13 December 2017. The analysis of pictures can be fun. Sometimes it can be a silly pass-time, sometimes not. The semiotics is the serious part. In theory the semiotics of images – the study of signs and signifying practices in a photograph – refers to any particular thing that is purposefully or unwittingly placed within a frame, and that refers to something else, or that conveys particular messages that were not initially intended by the photographer.
There are several signifying practices which refers to how, as opposed to what, meaning is produced within a photograph. When viewing photographs, or any other image, for that matter, we identify codes (the Star of David is traditionally identified with Judaism, the Crucifix with Christianity, the crescent with Islam and so forth) or we impute codes or meaning into pictures. In this way, we almost re-interpret pictures by reading meaning into them. We do so on the basis of preconceived cultural understandings, biases, or cultural markers, very many of which we may not be aware of consciously. In these ways, meaning is attributed to images on the basis of cultural convention or linguistic preferences, twists and turns.
The following two pictures of Markus Jooste, the former CEO of Steinhoff who is believed to be responsible for the biggest corporate meltdown in South African history, seem easy to read. They are black and brown all over, with the slightest touches of gold (wrist watch) and light reflections off his shirt buttons. His concealed hands draw my attention.
In both pictures – the main ones that have been used in reports (See here and here) about the meltdown – Jooste is presented in sombre (dark) tones that, on the face of things, purport to reveal very little. But, they speak volumes if you consider the meanings of the dark colours, and of his hidden hand in the one, and concealment of both hands in the other photograph. It is this second reading that is quite startling.
The dark tones in the picture, especially the blacks and deep browns suggest seriousness, masculinity and strength. The range of colours also suggest a consistency or reliability. The painting on the wall tells us that this is deep money that needs no explanation or garish symbols of avarice and ostentation. An art historian may be able to read more into the painting. In these pictures, there is nothing ersatz or nouveau riche about Jooste. But we used to have a saying when I was growing up: “Hy kneip die kat in die donker.” Directly translated, it says he abuses the cat when it’s dark, and nobody can see what he is up to.
Colour symbolism is heavily dependent on context, and can change over time. (This is an easy read on the subject colours across cultures). Consider, in everyday life, stop signs are red (unless you’re a South African taxi driver, then it means go), green means go (except in South Africa it means wait for the taxi to run through the intersection). Some Muslims have a special affinity for the colour green, and if you believe rabid patriots the colours of their flag “don’t run”. The Christian bible (King James Version) uses colours to tell stories or give meaning. For instance the colour black is often used to refer to sin, death or sorrow.
Generally, yellow or orange is associated with sunshine or brightness; the sky with blue and green with vegetation. Brown, the most prominent tone in the Jooste images, suggest an earthiness, and also seriousness, comfort, material wealth and security. This is a neat combination of being “down-to-earth” – as Jooste has been made out to be – and an acute business mind. A combination of the settled, almost deadpan face, the brown and the hidden hands suggests that Jooste has done it all, seen it all, become stupendously wealthy and has nothing (further) to prove. There is also a “cleanliness” about the pictures, in the sense that it is devoid of anything ostentations; the slight view of a gold-coloured wristwatch is more suggestive than explicit. There are no bright colours in the pictures.
Jooste’s smile is unforced, almost absent, and his face is deadpan. His gaze is however cocksure. While there is little overtly triumphalist about the pictures, Jooste reminds me of the taciturn Big Paulie Cicero, Paul Sorvino’s character in GoodFellas, whose silent stares are, well, quite lethal.
Paulie is always cool and calm. He says very little, but he is a reliable boss. His only demand is that the mob’s code is never broken. Based on what his friends say of him, Jooste was well-loved, highly respected and, well, he made himself and others very wealthy – until he, himself, broke the code. I should probably add that his wrong-doings are all alleged. The pictures would be a fascinating study, more than what I have written, here. The easy part is the monotonous colours (the range is from black to brown) and the hidden hands.
Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist explained that a photograph told a story in the same way as a newspaper article. If an object meant something it became a speech. These photographs of Markus Jooste tell the story of a man who was confident, accomplished, reliable and wealthy – but his hidden hands also suggest that he may be hiding something, or that he cannot be trusted. Maybe that is just pop psychology. Or, it may also be part of what social psychologists may refer to as non-verbal behaviour or nonverbal communication.
Catching up with the news this evening, I found another picture online, in which Jooste hides one of his hands. It appears to be from the same shoot. I took a screengrab from The Times. (Source: https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/business/2017-12-08-what-wikipedia-is-saying-about-markus-jooste-its-not-pretty/)