I used to think that this was just something we all told each other in high school when our Art teacher didn’t like our project. As it turns out, it’s actually somewhat true. Sturken and Cartwright discuss this, the idea that the viewer is ultimately the one who decides the meaning of an object, in the second chapter of their book, titled “Viewers Make Meaning.”
In the chapter, they give three things that are crucial to the production of “meaning.” The first is the “codes and conventions that structure the image and cannot be separated from the content of the image.” What this really means is that everything we deal with on a daily basis has a meaning. A chair is meant to be sat in, a bed is meant to be slept in, a tree is meant to grow in the ground to be big and tall. These meanings are universal so long as you focus on contemporary cultures. In an image, the viewer is going to immediately associate things that they are familiar with with the meanings their culture put on it.
The second element necessary for the production of meaning is “the viewers and how they interpret or experience the image.” Certain images can cause us to remember specific events. Depending on what these events are, they can make us feel very sad, happy, or in-between. Those emotions then play a part in the way we view the image.
The third element that Sturken and Cartwright discuss is the “context in which an image is exhibited and viewed.” If a picture is viewed in a dump, no matter what it depicts the viewer is probably not going to be able to think about anything other than the fact that they’re looking at an image in a dump.
Here is a quick little video about Media and how who we are, what we like, and what we know can change the meaning of media for each of us as individuals:
The content of an image also greatly impacts the viewer. One example of this is when there is text in an image. What the text says can play a very important role in the way someone views the image. Producers of images have many means of evoking certain reactions out of their audience, but at the end of the day it is the viewer who gets to decide the meaning.