What is seen in an image

Just as individual people might not follow the writer's intended meaning in a spoken or written statement, equally so in images. A recent string of chats including myself in the local writer's group got me to realize that quite clearly, when one of the women of the group showed off the cover of her new book: the cover was artistically done and included some undefinable abstract background along with the bare back of a well muscled man; the women there all admired the cover as exciting, stimulating fantasies of romance.

But what I saw was quite different.

What popped into my mind when seeing that cover image was a memory of when I was a child, riding with my parents on a long trip, and it was somewhere in the south-eastern states or Kentucky/Tennessee I think - we suddenly came across a chain gang. The men each had heavy iron rings around one ankle and they were all tied together by a big iron chain. And they all had sledgehammers and were breaking up rocks alongside the road. In particular I recall two huge men, bare backed like that cover image, tall and muscled young men, holding their sledgehammers; one was a black man and the other an equally large blond giant. And they would raise their sledgehammers and whack at a big rock, then pause and glare with venomous hatred at each other a moment. Then they would raise their sledgehammers and bang the rocks again, then glare a bit. Over and over, as we slowly drove past in the traffic. Off to the side, a guard wearing a gray bland uniform stood casually, yet with a shotgun in both hands as if ready to quickly shoot a rabbit that might pop up, but probably only had his eyes on the prisoners. It was called "sentenced to hard labor" back then. The unwritten story of the evident hatred of the two men as they bashed so hard, got stuck in my imagination as something to be figured out later.

I had forgotten about that childhood memory until seeing that cover's image. So, not everybody sees the same thing in a cover art.

And also in retrospect, the memory says something about the history of some of that crushed rock gravel that lines the roads.

The main point here is that one cannot count on images, any more than on words, to convey an intended meaning equally to all people. The effect can also be used deliberately, as in the well-known "Rorschach Ink Blot Test" where sillouettes are shown to a person and then given options of what the image is portraying.

This is an important aspect of communication, that the sender's message evokes an interpretation dependent on the receiver's nature and current dynamic state, in both words and images - and probably in other sensory systems too.

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