Research point · Semiotics and photography

Looking into semiotics and photography

Semoitics is the systematic study of signs and symbols in the context of human social and cultural interaction. The discipline has its birth place in comments made by Ferdinand de Saussure’s general theory of linguistics (1916). The idea essentially was to understand and map out how codes were applied in all aspects of social, economic and linguistic interaction between people and to be able to ‘scientifically’ systematise this into a useable and predictable pattern. It was seen as a system of the analysis of cultural behaviour. Codes of dress, music, advertising etc. are analysed into a logical conceptual system (Wells, 1996) [1]

As a system it was suggested that there were problems in that it did not initially take into account different peoples’ interpretations of those signs. It would seem that the initiators of this ‘logical system’ perhaps had been too logical in their deciphering of human responses to symbols and signs.

Umberto Eco argued that although there is an agreed similarity between a referent and the image, non-the-less like other sign systems semiotics are an arbitrary designation in the same way that words are arbitrary in relation to their objective reference in the world (Eco, ‘crtitique of the image’, in Burgin 1982) [2]. There is no reason why a table is called a table, other than the fact that collectively it is decided on for ease of communication. There is nothing inherently ‘table like’ in a table, as it were, as is my understanding. However, we also imagine that although that is the case we have some agreed perceptions that are similar enough that we can agree at least relatively that these objects go by these symbolic referents. Is it the same with external objects and the phenomenal world in terms of visual literacy?

Semiology and semiotics are now distinguished as separate areas one being a more ridged and ‘scientific model and the later (semiotics) more fluid and open to interpretation.

Wells states that it is difficult to understand an image without activating a range of aesthetic and cultural codes that help us derive meaning from what we are looking at.(Wells, 1996) [3]. In other words, we cannot help but bring our personal conditioning ‘onto the table’ when we are viewing a photo. This is my understanding of looking at photos. My knowledge, perception and conditioned emotional reactions are all simultaneously activated when I look at a photo. Some of these processes are activated more than others. Even if the photo is visually uninteresting to me, which many are, there is still an emotional response.

There exist a range of different opinions about the value of identifying semiotics as the main value communicator within the photographic image.

‘The semiotic model seems to limit our understanding of how images are actually made to have meaning, and there is thus a pressing need to extend this theoretical base by ‘prioritising the knowledge with which people live rather than the knowledge with which Western intellectuals make sense of life’. (Edwards, 2009) [4]


As such Edwards suggest that the image has taken a turn away from a more tactile and human relationship to peoples existence into an overall intellectualised word of semiotic dry analysis.  She argues that instead of holding an attempt to know how to read the photo there needs to be a more grounded relationship in the ethnographic relationship to peoples cultural expectations to an image that is related to their life circumstances.

This idea is backed up by Burgin who discusses the limitations of the semiotic study of photographs. Instead he suggests that semiotics are not sufficient in themselves to ‘explain the complex articulations of the moments of institution, text, distribution and consumption of photography’ (Burgin, Thinking photography, in: wells 1996) [5]

In conclusion, the indexical and iconic codes within semiotics as applied to photography are seen as ways of interpreting images and giving meaning to the seen photo. But it would appear that there are opposing views to this belief that photos can simply be universally interpreted. This is because of norms within different cultures not to say the conditioning of individual viewers and expectations.



  1. Wells, L. Photography, a critical introduction (1996) Routledge.
  2. Eco, U. (1982) Victor Burgin, Thinking photography, London: Macmillan
  3. Wells, L. Photography, a critical introduction (1996:34) Routledge.
  4. Edwards, E. Thinking photography, beyond the visual (2009) Netlibrary, Inc,. Photography: Theoretical Snapshots, edited by J.J. Long, et al., Routledge, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central: [online] [accessed December 2019]
  5. Wells, L. (1982) Victor Burgen, Thinking photography, London Macmillan.

Published by Truevisionphotography

I'm a student photographer studying through the OCA a UK based arts university. I'm in the foundation year of my studies and enjoying it immensely. I'm also a yoga teacher and co-founder of Bodhiyoga a buddhism based yoga teacher training program that runs in the UK and Spain each year. As a photographer I'm interested in all forms of fine art. I find the arts really important in my life. I love nature and aim to be in the outdoors as much as I can. Generally I think that all the different strands of my life are flowing to towards self development in the greatest sense of the term. The arts, buddhist practice yoga and meditation are all tools to that end. I feel committed to communication the these values in the world both through the visual arts as well as teaching.

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