Decoding Images and Image Rhetoric According to Roland Barthes


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Separating the perceptual image from the cultural message. Image by Pilottage

How do the Messages Work Together?

The linguistic message serves to anchor or direct the viewer away from a number of possible meanings that may emerge from the image and towards the intended meaning.

The linguistic message can be separated from the other two iconic messages, but because the non-coded and coded messages have the same iconic substance, it is more difficult to differentiate between them – the reader consecutively receives a perceptual image and a cultural message.

Barthes emphasizes though, that it is important to separate the two in order to understand the final relationship between the messages and the image as a whole, in the same way that it is necessary to differentiate between the signifier and the signified in a linguistic sign.

Interpreting Images

Overall, connotation within an image has the same effect on the denoted message as the caption or written text has on the photograph. It guides the viewer away from the literal image and its message and towards the intended message of the overall image. Thus, Barthes provides a useful tool for analyzing images and for understanding and appreciating how, through forethought, the compositor sends messages that are persuasive and convincing.


Barthes, R. The Rhetoric of the Image. Éléments de sémiologie. (1964). Communications 4, Seuil, Paris.

Barthes, R. Elements of Semiology. (1968). Hill and Wang, New York.

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