CAN 2 Exercise 2.1

Cut out some pictures from a newspaper and write your own captions. How do the words you put next to the image contextualise/re-contextualise it? How many meanings can you give to the same picture? Try the same exercise for both anchoring and relaying.

Anchor Gingers are no longer social outcasts
Relay Harry and Meghan’s fairytale romance proves that redheads can find love.

Anchor Prince Harry to wed American divorcee
Relay Sixty-five years after Princess Margaret was forced to renounce her own divorced beau, Harry and Meghan’s nuptials have been given the go-ahead by state and church.

Anchor Beautiful woman to marry wealthy man
Relay “Looks are not important to me”, says gorgeous actress Meghan. “I love Harry because he’s the kindest and most intelligent person I’ve ever met.”

Original anchor ‘Essentially, the monarchy is corrupt’ – can republicanism survive the Harry and Meghan effect?
Original relay The campaign group Republic is committed to bringing down the House of Windsor, despite a wedding that may deepen the public’s emotional bond with the royals.

Anchor Move over boybands – the manband is here!
Relay Aiming to appeal to the now mature fans of 90s boybands, pop promoters Stock Aitken Waterman have reunited to launch new manband MenZZZ.

Anchor Men too embarrassed to tackle personal problems
Relay A survey of 6,000 men has revealed that a whopping two-thirds are too shy to seek help when they’re having difficulties.

Anchor Zumba fitness craze takes to the streets
Relay Keep-fit line-dancing phenomenon Zumba has found new fans amongst middle-aged men since street-based classes began this month.

Original anchor Chelsea racism scandal deepens as former players go public with claims
Original relay Two white players from 1980s youth setup back racism allegations.


I found the Roland Barthes texts associated with this exercise by turns enlightening, amusing and incomprehensible. As a sub-editor I’ve been writing or editing headings and captions (either of which might equate to Barthes’ anchoring text) along with standfirsts, subheads and body text (which could all be Barthes’ relaying text) for decades without ever analysing their structural functions in this way. Doing the exercise makes very clear the extent to which an anchor limits the interpretation of the image it accompanies as well as any relay text that is present. In the examples I created, none of the relay texts could be used with any other anchor. The anchor has constrained the scope of the presentation.

One thing that strikes me is that in the internet age there is an additional structural level to many texts, which could be called the lure. The role of the lure is to attract attention to the text (and hence the image), either by persuading a search engine to rank it highly or by acting as clickbait in a social media setting. This raises an issue that Barthes could not possibly have foreseen, which is that parts of a text are now written specifically for a non-human audience – a search engine’s algorithms and bots. Using, as Barthes did, a commercial situation as an example: if you are advertising a red t-shirt for sale and the accompanying image shows clearly that it’s red, you’d be unlikely to mention its colour in print, but for online titling and captioning this is essential, because the search engine needs to be told in text form that the t-shirt is red if you want it to include that information in deciding whether to present your t-shirt to someone googling “red t-shirt”. Of course, these lure texts must be intelligible and read naturally to humans as well as search engines, not least because they must avoid running foul of google’s semantic analysis tools and penalised as attempts to spam its algorithms, but the interesting thing about them in this context is that they are a new kind of text with a new function and a new status in a text’s structure.

References and resources

Barthes, R. (1977) ‘Rhetoric of the image’ in Image Music Text. Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd
Barthes, R. (1977) ‘The death of the author’ in Image Music Text. Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co Ltd