Can we use the images found in the reciprocal web
of Italy and China as a tool to investigate and explore
national perceived identities?

The Big Picture aims to investigate the reciprocal image of Italy and China in the other nation’s web space.

In a context where the language barrier represents such a big obstacle, images can be the way and the medium through which we can realize this experiment, taking advantage of both the visual properties and their intrinsic storytelling capabilities.

The experiment consists in the collection, categorization and visualization of two thousand four hundred images for both countries, from rigorously selected national domains (image search engines and news websites), considering the digital as a measure of the impact of new technologies on social life but also as a mean used by the real world as a political and social space.


As first we decided to take a step back and observe all the images of the two dataset together, in relation to their visual properties.

How to read

ImageMontage and ImageSlices are composition made out of images or portion of the images, organized according to their visual features (Hue, Saturation, Brightness on a scale from 0 to 255). ImageSlices allow to quickly identify the points of continuity and discontinuity between the visual features of the two datasets, while selective ImageMontages allow to quantify the differences according to each steps of the property's value.

Hue median




Saturation median




Brightness median






To give a qualitative dimension to the research has been developed a hierarchical and non univocal categorization structured on two levels.

This allowed to track all the peculiarities of each image and identify the main thematic clusters. In order to get more accurate results has been necessary to scan more than once all the images and refine the taxonomy until we ended up with around 100 sub-categories belonging to 7 main categories.

How to read

The visualization shows a comparison of the main thematic clusters, category by category, of the images collected in the Italian and Chinese web. On the right are displayed the categories of the images found in the Italian web about China, on the left the categories of the images found in the Chinese web about Italy.

Architecture • Disaster report • Economics
Nature • Non-photo • Politics • Society • Sport


Try yourself to surf within the dataset,
you can explore the diverse features of the images
in relation to their sources and categories!

In order to fully enjoy the experience, due to the weight of the dataset,
we suggest to use the explorer with a desktop device.


Sources Comparison

Each dataset is composed by 2400 images:
900 images from a local search engine and 300 images from five local news website.

How to read

The visualization shows a comparison between the amount of images related to each keyword (on the left) and to each label (on the right) for all the sources. The label represent a further univocal categorization given to some of the images in order to grasp the specific "personality" of each source. The shape defined makes it easier to compare each source. On the side is also available a brief explanation of the main characteristics of each the source, search engines excluded. Click on the Website to look at the source website.

Italian sources

Google is the main western online search service provider. Google Images allows users to search in the web for image content. The .it suffix stands for Italy's regional Google domain.

Corriere della Sera

The Corriere della Sera is one of Italy's oldest newspapers, considered with Repubblica the main general-interest newspaper. Its website attracts over 1.6 million readers everyday.

Il Fatto Quotidiano

Il Fatto Quotidiano is a daily paper. The journal is a new product, characterized by a strong social presence and the explicit independence from public funding.

Il Post

Il Post is a news website. The model recall in the contents the style of U.S. online newspapers. The founder presented the project as “An elite product for majorities".


La Repubblica is the largest circulation daily general-interest newspaper. The newspaper is regarded as on the moderate left wing of the political spectrum.

Il Sole 24 Ore

Il Sole 24 Ore is a national daily business newspaper owned the Italian employers’ federation. It reports on business, politics and developments in commercial and labour law.


Chinese sources

Baidu is the main online search service provider in China. Baidu Images allows users to search in the web for image content.


Web portal of the Financial magazine, is known and estimated nationally and internationally for the transparency to the political-financial scandals and openness to social problems, always with the excuse of the economical approach.

Global Times

Newspaper belonging to the group of the People’s Daily, with a more casual and commercial look. Mainly dedicated to international news, without hiding the nationalistic orientation.

People's Daily

Newspaper of the central committee of the Chinese communist party, is the national voice of the pcc and the principal coalitions within it.

Sina is the largest Chinese-language infotainment web portal. It is run by Sina Corporation, a financial company founded in mainland China, with headquarters based in Shanghai since 2001.


Xinhua is the government press agency founded in 1931. Wants to be the chinese Reuters, but it keeps a regulatory function of the sector at national level. For specific events provide the “right” version, that all the other media have to respect.



“Identity is a process, identity is split.
Identity is not a fixed point but an ambivalent point.
Identity is also the relationship of the Other to oneself.”

Stuart Hall, “Ethnicity: Identity and difference”
Radical America

Through the long process of research and analysis, many are the insight that we got: every singular visualization show various aspects and views of the differences between the two nation's approach to each other, and between the two nations perceived identities.

The visual approach and the instrumental nature of these artefacts gives them the role of tools for the user.

While an outsider will get a big picture of the topic, an expert will be able to use this work as a set of tools to test hypotheses and intuitions.

Selected Findings

Red &Blue

The narration of the two countries through pictures presents two different colour palette. The trivial assumption that the colour of China is red and the colour of Italy is blue is here matched by the facts: the two colours are the main difference between the two databases of images.

Tradition and modernity

Culturally speaking, in both the narrations, the tradition plays a big role. The representation of Italy is pretty well fragmented, with traditional architecture from basically everywhere in the country and natural lanscapes from both the sea, the mountains and the lakes. What is missed is the representation of the modernity. China, instead, is represented by a very narrow range of attractions, which gather all the attention. Much space is given to the Great Wall (which is mostly presented in the same spot) and makes it almost the only recognisable traditional construction. Often here is also present the modern architecture, with many view of skyscrapers and infrastructures, even if sometimes with a very cynical and ironic disposition.

Commercial engines

Through the images found in the search engines we see a "postcard version" of the countries, where nature and architecture plays the main role. Even if both the search engines retrieve a large number of turistical images, the Chinese search engine have a much more strong take on this, with an incredibly higher number of such images.

Funny News

Although one would expect search engines to contain much more funny and bizarre pictures than the actual online news platforms, the research reveal the opposite trend. We find, especially on Italian websites, and more specifically on the website of the two main national papers a huge number of funny images. We can relate this fact to the transition of the newspaper to the digital. The main players of the market, due to the lack of income are now trying to compensate with a "pay per click" strategy, which in order to catch more attention conditioned the quality of the information.


“We look at Google results
and we see society,
instead of Google.”

Richard Rogers et Al, "Mapping democracy",
Global Information Society Watch
Digital Methods

Considering the digital not only as a measure of the impact of new technologies on the user, but also, conversely, as a mean used by the real world as political and social space the Digital Methods Initiative introduces the term «online groundedness» in an effort to conceptualize research that follows the medium, to capture its dynamics and make grounded claims about cultural and societal change.

Cultural Analitics

The term “Cultural Analitics” indicate the use of computational methods for the analysis of massive data sets and their flows, using as a paradigm the processing of digital imaging and visualization to analyse large collections of images. In particular on this side the work takes advantage of tools and techniques developed by the Software Studies Initiative Software Studies Initiative at the University of California, San Diego.

Full Thesis