Making Meanings

Looking down the contents page of Stephen Bull’s book ‘Photography’, I was intrigued by the section titled The Meanings of Photographs. Following the tutor feedback from my DPP Assignment 1: Workflow, this seemed like an ideal place to begin learning how to create a visual language for my photographs.

Bull (2009) stresses that in a society where images can be reproduced quickly in vast quantities,

the need to be ‘photo-literate’ is greater than ever.

(p. 31)

I would agree with Bull’s view. In a technologically advanced world, where images can be captured and shared across the globe almost instantaneously, meanings can sometimes be lost or misinterpreted. Therefore it is important that the intended meanings are well-constructed by the photographer.

In TAOP there was a set of defined principles that could be followed to create aesthetically pleasing images. For example, by positioning the subject slightly off-centre, the use of colour, or using lead-in lines to draw the viewer’s eyes towards the intended subject. Whilst reading Bull (2009) I wanted to discover if there was a kind of secret photographer’s code that held the answers to giving my photographs a meaning.


Swiss linguist Ferdinand Saussure referred to semiotics as using symbols to communicate meaning. However creating a meaning is not as simple as positioning and location of various subjects. The Dutch linguist Louis Hjelmslev believed that culture also played a part in how signs are perceived and connotations are communicated.

Barthes’ Photographic Message essay categorised the ‘codes’ of connotation as:

  • pose
  • gesture
  • technical effects, such as focus and blur
  • meanings of objects in pictures

Photojournalism is an area of photograph that interests me a lot. Newspaper photos are often cleverly constructed to convey a story in just one image. How viewers interpret a photograph is referred to by Barthes as ‘the rhetoric of the image’.

Adverts are another example of connotation.For example the image below is for a bug repellent. The fact that there is a ‘beetle’ car on it’s roof suggests the strength of the juxtaposed bug killer. However without the cultural understanding of a VW Beetle being affectionately dubbed a ‘bug’, then some of the impact of this advert may have been lost.


The lack of any other visual information in both the foreground and the background makes the message of the image very clear to me. However Walker (1997) warns that there can be so many meanings as there are human beings! Bull (2009) continues warning by stating that:

if an image has billions of meanings it may as well be meaningless

(p. 38)


About Matt

Photography degree student with the Open College of the Arts.
This entry was posted in DPP, Reading, Semiotics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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