The word “representation” is one of the most powerful conceptual instruments for the observation of the real. It enables us to answer emerging questions within language sciences and sociology, as well as more technical and operative disciplines. The concept became relevant mainly ever since it was taken on by some research and scientific production-related circles, as Cultural Studies, which, crossing the semiotic and the discursive viewpoints, is not confined to the study of the poetics of language (which is devoted to the study of the way language produces meaning), but also concerned with its politics, i.e., the analysis of the effects and consequences of representations and of the relations they establish with power and the regulation of social conducts.
Seen from the point of view of its material realisation, representation is linked to the technicity of the fabrication devices of signs. However, it is not limited to this viewpoint: it decisively compromises materiality analysis with another kind of unavoidable questions which are related to the involvement of signs in social life and its complex functioning dynamics.
As representations (systems of meaning), images take on a symbolic function. The concept actually comes close to the reality of transfiguration: in liturgical terminology, “representation” designates “an empty coffin on which a shroud is laid for a funereal ceremony”. The primordial link between image and the drama of death was also made clear in 14th to 16th-century France, as the funereal ritual according to which the king’s body was laid in wake for forty days (as the best replacement for the dead) was replaced by a very realistic effigy of the deceased.  In this circumstance, and generally speaking, to represent is the same as making the absent present. Both meanings of the term in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary follow this line: “1) To represent something is to describe or depict it, to call it up in the mind by description or portrayal or imagination; to place a likeness of it before us in our mind or in the senses, as, for example, in the sentence, ‘This picture represents the murder of Abel by Cain.’ 2) To represent also means to symbolise, stand for, to be a specimen of or to substitute for, as in the sentence, ‘In Christianity, the cross represents the suffering and crucifixion of Christ.’”
The word “representation” designates a link between language and culture. It enables us to mention the worlds of objects, persons and events, whether these are real or fictional. As social representations, images are filters or selective focalisations which are applied to the surrounding reality and that are a result of interests and stereotypes that make us be sensitive to certain aspects of the same reality and ignore, conceal or despise others at the same time.
As an element of language and culture, representation is also necessarily a product of thought: it is closely linked to mental activities, especially as far as their imagetic, iconic or visual components are concerned. Cognitive Semiotics is devoted to show the way thought resorts to peculiar iconicity strategies as they treat information, and is structured through symbols, images and space relations which, among others, possess an analogical character. Seen as a cognitive activity/process and as a product of that same activity, visual representation, in its most diverse material and mental manifestations (which refer to concrete reality, as well as to such abstract things as the ideas of war, death or friendship), may take on several functions. Some are vicarious, while others are pragmatic: they do not merely collect and store information – they also analyse it. Basically, some representations serve to: 1) preserve information (e.g., a family photograph or a reportage); 2) reveal aspects of reality that are cannot be accessed otherwise (e.g., medical imagery, photos of the hidden side of the moon) 3) explicit information and guide through several activities (e.g., an urban or architectural plan, a mock up); 4) systematise a corpus, and therefore being an instrument to describe and get to know the real (e.g.: a family tree, class relations of belonging in a taxonomical scheme, an organogram); 5) signal (ex: international pictograms, traffic signs); 6) metaphorise or emblematise – in this case, representations become part of more complex inter-individual and social information circulation systems.
As an integral part of the mental and linguistic-semiotic systems, it is in the cultural instance as the specific medium in which both systems germinate and evolve (and, conversely, as their own result), that representations manifest and express themselves.