It is no understatement to say that we live in an image-driven society. Adverts, magazines, televisions, shopping centers, computer-screens and the Internet constantly bombard us with images. Text plays a progressively inferior role as we rely increasingly on pictorial format: headlines, captions, at most a paragraph, now serve as contextual frames, rather than the focus of our attention.
(I suppose you may ask, why, in that case, is this issue not entirely composed of images? We might save that conceptual experiment for another time…)
The powerful influence of the image is felt everywhere. Research has shown that a huge 55% of first impressions are based entirely on appearance. This isn’t just a reflection of a superficial society; it is ingrained in our subconscious. Humans function as highly efficient image receptors, whereby colours, shapes and signs carry powerful symbolism and meaning. The media, fashion companies and artists exploit the potency of images and our involuntary and instinctive reactions to them.
From politicians winning campaigns based on the effectiveness of their visual marketing, to pieces of art that evoke overwhelming reactions from the viewer and become immortalized, there is no denying the power of the image.
The funny thing is, image is by definition insubstantial.
im·age [im-ij] noun, verb, im·aged, im·ag·ing.
1. a physical likeness or representation of a person, animal, or thing, photographed, painted, sculptured, or otherwise made visible.
2. an optical counterpart or appearance of an object, as is produced by reflection from a mirror, refraction by a lens, or the passage of luminous rays through a small aperture and their reception on a surface.
3. a mental representation; idea; conception.
4. psychology: a mental representation of something previously perceived, in the absence of the original stimulus.
5. form; appearance; semblance.
In other words: an image is a representation. The image is illusory. It is not real. Yet, it possesses extraordinary power in our society, culture and economy.
This notion resonates with a statement made by Guy Debord in his book ‘The Society of the Spectacle’:
But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence… illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.
Extending this notion, could we posit the image as more sacred than reality?
Fashion magazines that have immeasurable influence on the ways we cultivate our body image, (via how we dress, what we eat, how we aspire to look, who we idolize) are composed entirely of digitally manipulated images.
In the age of social networking, we are in a position of control to curate and conduct our appearances in a virtual world. First impressions can be wholly contrived by the choice of a profile picture. We can make ourselves look more attractive, wealthier, more popular and more successful at the click of a button. We form opinions on people based on the images they choose to upload and share.
These images are representations of non-reality. An image we seem to hold in higher regard than reality itself.
Have we reached a time where the image takes ultimate authority?