Written by Johanes Koraag
The World of Pictures
Today we live in a world filled with images. The screens of our gadgets are filled with images, both static and moving. Human eyes have been forced to stare, absorb, and understand the messages behind the thousands of images crammed into communication tools that propagate the messages that certain parties want to convey. It has been proven that photos can evoke stronger reactions than words in the human brain. Images communicate differently than text, as photographs are absorbed more quickly and are generally received more emotionally. Text, it is argued, “requires a linear logic, while visuals elicit a spontaneous emotional response” (Schwalbe & Dougherty, 2015, p. 142).
At least 95 million photos and videos are posted on Instagram each day. Social media facilitated by the Internet has become a means of communicating with various attractions that are abundant. This can distract our focus and affect our productivity at work. Without realizing it, our brains are forced to constantly update the information presented, promising the material we want until finally, our brains are no longer able to process due to too much incoming information.
There are two ways to communicate or convey messages: verbal and non-verbal communication. Images, which are classified as non-verbal communication, have long been used by humans to communicate with each other. This is proven by the discovery of cave paintings that are thousands of years old. History has shown that vision has a great impact on the human mind.
Image as an Element of Visual Communication
An image is able to capture and immortalize the atmosphere, and scale of a concept or idea that is difficult to communicate in words. Things that are still abstract in the form of concepts of thought, will be clearer if conveyed in the form of images. Communication efforts with images can close the miscommunication gap. Civilization has proven that the sense of sight greatly impacts the human mind and has triggered the development of creative ideas in humans.
Ever since hunter-gatherers were still living in caves, they have used images as their medium to preserve memories. Images are a way for humans to crystallize events and ideas outside themselves (Laseau, 1980). The images created by humans actualize the inner world, myths, and wishful thinking contained in their minds. Images as expressions of thoughts have become an important part of human life. Vision is a sense that provides fast and complete information. In addition to utilizing the eyes as the primary means of understanding the world, humans translate information received by other senses into visual impressions. Thus, in many ways, the sense of sight also functions as a translation of the other senses. (Istanto, 2000).
The use of icons or images on our gadgets is a repetition of ancient communication methods. When words are no longer effective to use, we return to using images that can represent the message we want to convey. The Egyptians used hieroglyphs which are images or signs that function as words in the ancient Egyptian writing system. It is fitting that a wise man of the past said “There is nothing new under the sun.” This way of communicating using images and icons, which has been used effectively in the past, is being reused in this digital age.
At the September 27 Wednesday Forum held by CRCS and ICRS, Elis Zuliati Anis, a lecturer from Universitas Ahmad Dahlan, share her research about the use of pictures to communicate the message about the environmental damage that occurred in tropical forests in Riau province. The Sumatra forest fires in 2015 were the most catastrophic forest fires in Indonesia in the last fifteen years. Riau Pos reported that 2.6 million hectares of land burned in Indonesia from June to October 2015. Nineteen people died as a result of the fires, approximately half a million people experienced severe respiratory infections, and 43 million people were exposed to smoke (Kompas, 27 October 2015). As someone who is used to seeing an event through the lens of her camera, Elis tried to understand the role of photographs taken from the disaster site in constructing public perceptions of disaster response and management carried out by the local government. Elis highlighted the impact of the publication of disaster photos distributed by Indonesian news agencies visually representing the state’s participation in disaster response.
Elis studied how Indonesian journalists shape society’s perception of disaster response and management through image selection. She finds that there is an intention in image selection to build a positive impression in the community and that the government has worked seriously to tackle the forest fires that occurred. The photos showing high-ranking officials in Riau province directly fighting the forest fires can be understood as a deliberate attempt by the government to build a positive image in the eyes of the public. The use of a semiotics approach for her analysis is intended to broaden understanding of how the idea of disaster is constructed through photographs and to identify possible meanings that viewers construct as they interpret the photographs.
Elis also highlighted the publication of photos of religious activities, such as joint prayers in the field conducted by government figures in Riau to ask for help from God to deal with the ecological disaster they are facing. The use of religious photos in the middle of the Riau community, which is predominantly Muslim, is an attempt to build an image that these officials are faithful and godly. This is an attempt to cover up the violation of environmental ethics that they have committed, namely by granting permits to clear forest land to be converted into oil palm plantations. The companies that obtain these land conversion permits clear the land before planting oil palm by burning the remaining roots and wild plants. This shows that the published have been chosen in order to build a positive perception among the public that the government has responded to this environmental disaster as well as possible, even involving God in its implementation.
Elis’ use of a semiotic approach in her research analysis was intended to broaden the understanding of how the idea of disaster is constructed through photographs and to identify the possible meanings constructed by viewers as they interpret the photographs. Because photographs are a particular type of communication that differs from text in that they attract more immediate attention than words. Photographs are not merely passive captures of the world but can be active constructions with particular agendas.