Exercise 2: Appropriation and recaptioning
Out: Wednesday, January 28
Due: Sunday, February 1, 11:59pm


Do images have intrinsic meanings?  Ernst Gombrich said that "No image tells its own story" (The Image and the Eye, 1982).  He argued that the interpretation of an image is determined by code, caption, and context.  The code is the set of stylistic conventions used by the viewer's culture to communicate common meanings.  For example, in horror movies whose faces are lit from below are usually bad people.  The context is the whole set of assumptions the viewer brings to the image about the time and place of its making, its intent, etc.  A photograph of a soldier with camo paint on his face will be interpreted very differently if the viewer sees it in an army recruiting station than if she sees it in a Greenpeace office.  Finally, the caption is the text an author adds to an image to direct the viewer's interpretation.  Captions are critical, especially in political media.  Imagine, again, the image of the soldier.  Providing it with the caption "A man's job is to defend his family" would make the image mean something very different from "I risked my life for you/Now you cut my medical benefits".

Captions can also be deliberately ambiguous.  If we caption the soldier with "You're next", it could be variously read as a warning to terrorists, dictators, or college students who would be sent to Iraq if the draft is reinstated.  In many cases, an artist might deliberately aim to confuse the viewer this way so as to make them stop and think.  Their goal might not even be to get the viewer to agree with a specific viewpoint, but to force them to come to their own conclusions.

In this assignment, you will add captions to found images that in subvert or in some other way alter their original meaning (if any).  The result should make a powerful statement about some issue you have strong feelings about, be it politics, sports, fashion, Linux, or Chicago weather.  The point is that it should be something you really care about.

If you can't think of anything you have strong feelings about, you need to get out more.


Both these sources are leftist, but if anyone can find right-leaning or non-political examples, please let me know.  I'd love to include them.  Remember: this isn't about imitating Barbara Kruger, it's about finding your own voice.

Issues to think about


For this assignment, you will need:

Go to google or some other web site that supports searches for images, and search for images having to do with the topic that annoys you.  Find an image that you want to recaption, and copy it into a Word document.  Adjust its size or shape however you deem appropriate, and then use the drawing tools add a caption to the image; choose Toolbars from the View menu and select Drawing; the drawing toolbar will likely appear at the bottom of the screen; the icon of a printed page with a large T allows you to create a text box on top of an image.   The Rotate item in the Draw menu allows you to tilt the caption.

You should explore different phrases, placements, fonts, sizes, colors (both foreground and background), angles, etc. change the way the caption relates to the image.  You may want to put the page into landscape mode (i.e. turn it 90 degrees so that it's wide and short rather than narrow and tall).  You may also want to include multiple captions over the single image or to break your caption into separate segments located in different parts of the image.

Your work will be critiqued by your fellow students but you will not be allowed to provide commentary explaining the piece, so the piece must be clear and rhetorically self-suffiicient.

What to turn in

We're having you do this exercise in Word because Sodipodi doesnt' deal well with images and everyone has access to word or some equivalent of it (if you don't, come talk to us).  However, that means that you'll be turning in .doc files, which require some care in order to prevent viruses from being spread by them.  For this reason, you must update your virus protection software and do a virus scan before submitting your assignment.  If you submit a virus contaminated file, you will receive a 0 for the assignment.  You should have virus protection software as part of the normal Northwestern software suite, but if for some reason you do not, you can download it for free from here.

Having completed the exercise and checked your machine for viruses, you should anonymize your assignment by removing your name from the author field of the properties dialog.  This is so that other students will not be able to tell whose work they're viewing when doing critique.  Choose Properties from the File menu click the Summary tab (if it isn't already selected) and delete your name form the Author field.  Then click ok.

Once you've insured that your file is free of both viruses and identifying information, upload your file in word format at the course submission website by the end of Sunday night.


The second part of this assignment will be to critique the word of your fellow students.  We will be using blind reviewing, meaning that you won't know whose work you're critiquing and they won't know who critiqued their work.  We'll be giving more information on critique later, but for the moment, just keep in mind that you need to insure that your work is comprehensible to others.