How to Convey Meaning in Your Photos

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

Others, though, have asserted that all other signs can be expressed in written language; Marvin Harris opined that 'human languages are unique among communication systems in possessing semantic universality . . . [in being able] to convey information about all aspects [of experience] whether actual or possible, real or imaginary.' He has obviously never been 'lost for words'! Just think about how inadequate words can be for describing smells or colours and you will see that, whilst it may be true that we can describe anything with them, words are not truly equivalent to the thing described. In a similar vein, Szarkowski wrote that 'The meanings of words and those of pictures are at best parallel, describing two lines of thought that do not meet. If our concern is for meanings in pictures, verbal descriptions are finally gratuitous.'

Barthes wrote in his last book, Camera Lucida, that 'A photograph is always invisible, it is not it that we see.' He meant that the meaning we gain from a photograph derives from a whole range of signs and symbols that we understand in a wider context external to the image. The key point is that we read a photograph; viewing one is an active, not a passive process. Some of these signs appear to be universal (e.g. some facial expressions), others are widespread but culturally specific (e.g. religious symbols) and still others are peculiar to the individual viewer arising from their personal experiences. The response to some other signs is very deeply seated, perhaps even hard wired. Research has shown that some of the light entering our eyes transmits signals directly to the hypothalamus, one of the oldest parts of the brain and part of the limbic system. Light shifted towards either the red end or the blue end of the spectrum evokes an instinctive emotional response from the limbic system relating to temperature. We even call these colours, respectively, warm light and cold light.

How to Convey Meaning in Your Photos

All forms of visual representation, including photography, share one attribute; the image is not only a mirror for the artist's experience but also for those of the viewer. The meanings that we extract from an image are necessarily flavoured by individual responses since every viewer brings his or her own intellectual and emotional baggage to the viewing. The precise source of these personal responses is by rights the domain of psychology and psychoanalysis in the Freudian or Jungian tradition and beyond the scope of this book but we must always be aware that these personal responses are inevitable. This individuality of response means that not only will single signs evoke different connotations for different people but also that any given sign may evoke no response at all in some individuals. There will be common points of contact but also areas where meaning drifts for each individual, in the same way that no two people will get exactly the same meaning from a poem. Just as the conjunction of words produce indefinable and unstable thoughts and feelings which change from one person to another, and sometimes subtly from one reading to the next, so the effect of an image on the viewer changes from one person to another. For some the reflection of the photographer's viewpoint by the image is smooth and almost perfect, for others it resembles more the grotesque distortions encountered in a fairground hall of mirrors.

The great American photographer Alfred Stieglitz proposed that his photographs where in a sense equivalent to how he felt about his subject. The problem with the notion of 'equivalence' is that not only should the object photographed evoke an emotional response in the photographer but that, by dint of his expertise and insight, he is thought able to evoke the exact same response in the viewer. In John Szarkowski's terms the photograph is mirroring the photographer's concerns and presenting them as a perfect reflection to the viewer. This could only possibly be true if there were single fixed meanings for visual signs and, as we have seen, there are not. Another American photographer, Minor White, offered little practical advice on how to achieve 'equivalence' beyond his somewhat gnomic comment that, 'When a photograph is a mirror of the man and the man is a mirror of the world, Spirit might take over.' However he seemed to realize that something more than a simple intent to express emotional response was needed because he added that, 'It follows that “self-expression” as the aim of the photographer is not in itself sufficient.'

How to Convey Meaning in Your Photos

There can never be a guarantee of 'equivalence', only a striving towards it. Individual responses do not mean that interpretations are cut entirely adrift, at the mercy of currents of meaning. The photographer suggests a course by the content of the image but cannot ensure that the viewer will reach the intended destination. The reading of an image can be directed further by captioning the image, which serves to emphasize certain aspects over others.

Is, then, a common inner meaning really unreachable and if so aren't we then left just with the surface gloss? Photographer and theorist, Victor Burgin insists that a single common meaning beyond a simple description of the contents of the photograph is indeed unreachable because, 'There is no language of photography, no single signifying system . . . upon which all photographs depend.' We are definitely not left with the surface gloss, but rather with a very complex set of signs to decode. In any single photograph we will read a lot of different signs, often from totally different sign systems. In a portrait photograph we might read signs relating to the style of photography, body language including facial expression, clothing, age, era, location, social status, race and so on. Some of the processes by which we read these signs are conscious but many are not. The photographer cannot know how the viewer might respond to any one of these signs, let alone the entirety of signs within the image.

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.'


David Ward is one of Britain's most accomplished large format photographers. He has a very varied knowledge of photography, acquired while working for previous advertising, design and publishing clients. Over the years David has photographed everything from dogs to food to racing cars but landscape photography has always remained his passion.

In recent years he has concentrated his efforts on leading photography workshops for photo tour company Light & Land, taking groups to places as diverse as Utah and Norway. His emphasis in teaching is on the photographer's vision, rather than on what equipment is being used, and he passes on his knowledge in a uniquely humorous and accessible manner. Light & Land runs a broad range of photographic workshops for all levels of photographers – both in the UK and worldwide – full details can be found at

David has recently hosted Landscape Beyond - a hugely successful exhibition of his work at Londons OXO Tower gallery which was also the launch pad for Davids most recent book of the same title.

All images in this article © David Ward

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14 Comments | Newest Oldest First | Post a Comment

#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