I have been reading a fascinating book about various strategies for studying the meaning of images: Visual Methodologies by Gillian Rose. Various approaches covered include compositional analysis, content analysis, psychoanalysis, semiology and discourse analysis. It struck me how ripe Watchtower imagery would be to such scrutiny, and how subtle trends in ideological emphases may be identified through the visual iconography that may be less apparent in the overt expositions of Watcthower written texts. I know that Joel Elliot has already applied a form of discourse analysis to Watchtower images, with promising results:
But there is so much more that could be derived from the data available. I was particularly interested in Rose's discussion of a study of the National Geographic magazine that utilized content analysis to explicate the tendency of that publication to present an idealized portrayal of non-western people as in harmony with their environment, happy, hard-working and peaceful. The study by Lutz and Collins, Reading National Geographic, also explains how the presentation of non-western cultures was shaped by domestic concerns and political events in the United States: for instance, as the Vietnam war escalated the number of pictures showing Westerners with non-Westerners decreased dramatically, indicating a reflexivity to the potentially uncomfortable connotations such collocations might create in the context of increasing international conflict involving western and non-western combatants. Such patterns were identified by isolating meaningful codes in the pictures, quantifying them, and comparing them over time.
One of the most interesting illustrations in the Watchtower literature I keep coming back to time and again is on pages 84-85 of the Worship the Only True God book - it is so rich in meaning. It is a resurrection scene involving a young girl of around 7 or 8. Contrary to the statements of the Society that the resurrection will be orderly (i.e. most recent deceased first and so on stretching back at set intervals), the whole family are startled at the return of the girl up the garden path. Why are they taken by surprise - is it really thought that the dead will return in such a sudden and haphazard fashion? Other pictures have often shown loved ones reunited in the graveyard - where the living had obviously gone in expectation of the immanent resurrection (i.e. indicating order). So why is the timing and circumstance of the resurrection of this little girl presented as unanticipated? It seems that dramatic effect was deemed more important than strict doctrinal consistency for the composition.
Then there is the grandfather leaning out of the window with a magazine in his hand. Is this supposed to indicate that there will still be Watchtower studies of a sort in the new system? I have not seen Witnesses in the new system portrayed as studying (worshipping, singing or praying for that matter) elsewhere in the literature. So this is an interesting little addition.
Then there is the father with the younger child following behind the ecstatic mother. Notice his outstretched arm - what does it signify? It shows that the young boy (who cannot be more than 3) has been informed about the death of his older sister and that he knows she will come back to life. The message is that the new system and the resurrection are to be taught to very young ones so that "it is real" to them.
Then there are the two aunties in the picture. Both appear unmarried, especially the one with the broom in her hand who rather oddly "hugs" the wooden support of the house as she looks on at the resurrection scene. Has she given up on the opportunity for a sexual relationship leading up to the new system in order to put "kingdom interests" first? There is something rather cruel about her physical contact with an inanimate object in this context where the others have such strong emotional relationships. In the new system, are domestic chores really representing her only outlet?
Whereas many new system pictures have vast dramatic backdrops with mountains and scattered housing, the distance is intriguingly obscured in this illustration by a hazy outline effect. This focuses attention on the human relationships illustrated - an interesting departure from most new system iconography in which the people almost blend in with the animals, plants and landscape, thus underplaying the intensity and particularity of the human condition with its rather complex and (in Witness ideology) uncomfortable interconnections with notions of sin and imperfection. Rather than blending in with inanimate creation, the people here are allowed to stand out in stark and human contrast to their surrounds. Decorative flowers are being cultivated rather than utilitarian fruit and vegetables, and the only animals pictured are domesticated horses rather than the usual idealized tamed large cats, bears and deer. The house actually looks lived in, rather than being a cardboard cut-out, and the barn in the background indicates genuine economic activity.
But the most fascinating part of the whole picture must be the man riding past the house on his bike. Notice how he waves: observe how no one responds. Who is he? Are they simply preoccupied with the resurrected youngster, or is there a more sinister undertone to his exclusion? What message is his presence intended to convey? I have my own theories, but I would love to find out if others come to the same conclusion.