Playing with Subtitles: An Examination of Image and Text

René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (1928-1929) juxtaposes text and image in a way that draws attention to practices of looking, means of representation, and the roles text and image each have in constituting the other. Magritte’s work uses the image of a pipe only to deny its visual authority with the text that falls just below, which reads “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (In English: this is not a pipe). As such, the image of pipe is presented not simply as matter-of-fact, but with purpose and intention. As Lisa Cartwright writes in Practices of Looking, “Language and systems of representation do not reflect an already existing reality so much as they organize, construct, and mediate our understanding of reality, emotion, and imagination.” Typically this is effaced in today’s visually saturated culture, where image and text are usually used in a harmonious ways, in ways that reinforce the other; however they can be used to subvert each other with ease.

As Magritte’s work problematizes text and image, we thought it would be a useful starting point to play with and even subvert the subtitles typically accompanying images in daily newspapers, magazines, and those found on the web (See the photos below). John Berger in Ways of Seeing writes, “to look is an act of choice,” and, in many ways the subtitles (or, more particularly, the photo captions that we came across) served to emphasize particular ways of approaching the photos we selected. In a way, the caption brings certain aspects within the photo within epistemological reach, at times painting a very specific narrative for us.

Through re-arrangement, comical parody, and erasure we have attempted to expose the hidden relationships between text and image by essentially producing new signs with our chosen images. While creating new meanings, we have at the same time tried to open up the image to multiple ways of viewing by breaking the unlimber mold between text and image. In some of the images, we have literally collapsed image and text onto each other, in order to draw added connection to these two systems of representation. And it is through drawing out alternate significations from these images that we can better realize the un-static nature of them. To reiterate what Cartwright wrote, the altered photos never simply reflect an “already existing reality,” but rather are embedded — by humans — with meaning.

At the same time, we have not done this exercise to completely thwart the subtitle, since it does serve its purposes. As Atom Egoyan and Eric Balfour write, “Subtitles offer a way into worlds outside of ourselves. They are a unique and complex formal apparatus that allows the viewer an astounding degree of access and interaction.” In this sense, subtitles can help the blind viewer to see things they otherwise would not have been able to access had there been no subtitle, whether this is due to that person’s cultural differences or prejudices or some other barrier. This said, our play with subtitles exists with hopes of opening understandings of image and text in ways that keep images as sites of contest, not static, but instead as a fluid space wherein human imagination can continually draw new meanings and inspiration.
Justin Mah and Cindy McLellan

Subtitles Scrapbook
by Justin Mah and Cindy McLellan