Category Archives: Part 4 Projects and Exercises Reading Photographs

Part 2: Tools for deconstruction – Semiotics

In the 1960s and 1970s theorists looked for ways of overturning the realism that was professed by the modernists and leading the way in this development was Roland Barthes who further developed the concept of semiotics (Bate, D. 2009:30), which had originated from the study of semiology conceived by linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, as a system for interpreting signs and applying meaning which could also be used to decipher photographic images. (Wells, L. 2010:31).

Barthes wrote his seminal essay Rhetoric of the Image in 1977 and in this he deconstructs an advertising image and effectively interprets it’s full meaning using a methodology still influential in 21st century photography theory (Bull, S 2009:34-37). Whilst Barthes’ semiotic tools are not the only method to interpret images, and current thinking in photographic theory has moved to include more psychologically derived concepts such as the effect of the image and personal response, these tools still provide an important framework for discussion.

A brief overview of these semiotics tools is as follows:

Sign = Signifier + Signified

When applied in semiotic terms:

Sign = the overall effect of the image

Signifier = the actual image, it’s formal and conceptual elements

Signified = what we see when we look at the picture, either as a straightforward referent or conceptually/metaphorically.

For the sign to be successful then the Signifier MUST add to the Signified to make the Sign.

Barthes uses several tools within his semiotic analysis as follows:

Denotation – This refers to what elements exist within the image. In other words, what is it? This concept is in essence one of translation.

Connotation – Interprets what the elements actually mean or connote. This interpretation will be subject to relevant cultural awareness and understanding.

Studium – Is what Barthes would assume to be the status quo of an image and the prevalent cultural, political or social meaning of an image.

Punctum – Is an element that disrupts the stadium or punctures the status quo. This might be through contradiction or by offering alternative meanings, it could be a point that gives the viewer a personal connection over and beyond other elements within the image.

Intertextuality was a term Barthes used to describe a situation where differences in a viewers’ social, cultural, economic, political and historical backgrounds effectively serve to create many different readings and interpretations which become interwoven creating a complex yet rich and colourful tapestry.

We can in effect share and allow our interpretations to become coloured and enhanced by a wider and more open study and reference to sources beyond our own individual thoughts.

To establish his system of interpretation Barthes purposely chose an advertising image because in his own words, “Because in advertising the signification of the image is undoubtedly intentional” (Barthes, R 1977:32).

Final note

“Poststructuralists affirm, consciousness is not the origin of the language we speak and the images we recognise so much as the product of the meanings we learn and reproduce.” (Belsey, C. 2002:5)


Barthes, R (1977. (Image–Music–Text. London: Fontana Press.

Bate.D (2009). Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Berg.

Bull, S (2009) Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.

Wells, L (2009). Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed.) Abingdon: Routledge.

Project 2 Reading pictures

Part 1 Deconstruction

As an interpretive approach to reading pictures we can consider the work of Jacques Derrida and his term Deconstruction; which argued that language is malleable containing a power of it’s own which cannot be restricted by the artist or author and essentially what exists are possibilities of meaning. The concept of an equal status between artist or author and viewer or reader is itself an important theme of post-modernism and to find meaning we should deconstruct the picture in order to question it’s component parts. What Derrida was encouraging was in effect a questioning of knowledge and not simply a blind acceptance of what is presented.

In his essay, ‘The Principle of Reason’ Derrida asked:

“Who is more faithful to reason’s call, who hears it with a keener ear….the one who offers questions in return and tries to think through the possibility of that summons, or the one who does not want to hear any question about the reason of reason?” (Jacques Derrida)

Exercise: HSBC Advertisement


The above picture is an advertisement promoting HSBC personal loans operating within the corporate function combined with the viewer’s understanding of the advertising image; the implication is that by purchasing a HSBC loan the viewer will be able to aspire to the lifestyle afforded to the couple in the picture. This is a positive life image built around the following components:

A man and woman presented as an attractive couple, a white man aged around his mid to late 20s smiling in a relaxed manner sitting in the passenger seat of a car. Appearing to be the driver is a similarly aged black woman who is also smiling whilst gesturing in a relaxed manner. This part of the picture shows a young couple engaged in an equal and diverse relationship seemingly in the ascendance of their contemporary lives together.

The couple are driving in a bright yellow car itself a classic-style design yet everyday type of vehicle adding the elements of normality, authenticity and nostalgia. The car is carrying suitcases which are again authentic old style suitcases and the couple are driving through a bright summer rural country landscape seemingly on their way to some sort of a holiday or getaway break seemingly without a care in the world on their way to enjoy the fruits of their aspirational lifestyle and great decision which was to acquire a HSBC loan.

The picture avoids any hint of a summer’s day at the beach as this might appear self -indulgent of the couple or even imply laziness. In this picture we are presented with the couple driving through a rural landscape adding agricultural connotations implying that whilst they may be relaxed they are embarking on a journey that they have earned and is the product of their hard work.

The picture naturally utilises all of the stereotypes created by dominant western ideologies of capitalism and materialism of what constitutes being relaxed young authentic yet happy, carefree, attractive and successful.

Part 4, Project 1: The language of Photography


Figure 1: Allan O’Neill Lucy (June 2016)

Photography acts as a language in so much that it is ordinarily used as form of communication or expression. Examples of photographic images not used in this way in their original context could be; medical and dental imagery, CCTV images, forensic crime images, passport photographs could all be seen as straightforward forms of representation used primarily for identification and evidence with no need for wider interpretation or purpose.

Interpretation (noun) – Oxford Dictionary definition

The action of explaining the meaning of something

A stylistic representation of a creative work or dramatic role

We must remember that pictures are not words how we read photographs is a result of our many personal and cultural components reflecting our own position in the social world. There is no such thing as a universal photographic language when we speak about photography as a language we mean to interpret rather than to translate.

Letters are arbitrary symbols in that when put together in specific formations they can come to form a meaning. C A T put together spells CAT. Add T L E and we have the word CATTLE with an entirely different meaning.

Photographs are referents in that they are not a true representation of the subject themselves but, because of the way photography works for us, they will always possess a certain proximity to their subject. They refer to the subject.

Exercise 1


Figure 2 Elliot Erwitt, New York, 1974

Having seen this photograph many times before I had always interpreted the image as merely a quirky picture of a small dog dwarfed by an adult and a surreal like giant dog. I can now see how Erwitt composed a specific frame from a wider scene containing infinite possibilities for composition in order to express and communicate his particular idea in a manner which could be effectively interpreted by it’s viewer.

The skill of the photographer and artist is in achieving their own objective even it this is to create ambiguity for the viewer; the role played by the viewer is all important as is the relationship between the photographer and the viewer.

As a point of interest at the beginning of this article is an image I took of our family dog several months ago as part of a personal project and the intention was to depict Lucy in a more intimate manner which showed her on her own terms of individual personality rather than as an objectified family pet or human accessory. To do this I decided, as Erwitt before me, to drop to the eye level of the subject to create the sense that they were central and not peripheral in general terms.

I now use the picture to to demonstrate a sense of active learning.

List of images

Figure 1: Allan O’Neill Lucy (June 2016)

Figure 2 Elliot Erwitt, New York, 1974

taken from:  (accessed 15 September 2016)