naming (Embodied Representamen)
In terms of the pixelated truth of digital photographs, this means to define the highest or nearest level of isomorphism of a photograph’s digitally embodied representamen to its object (Nöth 2002). The nearest-to-truth representamen is the one that corresponds to what it depicts factually, that is, a point-by-point representation of what it shows (its object) (Nöth 2002). It means that no aspect of its projected point-by-point form has been modified within and just after the first photographic processing. We are all aware that photographs can be modified, filtered and enhanced. To decide whether a photograph promotes a lie or not by considering photo-users (producer/uploader/consumer), intention is important. However, this is a different consideration from considering the level of representational pixels near-isomorphism of the photograph itself.
By knowing that a digital camera modifies picture representation to however minute extent (image filters), the camera user makes a conscious choice that such a minute modification is acceptable. In a culture where digital modifications have become widely accepted and ‘seamless’, the distinction between actual reality and idealized reality is increasingly blurred, and every mobile camera filter user contributes to that, whether they have an intention to deceive or not. Issues can then arise when such minute modification becomes naturalized, to give way to another one, and another one, until the idealized is so normalized that it becomes the norm and an ideal ‘truth’. I am not talking here about specific uses of digital images such as digital art, games or scientific illustration purposes, as these merit another article, but daily uses of common photographs in social and news media. Again, it is hard to make conclusions about both photograph modification and producers’ intentions, considering today’s circulation of photographs and hybrid visual media, but these need to be considered and, importantly, discussed among learners and educators. It is worth contemplating that each photograph circulated in the media is potentially modified (e.g. the under-eye circles are casually airbrushed on the faces of women on magazine covers). Certainly, having a clear deceptive intention with an image is an offence at a completely different scale, compared to casual, personal and entertainment uses of digital and phone cameras. However, these subtle uses of images might have become and are becoming so seamless that they are contributing to a slow but steady change of our perception and sense of self and our surroundings. These kinds of changes are exactly what postdigital semiotics can help explore.
The article will now proceed to focus on the content of photographic representamen as a postdigital sign for the purpose of analysis. Imagine a photograph showing a person, let us say someone who looks like a man (could be of a different gender) being physically assaulted by some hands pulling this man from the back, and his face and facial expression are visible. An analysis of the photograph itself would start with identifying, naming and listing all individual elements shown in the photographic content (this is R = representamen-led interpretation). Elements are listed as singular nouns (a man, a jumper, a hand, a pavement and so on). Nouns as elements are used to state that something is present in the photograph. Considering details in photographs focuses the attention on how all the individual elements shown all equally contribute to the overall meaning making and can serve as springboards for creative and critical insights. Elements can be listed with regard to the elements’ positioning and to the space occupied (from larger to smaller spatial characteristics, e.g.: a man, a body, a face, an eye, a pupil and so on). Element naming can involve interpretative category variations (e.g. shoes or a shoe type such as sneakers or sandals). Element naming is an interpretative analytical step, just as all sides of the triadic relation are interpretative. Even more sense-nuanced aspects of representamen such as colour and shapes can also be the starting point of representamen-led naming and listing. The point is to first focus on the art of perceiving (Arnheim 1997). An example question for this step in the analysis would be:
Can you name, list and number everything you see, from bigger to smaller individual items (things or elements) represented (to the extent that can serve your analysis goals)? For a fine-grained analysis, note the smaller things that are a part of larger things (e.g. eyes-head-body, graphite-pencil, handle-mug and so on).
Do you think that this photograph has been modified in any way, and if yes, what might have been modified?
Descriptive Interpretations (Interpretant): Denotation and Connotation
Interpretant (I) analytical focus proceeds to describe the photograph in two distinct steps. These distinct steps build on Barthes’ (1988) semiotic distinction of denotation and connotation. A denotation level description of the photograph, adapted from Barthes (1988), would go on to describe the stated photographic elements: what they look like or do and what is happening to them (e.g. for the element ‘eye’: ‘the eyes look (seem) wide open’; ‘the man is wearing shoes; the shoes look worn out or brown’). These descriptions would take the form of ‘simple’ descriptions, with the frequent use of speculative verbs such as ‘seems’, ‘looks like’ and ‘is possibly’ with descriptive adjectives or adverbs. The use of speculative verbs as an open-ended description stresses that something one person sees and describes might not be the same as what someone else sees or might not be what it seems to be to the interpreter; hence, the heterogeneity of meanings is practiced. The denotative descriptions can be compared across interpreters to see what occurs in all learners’ (or research participants’) interpretations, if anything, and where the main differences arise or what is omitted.
Some of the key questions for this analytical step would be:
Can you describe what is happening in the photograph, by using words and constructs that signal individual interpretation such as ‘it looks like’, ‘it seems to me’ and ‘it is possibly’? This description is a simple level description that involves speculative verbs (seems, looks like), descriptive adjectives of states (open, closed, red, muddy, dry, small, etc.) and adverbs to denote what things or phenomena represented look like to individual interpreters at a basic level of interpretation.
What is not shown in the photograph, but it could have been? Do you feel that something is omitted/missing from the photograph, but it could be there?
The interpretation would then move on to connotation adapted from Barthes (1996), which is where the interpretative diversity starts to become more distinct. Further sociocultural meanings of denotative descriptions are assigned to the photograph by interpreters, e.g. when the denotatively described expression in the man’s wide-open eyes is interpreted as ‘victim’s discomfort and fear (the man in the photo becomes a victim as the roles of victims and perpetrators, powerful and powerless are socio-culturally assigned meanings to the described acts)’. At this stage, it is important to stress that various interpreters would have different interpretations of what sociocultural meaning is shown, determined by their background, prior knowledge, upbringing and experiences. The exploration of these connotative meanings can include these questions:
What do you think the sociocultural meaning(s) of the description is?
How do you know its cultural/social/national context?
What could the gazes (e.g. direct, away, upwards, downwards), body positioning and interaction of the people be suggesting, and what effects these can have on viewers?
What about the roles of the observed people, and what function would material things have (e.g. an observed woman could adopt a role of a student, teacher, manager, mother, housewife, scientist and prisoner; a heavy book can be a learning, art or assault object and so on)?
Why? Why do you interpret the look of this image or its element(s) to mean what you assign to it? What informs you? How have your social and cultural experiences informed the meanings assigned to this image?
How can we estimate the era/decade/year when it was taken?
What could have happened before and after the photograph was taken?
What are the possible alternative interpretations of the sociocultural meanings that were possibly intended and interpreted by you?
How would meanings change dependent on different viewers/context/place/time of consumption (e.g. if the photograph relates to your sociocultural context, would a similar photograph exist in your context, in what ways and what informs your claims? If it does relate to your context, how would it exist or be presented in other contexts?)
How have the represented things and their meanings changed historically, over time?
How do the interpretations you assign to this photograph make you feel?
These discussions would illuminate human embeddedness in the society and socially constructed meanings, as well as human vulnerability to accepting or seeking a truth in media information that most appeal to their prior knowledge, experiences and desires (Arnheim 1997), including the human need for certainty and stability in life, defined by class, economic, educational and demographic background. A digital photographic image is powerful in shaping the value attached to the external world, which can be used to enhance the packaging of the truths promoted in the public media. Photographic and pictorial connotations reinforced in the media have become so symbolically commercialized and status and success driven that they act as ideological signs, a Barthesian myth (Barthes 2009/1972). This also signals the political and ideological meaning of visual signs, for example, via the politics of pictures selected to be promoted in the news media, in education and in international curricula (Lacković 2010a).
It is important to be careful what can be claimed about an image in an image description, as suggestions need to be derived from careful act of perceiving and reflecting of what the image shows and what it does not show. For example, no photograph shows fear via its representational quality (digitally embodied representamen), but humans interpret it as such. That is why it is recommendable to use probabilistic verbs or at least signal this when interpreting. A photograph shows a material form, e.g. it could be a facial expression and action that we interpret as ‘fear’ or related to fear. This means that in a learning community, a teacher can ask students to explore these nuances of meanings and sociocultural practices. In the post-truth times, learners could, for example, find and analyse images on the same concept or topic on various websites or social media accounts that offer contradictory representations and interpretations.
Object of Inquiry: What the Photograph Refers to in Conceptual and Theoretical Inquiry Terms
In the final analytical stages of signification, the inquiry would tease out possible links between the image and the focal concept, theme or question in the inquiry. This educational concept is analytical (conceptual and research) object or the superimposed object of inquiry. It can be a concept assigned to an image, a theme, its claim to truth, a label given to the image or any statements in the media attached to it (perhaps in the news). The questions that will unpack the conceptual object of inquiry can be as follows:
How are individual image elements of embodied representamen and interpretant descriptions linked to the concept/theme/the chosen theory of inquiry or any truth claimed or statements about the photograph made?
What theoretical or conceptual knowledge can help illuminate the meanings and effects of the sign?
How can the characteristics of the listed individual elements and interpretant descriptions bring in new ideas and insights about the concept explored or the claims that the image is supposed to offer (e.g. via caption or text)?
Can I probe this concept further, stretch it and challenge it?
Teachers rarely encounter such approaches when preparing to teach. Inquiry graphics can help teachers go beyond assimilating visual media at the level of an illustrative role towards integrating those at a deeper learning level into subjects’ inquiry (Lacković, Crook, Cobb, Shalloe and D’Cruz 2015). The power and uniqueness of an inquiry graphics analysis are in creating this exploratory space in between a picture and idea, a possibility and actuality (Bruner 2009), for tackling sociocultural interpretation seriously. It is a space for considering possibilities for meanings at the intersection of the conceptual and the material, including previously unimaginable or unconsidered possibilities and solutions.
The proposed Peircean approach acknowledges the heterogeneity of sign-assigned meanings. This suggests that conclusions about a concept or problem or statement need to be consolidated from interpreters who usually represent opposites in terms of their views or experiences but are equally positioned as experts, producers and users in a field of inquiry. That is why more international and collaborative programmes in HE could provide potent opportunities for such inquiry and research. This also means that, for example, the reports of any national, Western, Eastern or any media would need to be questioned by learners and viewers if they highlight only one point of view (and commonly they do so). An inquiry graphics analysis usefully highlights the plurality of meanings via a systematic analytical approach, without succumbing to the relativization of truth. The complex inquiry graphics sign with superimposed inquiry object is presented diagrammatically in Fig. 3 and accompanied legend below.
Like any other method, this one has weaknesses. It requires practical decisions in terms of what to focus on in pedagogy or research, depending on the time available. This focus needs to be defined in terms of what aspects of analysis, theory or concept to explore. Of course, teachers and researchers will make practical decisions about what to apply and how often. The selective application and interpretation of Peirce’s semiotics were not applied to undermine or simplify the scope or complexity of Peirce’s work. It was applied to make it more accessible and applicable in higher education practice, not just within but beyond semiotic communities. This is a strength too. Another weakness concerns image accessibility and the slow progress of automated image screen readers for visually impaired and blind people. Although visually saturated social media such as Facebook and Instagram have introduced automated image alt text, more work needs to be invested in developing nuanced descriptive functions of a screen reader. The difficulty to do so only proves the complexity of human interpretation. Developing research into and platforms for a provision of an inquiry graphics semiotic naming of pictures’ representamen and interpretant’s denotation and connotation could help further development of image screen readers and artificial intelligence (AI).
PSC Analysis Applications: Methodological Designs and a Related Metamodel
A PSC inquiry method with photographs as inquiry graphics can be applied in both research and teaching practice in higher education. In both contexts, the PSC questions can be mixed with other visual methods such as photo elicitation (PE) or its sub-method photo-voice. A photo-voice inquiry could be realized by asking research participants or learners to provide their own choice of images, either found or taken to represent a concept/problem/theme that should be explored. Then, the researcher or teacher could devise questions that follow the PSC and IG analysis step (e.g. to name photographic elements, describe them, think of their sociocultural meanings and finally reflect on how all those elements individually and compositionally link to the inquiry concept(s), production and consumption). One possible way of exploring the life of photos is to try devising photo trails and understand how they are circulated – how and where they appear and reappear, for example, by using the reverse photo search provided by the Google Images search engine, as mentioned earlier in a few analytical questions. Clusters of pictures can be explored, for example, the ones that are labelled in a similar way or occur in clusters on the media, such as institutional websites or news media.
There would be some concept acting as a superimposed conceptual object over the image or images to focus the inquiry. By doing this superimposing of concept over image, the image-concept artefact or ensemble becomes a scientific-pictorial symbol, as the photograph gains a conventionally assigned meaning for the purpose of that specific inquiry. There are no adequate or right pictures for abstract concepts or media claims. All photographs and signs need to be first objects of inquiry, and not given objects of truth. This inquiry orientation challenges the assertion of truth claims, in education, just as much as in public discourse. In a teaching context, IG brings the materiality of the world into disciplinary conceptual domains, by prompting an understanding and exploration of the inherent link between the two (Deely 2007). By the sharing of meanings (between students and with teachers or by research participants), meaning making is externalized and becomes a central point in higher education practice, which supports both individual and collective knowledge development.
When it comes to pedagogical method designs, many methodological variations can be devised and applied. This depends on the teacher as they will shape it for their own needs. For example, one such design is exemplified as an image-based concept inquiry (IBCI) cycle (Lacković 2010b). It includes these steps: (1) teacher and students first agree on the concept/theme/truth as the starting point for exploration; (2) students find or create a photograph to show an aspect (concrete materialization) of the concept; (3) students write a narrative about how the photograph links to the chosen concept; and (4) students share and discuss their images via a multiple-image display with the community, preferably first with peers and then with the teacher providing their take on the pictures and concept. All images and narratives are shared in an online learning space, for example, a VLE or any other repository such as a blog or digital portfolio. Inquiry graphics analysis can open an entirely new space of thinking and imagination, also revealing that inquiring images is neither common nor easy. In a teaching context, it forms a destabilizing liminal feeling and zone, which becomes a prerequisite for transformational experiences at the end of the learning cycle (Lacković 2016).
Photographs, due to their representational quality that refers to the world’s materiality presented on digital screens or in print, need to be finally accepted not only as objects of both visual and socio-material cultures but also as scholarly objects (Hallewell and Lackovic 2017). This is aligned with the growing field of socio-materiality in relation to education (Silva 2019; Fenwick, Edwards and Sawchuk 2015), which argues that materiality is interlinked with social or scientific meanings and inquiry. PSC method can provide tools for unpacking relations at the micro-macro level of meaning and practice intersection. This final section is closed by positioning the PSC method within such an intersectional model, a dynamic relationality map (or a metamodel). This map or metamodel is similar to Bronfenbrenner's (1979) ecological model to human development, expanded with non-human entities akin to De Sardan’s (2005) notion of semiotic development. It can guide an exploration of photographs in postdigital education in relation to various theories and concepts that address the socio-material world (Fig. 4) and posthumanist research and pedagogy. The assemblages of pictures and concepts with its historicity, context, culture, emotions and social actors’ prior knowledge are emergent, evolving and relational to the environment. I use the hyphenated term socio-material to signal my view of a possibility to analyse parts of an emerging whole yet embracing its emergent and holistic character. Peirce’s synechism proposes the evolutionary and influential character of all signs, as signs-in-emergence through sign-action (Strand 2013). We can ‘freeze’ this emergence and pause accelerated hyper-visuality in education, not to worship it or deny its evolving character but to think, explore and unpack it.
Digital photographs and what individuals and groups do with them happen at the nexus of social, emotional, economic and technological practices and meanings (Lacković, 2019; Hurley 2019). Relations between organisms and environment are central to the existence in the world (Deely 2007) as complex and dynamic sign systems (Marais and Kull 2016; Maran 2006). This relational socio-material metamodel can be linked to various concepts and theories, in the so-called hard and natural sciences; in sociological, critical or posthumanist approaches; and in explorations of identity, politics, economy, ecology, technology, power and so on. The proposed metamodel is flexible to be embedded in theoretical or conceptual frames that researchers/students/teachers would choose. It signifies an (edu)semiotic turn beyond the Anthropocene in education (Olteanu and Campbell 2018; Stables, Nöth, Olteanu, Pesce and Pikkarainen 2018), to explore socio-material ecosystems’ relationality via the production, signification and consumption of postdigital signs.