How to Convey Meaning in Your Photos

February 1, 2011 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 14 Comments | |
How to Convey Meaning in Your Photos Image

Thousands of words are expended every year in books and magazine articles on how to compose photographs. Put simply these suggest where the photographer should place the elements within the frame in order to attract (and ideally hold) the viewers' attention. Whilst the aesthetics of a photograph are undoubtedly important all this concentration on form ignores one simple but fundamental question; how do photographs communicate meaning to the viewer?

Merely describing the forms of the world in exquisite detail in an aesthetically pleasing fashion isn't enough to make a great photograph. For an image to transcend plain description it must contain inner meanings beyond the bald depiction of the subject. There must be a channel of communication within the pattern of light and shade fixed in the image. We all understand how language, written or spoken, can convey meaning but there is no obvious means of communication in a photograph. Yet when we look at a great photograph we inevitably gather meaning; we find ourselves moved by its contents so they must be 'talking' to us. Where in the patterns of the image might these hidden meanings reside? These meanings must constitute a non-textual language but how do we read it? Is our understanding of this language innate or learnt and can we be certain what the artist was trying to say? How do these inner meanings arise if there is no accompanying text?  That's a lot of questions but hopefully I can point you in the direction of some answers.

Perhaps the first thing that we do when we look at a photograph is to look for things we recognize and mentally to attach labels to these objects (of the kind 'tree', 'river', 'face', 'eyes', 'sky' and 'cloud'). Our reading of these elements would seem straightforward enough but objects often stand for things other than just themselves. One need only think of how living things have been used as symbols to suggest specific attributes; a lion for valour, an oak for strength or an owl for wisdom. Because photography is innately, and often overpoweringly, representational it's sometimes hard to realize that what we see in a photograph might suggest something other than just itself. But, we've already seen that for adherents of the mystical tradition in photography, from Stieglitz and Minor White onwards, a cloud in a photograph isn't always just a cloud.

How to Convey Meaning in Your Photos

At the beginning of the twentieth century a group of philosophers began looking, as Daniel Chandler noted, 'for “deep structures” underlying the “surface features” of phenomena.' These 'Structuralists' included the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. He proposed a study of signs; anything that signifies something to us and not just the kind that read 'Keep of the Grass' or 'No Waiting' or (my particular favourite) “Sign Not in Use”. Signs can exist as text, images, sounds, smells, facial expressions or physical gestures. Signs can be grouped in to languages (body language for instance) in the same way as words, though the boundaries between these languages are not as distinct as those between spoken languages. Signs are literally anything that communicates a meaning or emotion to us, whether that meaning can be expressed in words or not. Perhaps appropriately, philosophers can't agree a name for the study of signs; it is known variously as semiotics or semiology – it hasn't even been agreed whether linguistics is part of the study of signs or vice versa! I will frequently refer throughout the rest of the book to the insights of Frenchman Roland Barthes who was for many years, until his death in the 1980s, the leading theoretician using semiotics to analyse photography.

Linguists, like Saussure, realized that words are arbitrary symbols: there can be no innate link between the object and the word attached to it. Such a link would deny the possibility of naming the same thing 'dog', 'hund' or 'chien' – it would preclude the existence of more than one language. This arbitrary nature extends to all other sign systems and therefore any sign may have a multiplicity of meanings. Consider, now, how a photograph of a single crooked tree atop a rocky hill might stand for 'loneliness' or 'deforestation' or 'perseverance' or 'old age' or 'life' – or maybe even 'wind'. Semiologists would recognize the tree as a sign and refer to its 'standing for something else' as connotation and its 'standing for itself' as denotation. So our example tree would, amongst other things, denote crookedness and hawthorn and might connote life and loneliness. As soon as you place two connotations next to each other the complexity of the result is much greater than just double, since it calls to mind yet more signs that evoke the same idea. The principal difference between words (so-called natural language) and other kinds of signs is that words have widely accepted definitions of meaning (otherwise there could not be dictionaries) whereas the latter usually do not – though of course the meaning of some is prescribed: just think how much more chaotic our roads would be if we didn't all agree on what road signs meant! This is because our reading of signs other than words is, as we shall see, both culturally specific and partly subjective. It is also because, as Emile Benveniste asserted, 'We are not able to say “the same thing” in systems based upon different units.'

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photos, photo, photography, how to, technique, techniques, photographs, David Ward, express, meaning, respond, communicate, convey, understanding, meanings

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#1 Trevor Aston

David’s observations are very interesting, when we take a photograph we can have no real idea how an individual viewer will relate to it.  But isn’t that partly what makes the art and the business of photography so exciting?

2:03 pm - Tuesday, February 1, 2011

#2 Andreas Falco

One aspect is neglected here namely the context in which we observe a photograph. Knowing for example that the author is a distinguished photographer, or reading about him or her in a paper or seeing the work on tv raises the value of the work exhibited.

A further complication arises, because the meaning the photographer himself attributes to a photograph is not necessarily the same as the one the viewers assign to it.

2:31 pm - Tuesday, February 1, 2011

#3 Brian Rybolt

I feel the title is a misnomer.  It’s not about a conscious How To but the underlying understanding of how images work in conveying thoughts, feelings, ideas, etc. in our world through the medium of photography, IMHO.

I hope people who read the article don’t feel they have to start thinking of the symbols within their viewfinder before they expose sensor/film to light.  I suggest that we follow our instincts and shoot and then study our output for the messages which are contained therein.

As to Trevor’s remark, I feel that many times the photographer has no idea how he/she will relate-understand the image that was just shot, no less the viewer.

5:59 pm - Tuesday, February 1, 2011

#4 James

Interesting, I really like the picture of the tree silhouette, David. Great informative post.


9:56 pm - Tuesday, February 1, 2011

#5 rob

So, how do we convey the meaning of our photographs? This question in the article’s title remained unanswered. And I do not blame the author for that.

The written/spoken language is a tool of the conscious part of our psyche, whereas visual works of art are the result of unconscious (I am talking about the non-descriptive art).

The spoken language has developed over thousands upon thousands of generations. It is mature, precise and flexible by now. The language of photography has been in use for just a small fraction of that time. It is still at the very early stage of development. What’s more, its development does not occur in a similar, linear way of the spoken language. That is what creates an enormous gap between what we are trying to convey and the way our image is perceived by the viewer.

There is no such thing as the “universal language” of photography. Each image means something else to each photographer and each viewer. The meaning is dependent on individual experiences/thoughts of both the creator and the consumer.

Perhaps reading and accepting theories of people who studied symbols of dreaming (Carl Jung, for example) can bring us just a little bit closer to finding ways of conveying meaning in our photographs just to our peers, but there is no way to find the “Universal Meaning” (as the author mentioned, citing the thoughts of other thinkers).

1:13 am - Wednesday, February 2, 2011

#6 Mark Pearson

with photography being so subjective, it is very difficult to take a photo that will please all of the people all of the time. Different people will view an image differently resulting in different opinions.

12:26 am - Friday, February 4, 2011

#7 Joe

Rob, fantastic observation. Concrete advice that helps take more interesting pictures. Many thanks.

12:56 am - Wednesday, February 9, 2011

#8 Len Challis

So does this mean that our interpretation of a particular photo will change throughout our lifetime, as we accumulate more and more experiences, and are able to “see” that bit more as we are able to recognise more and more sign within an image? Or we are able to see more and more connotations from the same signs?

I suppose we are constantly becoming more and more visually “educated”, so much so, that we will soon find most images boring and mundane, and only images containing signs that are so complicated and challenging to our interpretation will be accepted as “art”.

What about the time before we ever heard of visual representation? Did nothing ever excite us about an image?

Years ago, before I studied music, many aspects of music I would listen to excited me deeply, but I didn’t understand why. Then after studying music in some depth and for a long time, many of those things hold no excitement for me any more.

I sincerely hope that as I study photography more and more, I can hold on to the excitement I feel as I look at certain images. I hope the excitement does’t fade away as my knowledge increases…

6:37 pm - Friday, February 11, 2011

#9 Peter Cook

Hrrmm, to quote David from his text “I hope that this foray in to semiotics hasn’t led you to feel that, as one critic dryly remarked, ‘semiotics tells us things we already know in a language we can’t understand.’”, well I am sorry David but it did really. Also Len Challis said “Years ago, before I studied music, many aspects of music I would listen to excited me deeply, but I didn’t understand why. Then after studying music in some depth and for a long time, many of those things hold no excitement for me any more.” Perhaps the in depth studying took away that excitement, I have heard similar phrases to this before and I think that it can!

2:11 pm - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

#10 Hilary James

This thoughtful article chimes with my feeling that the best bit of any creative work is the bit that defies analysis, and not only by the viewer/reader/listener.  For instance, authors often find that their readers pick up on themes that weren’t consciously included in their book; a message straight from the writer’s unconscious to the reader’s.  And seeing a view that’s ‘got something’ is enough reason for a shot, without having to know why.
I agree with Brian; it should be ‘How we’, not ‘How to’.
And with Rob that there’s no universal language.  The drama adage ‘Radio has the best scenery’ could be adapted for any art.
I don’t think study spoils things though (the conscious mind only being the tip of the iceberg).  Realising how someone achieved a particular effect only adds to my enjoyment.

10:45 pm - Thursday, February 17, 2011

#11 Sansom Photography

I think practise will always be the best tactic, getting to know the people you are shooting to create a rapport is essential. A relaxed shoot is always more fruitful!

5:59 pm - Monday, March 28, 2011

#12 Evans Dims

I find it educating

9:01 am - Thursday, November 29, 2012

#13 winnie walker

I have taken a picture tonight that in the background a face has appeared can anyone tell me what that means

11:43 pm - Thursday, November 20, 2014

#14 Clipping Path

I taught more from this article.Thank you.

4:14 pm - Friday, November 6, 2015