Tag Archives: John Berger

4.1 Looking at Advertisements

For this exercise we are asked to read one of OCA tutor, Dawn Woolley’s articles on advertisements and write up blog post or comment on the site in response.

I have chosen Dawn Woolley’s posting on the selfie which can be seen here. The article originates from a paper that Dawn presented at a conference where she argued that “‘selfies’ could disrupt gender and ‘ideal body’ stereotypes as well as reinforce them”. The article makes reference to a Mexican advert for Tecate beer. The ad is in Spanish so one is forced to visually look carefully at the ad and not rely on any wording.

The opening scene of the ad features a young man dressed in grey standing in a likewise grey corridor about to enter an elevator. Upon entering the elevator he immediately starts to take selfies of himself, pouting at the camera. I believe this expression is called ‘duck face’. A very gravelly voice interrupts him and he turns to look into the craggy features of Sylvester Stallone who sternly admonishes him to watch more boxing. The young man’s phone then starts ringing exuding a very girly tune and he panics and hits the alarm button on the elevator. The theme tune from Rocky then blares loudly, the scene changes to that of a panorama of a boxing tournament with the product logo displayed quite prominently on the jumbotron overhead. The scene then changes to a closeup of two brightly clad, sweating and bronzed bodies of the boxers. The final frame shows four Mexican boxing champions flanking Stallone who once again exhorts the viewer to watch boxing. Only in the final sentence by the narrator is the product actually mentioned.

According to Woolley, Mexico has produced the most boxing champions in the world and this is a national source of pride and various programs have been instituted to introduce youths to the sport and instill a sense of discipline in their lives.

The Tecate beer advertisement … is an antidote to femininity. Because the man in the advert is taking selfies it is suggested that he isn’t ‘manly’. It reinforces the idea that men’s selfies are unacceptable because they are narcissistic.

Peter Conrad in his podcast The Selfie states that ever since Narcissus we have been obsessed with overcoming the blind spot in our optical system which prevents us from seeing ourselves. he goes on to related that Freud writing about narcissism stated that narcissism is a misdirection of erotic energy which madly aspired to the immortality of the ego. A century ago Freud had classified selfie taking as a sexual perversion.

According to Conrad people are trying out various personae (when they take selfies) and in the process they may disclose some spectral, hypothetical identity. The selfie has no interest in scrutiny; it is a mode of self-advertisement, not self-appraisal.

The use of colour in this ad has significant reference. Grey is a neutral colour which ties in with the shall we call it “gender confusion” in the opening scenes. Stallone’s appearance in the elevator is very distinctive. He is dressed in a formal black suit putting his character squarely in the “very manly” category. While the boxers in the ring, their seconds and the referee are dressed in vibrant reds and blues. The very setting of the boxing ring is vibrant and alive with bright lights, reveal to the viewer that this is a place where real men come together.

I am reminded of John Berger’s words in Ways of Seeing:

A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible, he is found to have little presence. The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual – but its object is always exterior to the man.

Reference List

Berger, John (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

Conrad, Peter (2014) The Selfie Episode 9 of 17 [online] 21st Century Mythologies. BBC 4 Podcast 11 mins 59 secs. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04kfk1r [Accessed 26 February, 2017]

Woolley, Dawn (2015) Looking at Adverts: 10 [online]. WeAreOCA. Open College of the Arts. Available at: https://weareoca.com/photography/looking-at-adverts-10/ [Accessed 26 February, 2017]


Ambiguity in Photography continued

I was having a reread of John Berger’s essay “Appearances” this morning when I learnt of his passing. So sad to think that wonderful writing style has forever been silenced! RIP John Berger – the art world will surely miss you.

I’m still exploring the concept of ambiguity and as pointed out by a fellow student, Berger’s essay deals with this topic as only Berger can. Below are just some brief notes from the essay.

  • Every photograph presents the viewer with two messages:
    • a message concerning the event photographed
    • a message concerning a shock of discontinuity
  • Between the moment the image is recorded and the moment that the image is viewed or looked at is what Berger calls an abyss.
  • The ambiguity of a photograph doesn’t reside within the instant of the event which is photographed. The ambiguity arises out of the discontinuity.
  • There is a fundamental difference between images in our memory and the photographic image. Images that we remember are “the residue of continuous experience” while “a photograph isolates the appearances of a disconnected instant” (p. 57).
  • Meaning is discovered in the connections.
  • Meaning is a response.
  • Meaning and mystery are inseparable and neither can exist without the passage of time.
  • While certainty may be instantaneous, doubt requires duration. Meaning is born of the two.
  • According to Berger, all photographs are ambiguous. All photographs have interrupted a continuity. If the event photographed is public, then the continuity is history. If the event is personal, then the continuity is a life story. Even landscapes break a continuity – that of light and weather.
  • Discontinuity always produces ambiguity.
  • Appearances distinguish and join events.  To recognize an appearance requires one to remember other similar appearances. “One image interpenetrates another” (p.71).
  • There is an expectation of meaning attached to the action of looking at images. It is this search for meaning using our own cultural choices/experiences that differentiates the meaning of the image.

Photographer unknown, Man with his horse, date unknown

Andre Kertesz, A Red Hussar Leaving, Budapest, June 1919
Andre Kertesz, A Red Hussar Leaving, Budapest, June 1919


  • Berger likens this search for meaning in an image to a literary quotation. In comparing the two images above, it is very obvious that the amount of information one can glean from the second image (Red Hussar) is significantly more than that of the first image. “Looking at the man with the horse, we have no clear idea of what has just happened or what is about to happen. Looking at the Kertesz, we can trace a story backward for years and forward for at least a few hours” (p.75).

This difference in the narrative range of the two images is important, yet although it may be closely associated with the “length” of the quotation, it does not in itself represent that length. It is necessary to repeat that the length of the quotation is in no sense a temporal length. It is not time that is prolonged but meaning.

(Berger, p. 75)

  • The photographic event triggers an idea and this in turn, urges the viewer to dig deeper in his/her memory bank to build on the meaning. The event and the idea are actively connected.
Reference List

Berger, John. (2013). Understanding a Photograph. 1st ed. New York: Aperture Foundation