Saturday 24 April 2004

The answer

Billboard for showing young woman looking wistfully over her shoulder as she hugs her boyfriend with the ocean in the background and the caption Jesus is the answer

A photographer for nearly twenty years, I thought I could read pictures, particularly easy ones, like advertising billboards. The fact that my alt text is unusually long suggests that this one—or rather its intent—mystifies me:

Billboard for showing young woman looking wistfully over her shoulder as she hugs her boyfriend, with the ocean in the background and the caption "Jesus is the answer"

The Jesus is the Answer website explains:

The Men of Integrity ministry are running a national outdoor advertising campaign called ‘Jesus is the Answer’ using 24 sheet (6 metre x 3 metre) billboards. It is designed to give a stronger voice to Jesus through a simple yet powerful Christian message ‘Jesus is the Answer’.

This campaign aims to reach the majority of hard to get people with time-poor fast-paced lives. Outdoor advertising is seen and remembered by a greater proportion of 16 to 44 year olds. Especially low media consumption youth audiences, time-poor executives, management, professionals, white collar commuters and shoppers of both sexes.

Men of Integrity’s aim is to present Jesus as the answer in an ever increasingly demanding and self centred life. You best serve man by showing him that God remembers and cares about him.

Jesus is the door to love without conditions.

‘Jesus is the Answer’ Billboards will give people the reminder, invitation and open door to come home to Him. So those who feel lonely, judged, separated, suffering with fear may know Jesus’ compassion and unconditional love for them.

Young woman looking anxiously over her shoulder as she hugs her boyfriendI think I’m in some state of awe at how skilfully the photograph—and, by extension, the billboard—has been constructed:

  • the two bodies, merged into one, as a symbol of the love relationship between the girl and her boyfriend;
  • the wistful (regretful? dissatisfied? anxious?) expression on her face, signifying her loneliness, her sense of being judged, her feelings of separation and fear—precisely at the moment most young woman might have imagined as the fulfillment of all their dreams—being held tightly in the arms of the man they love;
  • the limitless ocean of God’s love in the background and the implied suggestion that human love is an illusion, that Jesus’ unconditional love is the only love worth committing to.

It’s undeniable that, for a significant proportion of the population, Jesus is the answer “in an ever increasingly demanding and self centred life”. But isn’t it clear to Christians and non-Christians alike that the engine of our “self-centered life” is fuelled primarily by the relentless pursuit of material things and worldly success? Not by human love and affection, wherever one may find it or however it is expressed.

Am I getting this wrong? Am I missing something?

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The empty beach and the faceless lover are part of the iconography of daydream fulfilment beloved of car and perfume adverts - maybe this is pointing out the emptiness of such daydreaming...?

Posted by gabriel on 25 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

This is just a much easier sale than a "stop pursuing material things" ad. Everyone has experienced pain involving love, they don't have to convince someone that human love can bring pain. But they'll have a hard time convincing most people that more money won't solve their problems.

Posted by scott reynen on 25 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I'm sorry, what was the question again?

Posted by Dave Rogers on 25 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Isn't the real message, at least of the picture of the billboard in it's natural setting, that Jesus is just one more commodity to sell, from $1 per week?

I'm just a little surprised that it's not jesuschrist.COM, though.

Posted by loren on 25 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

"Am I getting something wrong?"

Since you mentioned ALT text ... Yes, your ALT text is misguided. You're describing images when you should be replacing them. Listen to this sentence, for example: "Young woman looking anxiously over her shoulder as she hugs her boyfriend I think I'm in some state of awe at how skilfully the photograph — and, by extension, the billboard — has been constructed". Oops.

Most of the images on your site (like the site logo, for example) are inessential illustrations, so their ALT text should be "". This article, unusually, is *about* a photo, so for the first image you could have something like: "I recently took a photo of a billboard advertising the site. It shows a young woman looking wistfully over her shoulder as she hugs her boyfriend, with the ocean in the background. The caption reads 'Jesus is the answer'." The second image is inessential to the meaning of the article (someone reading your article on the radio wouldn't mention it at all), so it should have ALT="".

"Am I missing something?"

Perhaps you could consider the possibility that Christianity developed as a means of atonement for the relentless pursuit of material things and worldly success, rather than as a replacement for it. After all, the latter is about five times older than the former.

Posted by mpt on 26 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

"I'm sorry, what was the question again?"

It's not important. Ignore the man behind the curtain.

Regardless, I'm pretty sure the answer is actually '42'.

Posted by stavrosthewonderchicken on 26 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

OK, I feel like a complete idiot, but where's the alt text? Isn't that what you see when you hold your mouse over something? I'm not finding it anywhere except where you quote it.

Posted by language hat on 27 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

LH, ALT text should only show when the image isn't rendered, such as with a text-based browser, speech browsers for the visually impaired, and if the image can't be displayed for some reason. (At least, this is the behavior in well behaved browsers.) The TITLE should show if you move your mouse over the image and if a TITLE is provided.

MPT, you don't understand the importance or concept of graphical illustrations if you consider them 'inessential'. I suggest you read some Sebald to see a master in their use. It is just these types of illustrations that require ALT annotation; otherwise the visually impaired will miss out on the subtle complementary message implied with these images.

As for the focus of the post: being neither Christian, nor having much of what you term the "...relentless pursuit of material things and worldly success", I don't feel I am best qualified to answer your questions, Jonathon, though I'm not sure you're looking for answers as much as insight. But I do see a strong association with the image, the message, and even that self-centered drive. All are based, to some extent, on insecurity.

To me the young woman seems fragile, vulnerable -- a state many of us live in regardless of how tough an exterior we show to the world. Rather than a clasp of love, her hold on her lover could also be seen as a desperate attempt to hold on to that, which she is afraid of losing.

The message could imply that she can safely let go because there is something bigger, more vast, that will hold her, and keep her safe; the same as she can let go of the desperate pursuit of material things and success, as these, like the young man, cannot provide real security. Or real safety in a world gone horribly mad.

Pulling this concept back into an environment we all share, we can equate the relentless pursuit of material things and wordly success with the almost obsessive fixation on links and recognition from a weblogging point of view -- the desperate seeking of new ways of getting linked, new venues to explore to extend our recognition.

"If you love me, tell me you love me, show me you love me -- link me, baby. Link me."

And we use each other as coin of the realm -- look who knows me! I know Dave and Mark and Sam and Meg and Glenn and Jeneane and Meryl and Halley and Anil and ... and Jonathon and LH and Stavros and Loren and... well, the point is made.

You all jingle in my pockets like particulary fine gold, copper, and silver.

If the relationship is positive, so much the better; but even if the relationship is negative, being known is status, and wealth, in this virtual world.

Seems silly at times, but it is based on that same insecurity -- we are all that vulnerable child, desperately looking for something to hold on to, for someone to show that we matter.

The message associated with the photo and the campaign is saying (and I'm not implying agreement) that by putting God at the center of our lives, or Jesus since he is now more hip, we need no longer be afraid.

Or at least, that was my impression.

Posted by Shelley on 27 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

...and Dave Rogers and Scott and Jeff and ...

Posted by Shelley on 27 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

...and Gabriel...

(Sorry, just working my way up the list here.)

Posted by Shelley on 27 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

It is common to view any focus or pursuit that takes precedence over God to be self centered. I expect that the men of Integrity ministry were aiming to hit all the typical pusuits people use to find happiness. According to the Bible, true happiness can only be found in Jesus Christ. Thus, the answer to the empty/wistful/anxious/regretful expression on the girls face is to seek Jesus Christ.

Posted by Jason Wall on 27 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I should note that the first sentence of my previous note should read, "It is common, in Christian circles, to view any focus or pursuit that takes precedence over God to be self centered.

Posted by Jason Wall on 27 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Shelley, you misread. I didn't say all graphical illustrations are inessential. If I had meant that, I would have suggested ALT="" for the first photo too.

Posted by mpt on 27 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

The accessibility guidelines are unambiguous:

Section 508
1194.22 Web-based intranet and internet information and applications.
(a) A text equivalent for every non-text element shall be provided (e.g., via "alt", "longdesc", or in element content).

W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0
1.1 Provide a text equivalent for every non-text element (e.g., via "alt", "longdesc", or in element content). This includes: images, graphical representations of text (including symbols), image map regions, animations (e.g., animated GIFs), applets and programmatic objects, ascii art, frames, scripts, images used as list bullets, spacers, graphical buttons, sounds (played with or without user interaction), stand-alone audio files, audio tracks of video, and video. [Priority 1]

alt="" is appropriate for spacer images.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 27 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

It's significant to the answer you are seeking Jonathon, that the question of eternal significance you ask is degraded into a dreary, banal and tired argument over web standards.


I did enjoy your insight into the pic though!

Posted by victor echo zulu on 28 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Shelley--there you are! ...and AKMA... Hey, someone drag AKMA over here. He's got an inside connection. Talk about link love with The Man...

I can't tell if the male form in the coat is supposed to represent Jesus (ala the him merging into her at the top) or if he is a boyfriend she's decided just won't cut it.

The image is effective: there is nothing like big shoulders to hold your tired soul. In that way, in that Christian way, I too read the "be not afraid" message from the photo and campaign.

Posted by jeneane on 28 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Oh, pictures! Can I put my 2-cents in? I see this as a picture of a woman who has a faceless, generic man cleaving to her. The woman's face is quite prominent, however, while the man is faceless, which puts *all* the responsibility for conveying meaning on her. This makes me wonder: why is that? The different coloured coats that serve to highlight the interlocking arms, the perfect fit between her chin and his shoulder, the absence of any space between them: all of these elements emphasise that "man shall cleave unto woman," which is about leaving one's original family to create a new one. Therefore the image strikes me as being about procreation and about a typical Christian message regarding the woman's "holy" role in the sanctity of life, and -- most importantly -- in accepting as well as actively defending or propagating this role. I don't see this as necessarily being about mortal love or sex or about material things. I see it as a message about the sanctity of life that is meant to strike deeply into the hearts of young girls and women -- and possibly their boyfriends. Worried that life has no meaning? Considering whether to have baby or 'borty? Drifting about without a moral compass? Jesus is the answer! The magic wand waves over the land and says 1) accept your god-given role as holy vessel; and 2) regain a sense of your life having meaning by accepting this role. And while the first two messages are aimed at the ladies, the third is aimed at everyone: 3) all will be well within society, for all concerned, if only woman would finally return to this god-intended role.

I agree with Jonathan that the image is quite effective, regardless of how you interpret it.

But really, for me, this is about babies and the suggestion that "the answer" (via Jesus) will solve your whore-or-madonna complex in favour of the latter. Just ignore everything and accept your role, and life will have a way of working itself out as god intended. What balm for troubled times!

...Now, there was this picture of this bridge... ;-)

Posted by Yule Heibel on 30 April 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Yule, you beat me to it ... because when I first looked at this picture, I saw only one figure – a representation of that little story from Plato’s Symposium, you know the one that explains (and santifies) sex as a yearning for a return to some original (and genderless) wholeness. Only in this picture, with the two halves neatly tucked into each other, we get only a female head and face ... a representation of the holy spirit (or in Judaism the Shekhinah, to speak for cultural diversity here). And from there, Yule’s suggestion that this picture is about babies is clearly logical.

And I, too, agree with Jonathon: this is a masterful (yes, the emphasis is on “master) picture!

Posted by maria on 1 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Well, I haven't read the other comments - yet - for fear of being influenced. But I have read the creative brief and your post Jonathon.

For some reason I immediately took a Jungian slant on this. I have no real reason to do so. But I did.

Anyway, The Ying Yan entwined. The water, the deep, the collective unconscious, or the personal subconscious etc.

So, simply put, for me, the message is: all this 'soul searching' will only lead you to - fear, confusion, befuddlement (the takeaway, as seen in the woman's face, the focal point of the shot).

More questions than answers. Which 'Jesus' offers. An answer. That's the propositon.


Why am I here? Stuck in traffic. Listening to the noise on the radio. Sitting beside my spouse thinking of other things. Striving. Going nowhere. Stuck. What's the point? I need a definitive answer. Lo and behold, Jesus is the answer.

The picture is far from pedestrian. In fact I would suggest that anyone walking wouldn't give the photo a second thought. It does take some looking at.

Billboards - and other photos as pieces of communication - have always fascinated me because I have never really understood their intent (as a 'genre'), never mind their content. But that's my astygmatic colourblind eye.

As these things go, this one is pretty good, relying ultimately as it does on the implied benefit (like the Gap ad it replaced?)

Personally, though, I'm not looking for THE answer. And this poster will only work if the eyeballs seeing it are somehow struck by the emotion conveyed - however interpreted - by the look on the woman's face. Her predicament. Yes! She is me. I am her. Transference. Empathy. Fear of the unknown.That which is lurking. Looking over your shoulder. All those little devils. Temptation. Whatever.

Posted by bmo on 2 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

What a refreshing conversation. It is nice to hear people who can have a conversation about a religious topic without relying on the standard knee-jerk reactions.

I looked at this picture for quite some time hoping to reach a conclusion as to what it meant to me. I could not get over the feeling that she looked unhappy with the person she is holding. It seems like she is holding on out of necessity, habit, fear, something, but looking out 'there' for something else. Her partner is the life that we live in pursuit of sand castles instead of the endless ocean. I honestly don't know, just a stab in the dark. One has to wonder if the boys down at Men of Integrity Ministry just thought the picture was 'pretty'! LOL.

I profess to be Christian. Having said that, I have always struggled with billboards like this. Maybe it feels like they are, as loren said, making Jesus another commodity. I don’t quite understand why I feel that way. It is definitely a better alternative than the Christian-vigilante graffiti that appears on overpasses. If we are ok selling movies, milk bar sandwiches, and the like, why not offer to people something more? Why not give them the answer? I wear Christian shirts professing my faith, and in essence, making myself nothing more than a walking billboard, so it would seem that my qualm with mass-Christian advertising is unfounded. I think at the root of it is the feeling that at times the Christian community is quite enthralled with expanding their personal club. Everyone wants another member to his or her organization. "Join MY church." "Join MY denomination." "Would you like to be a Man of Integrity?" Whether that it their intention, their focus, or their desire, I know not. So I guess that it, it all comes down to intentions. Who am I to judge that anyway? So I ramble for a paragraph or two and come to the conclusion that I always look at these photos with a bit of trepidation, and I don’t know why!

BTW. Nice reference to Douglas Adams 'Life, The Universe, and Everything' there stavrosthewonderchicken. 42, haven’t heard that in a while.

Posted by MATHIuS on 6 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

"But isn’t it clear to Christians and non-Christians alike that the engine of our “self-centered life” is fuelled primarily by the relentless pursuit of material things and worldly success?"

Is it? For some people, perhaps. But I would have thought that the very existence of the medium this advertisement uses indicates that - for most people - this isn't clear at all. In that sense the advertisement is well targeted, since it is only to those people who have a question already that it makes any sense.

The question I had about it was more related to whether or not the woman was embracing Jesus, or whether she was unhappy about this little domestic tiff she'd just had with her anonymous boyfriend, and should seek Jesus instead of him. Perhaps it's too much time spent with the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart as a child, but for me - without knowing about this 'men of integrity' thing - my first response was that it seemed like a recruiting poster for a convent. And that's just *weird*.

Posted by rocky on 20 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour