How to Convey Meaning in Your Photos

February 1, 2011 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment |

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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