Image Affordance: Are we seeing the same thing?

"It's not what you look at, it's what you see."

“It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see.”

When you look at any one of my photographs your perception of the image includes all of your life experiences and that of human history.

Yes, everything you’ve seen and learned, every innate survival instinct, and all of the connections you have to anything within the image is instantly brought forth by your brain so that the image can be understood.

It’s not that I believe that my images are the only ones to include all of this, every image does. In the field of visual communication, this is known as image affordance.

This was a new term to me six months ago. I took a class called Visual Communication. Our text was Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication, by Ann Marie Seward Barry. In it, the author states that, “Affordances expressed within images become keys to understanding. Transfer of meaning from artist to viewer relies on a common sharing of perceptual process and image affordance.” (Barry, Visual Intelligence, 1997)

From the moment of creation an image is a shared experiential representation of that moment and an individual interpretation that incorporates the reader’s relationships with the symbolism, history, and reality. Image affordance in visual communication relies on our collective experiences to assure that an image is understood.

It’s like this; we know that an image of a hot fudge sundae is not an actual hot fudge sundae, but because many viewers will have had the experience of eating a hot fudge sundae, the image can have the power to affect us physiologically, making us salivate or feel hungry. Affordance assure that this is an image of a food item that though presented two-dimensionally in media, the item is not flat, is likely rounded in shape, that the ice cream is cold and the fudge is hot. To the artist who created the image, the experience is different. Although they, too, may salivate when they view the image, the photographer’s additional experience of creating the image adds a dimension. It’s possible that the photographer took the photo of the hot fudge sundae but could not eat it. Perhaps the scene was set up by a food stylist and what appears to be vanilla ice cream is really mashed potatoes. The resulting image, however, remains intact in its intention and is only successful if the viewer knows what it is, or thinks they know what it is. Other affordances that might play a role in a viewer’s understanding of this type of image may include the viewer’s tendency to exaggerate size of a desired food or the presumed knowledge of the functions of retail ice cream shops, where to go, how to order, that it requires money; all are attributes that are present in the environment and necessary in understanding the image.

In discussing image affordance, declaring what is “necessary” to understand the purpose or context of an image, we must also realize that a viewer has to perceive an affordance exists in order to move to the next logical thought. In Don Norman’s book, The Design of Everyday Things: Revised & Expanded Edition, he attempts to clarify, “Affordances refer to the potential actions that are possible but these are easily discoverable if they are perceivable: perceived affordances. It is the signifier component of the perceived affordance that allows people to determine the possible actions.” (Norman, 2013)

As a photographer, I have been aware of the multiple possibilities of a viewer’s connection to an image I had created, but hadn’t been familiar with the term “image affordance.” A few years ago, I was in Mexico and saw a blue kayak on the beach and took a photo of it. When I see the photo now, I recall my experience taking the photo; my bare feet in the hot sand, my daughter just out of range, playing in the water, how we got to the beach by golf cart, had lunch at a great little restaurant on the on the beach and how I liked how the shadow of the palm tree seemed to touch the end of the kayak. I don’t have any particular affinity to kayaks or kayaking and couldn’t tell you anything about the one in the photo, except that I knew it was a kayak.

Blue kayak on Mexican beach

Blue kayak on Mexican beach

A viewer’s connection to the photo is likely to be very different. It is possible that the viewer reads this image with fear of water or with years of kayaking experience. It could spark emotions of anxiety or envy. Regardless of the emotions related to a scene like this one, a viewer would have to be aware of the perceived affordance, knowing what a kayak is and what it does, before any other attributes can be considered. Someone like me would see the sand, crystal water, the shadow of what is assumed to be a palm tree way before the kayak.

Visual intelligence digs deep into the potential for understanding any image. It brings with it question of culture and significance that go beyond the physical “thing” portrayed, making it a layered, complex influence on our existence.

When viewing an image through the lens of visual intelligence, with the knowledge of image affordance, an image of a hot fudge sundae or a kayak on a beach becomes much more. It becomes a tool to communicate a place in history – as in “oh remember when they used to put HOT FUDGE on ice cream?!” (this, in a few decades when hot fudge is banned). It’s a mutual understanding or a shared experience symbol. Our eyes perceive very quickly and our brains process with impressive accuracy, with no active attention on our part. Queues within images we see are immediately and often unconsciously interpreted. Image affordance fast forwards our brains to help us understand everything we can from an image without having to relearn every time.

Image affordance is a visual communication concept that can change the way you frame, shoot, and market your images.

Take a new look through the images you see every day. What must be understood for the image to be understood? A door? (navigation) Swimming pool? (recreation)  Grocery store? (merchandising) Interior of an airplane? (transportation).

Barry, A. M. (1997). Visual Intelligence. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Barry, A. M. (n.d.). Visual Intelligence: Perception, Image, and Manipulation in Visual Communication.

Norman, D. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition.

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