Double Exposure

On Monday, the following photo went viral on social media.

The photo of the Old Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier taken in September by Karin Markert was given new meaning through accompanying captions attributing the weather in the photo to Hurricane Sandy. Karin and the Old Guard were quick to point out that the photo was actually taken in September, but that the sentiment of the soldiers standing guard in all weather conditions held true for Hurricane Sandy.

The Old Guard tweeted:

The tweet linked to their Facebook page, on which the Old Guard posted actual photos of Monday, October 29th, that depicted them not only standing guard but also loading sandbags.

Luis Martinez, a columnist for ABC News, wrote, “The picture might not be from today, but it does represent the faithful duty of the Tomb Sentinels from the Old Guard who have remained at their posts during Hurricane Sandy.”

Does it matter that the viral photo was not taken during Hurricane Sandy?

Is it OK to remediate (Prior & Hengst, 2010) the photo with Hurricane Sandy?

Is this photo in the same category as other fake Hurricane Sandy photos?

Martinez argues that the meaning is the same, and it does not matter when this photo was taken. The photo captured a narrative of brave U.S. soldiers standing guard in the most adverse conditions. When the photo appeared in my Facebook newsfeed, the caption read, “Guarding our fallen heroes through the hurricane. God bless America and our troops… #goosebumps.” Many other captions with a similar narrative helped the photo go viral. In a time of uncertainty (e.g., hurricane, national election), the narrative of the viral photo captured our national need for certainty, stability, and protection from external threats.

Peggy Albers (2011) uses the term double exposure to refer to the choices we make when re-appropriating images in multimodal composition in order to generate a response in viewers. The term double exposure comes from photography to describe when two images are merged into a single image. In multimodal composition, Albers uses this term to describe the twofold tension of:

  1. incorporating someone else’s representation of an issue through the use of found images and
  2. superimposing one’s own beliefs and experiences on found images through remediation with text, sound, or other effects.

For example, a Google image search for “poverty” results in a particular narrative about abject poverty in foreign countries. Remediated use of these images carries someone else’s representation of the social issue of poverty. Likewise, the use of random images of tattooed bodies to represent gang youth is problematic because the composer using the found images is superimposing beliefs about gangs and tattoos on found images of tattooed people not necessarily associated with gang activity.

So, is the viral photo of the Old Guard an example of double exposure? Arguably, both the original representation of the issue and the superimposed meaning in relation to Hurricane Sandy are closely related, if not the same.

So, does it matter when the photo was taken? It is the Old Guard, and it is the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. Does it matter if the weather in the photo is not Hurricane Sandy?

As I often ask my digital media class to do, I experimented with my Facebook account.

Like Martinez, John argued that it did not matter when the photo was taken because the meaning remained the same. I attempted to explain that I was not questioning the narrative of the photo, about which John feels strongly. John suggested that there were more discrepant photos to question, e.g., the picture of the Russian naval ship displayed in error during a tribute to veterans at the Democratic convention. I responded with the pictures that the Old Guard posted on their Facebook page in response to the viral photo. For the Old Guard, when the photo was taken matters.

The obvious cases of problematic double exposure are important to address with our students, but what about the more subtle cases, such as this viral photo?

How do we determine when it is and when it is not appropriate to remediate an image?

How do we account for the meaning an image carries in relationship to the meaning we superimpose when remediating that image?

How will you address this issue in your classroom?


Albers, P. (2011). Double exposure: A critical study of preservice teachers’ multimodal public service announcements.  Multimodal Communication, 1(1), 47-64.

Prior, P., & Hengst, J. (2010). Introduction: Exploring semiotic remediation. In P. Prior & J. Hengst (Eds.), Exploring semiotic remediation as discourse practice (pp. 1-23). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

10 responses to “Double Exposure

    • Thanks for reading! I’ve used your photo several times in teaching students about using found images in their compositions. Makes for a great case to consider.

  1. ABSOLUTELY. Digital media has changed the game w/photography (and writing, music, etc.). I think that most of the younger folks don’t even understand what they are doing when they share photos. Even journalists need to check their sources and better verify info when posting such images. I especially like your take on “double exposure”. Good food for thought. I hadn’t seen that in discussion yet.
    I need to get back to it, but after talking about these issues w/friends, I started a FB page re: use/misuse of photos: I’m very excited to attend some photo copyright discussions in the DC area in the next month. Learning to navigate the new trends in media has been very interesting!

  2. This kind of “double exposure” is common on Facebook, especially around hot topics. One more recent example was a photo of a lifeless child, The poster purported the child was a victim of ISIS in Mosul but the photo was actually taken a couple of years before in Syria. The same sort of argument ensued: context v. message. It is an interesting discussion and there are strong emotions on both sides.

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