Reading Images

There has never been a time in which the proliferation of imagery has been so apparent. One might argue that visual language has overtaken written language in many areas of life. Sometimes we have to decipher visual communication, such as restaurant toilet signs where the outline of top hat or a pair of stilettos is often more commonplace than written signage.

As photographers, we view and appreciate effective images all of the time but would you consider that you ‘read’ such images in addition to looking at them?


Creating a visual story

Photographs have the ability to tell stories through visual language. They have the power to inform and misinform, to educate, advocate, entertain and even contribute to social change. A single image can mobilise people to action.

There will be an intention behind an image, which comes from the photographer. At the very least, we consider our aperture setting in order to create a shallow or deep depth of field. We compose a scene in our viewfinder and we chose our shooting angle and proximity, making decisions on what we allow or omit from the frame.

We focus on the subject matter that we decide to present. We freeze or portray motion. We share our work with an audience if we wish.



The image we create versus the one we don’t

Even the most literal and representative photograph is an interpretation of reality. If a hundred photographers were asked to photograph a chair in an empty room, it is possible that one hundred unique images could be produced based upon interpretations of what the photographers’ see or what they wish an audience to see. One could shoot wide, concentrate on a small detail, shoot from under or above the chair or even through a window from an adjacent building, in theory.

When we interpret and read a photograph, we are essentially putting ourselves in the place of the photographer at the time the image was created. 


How we read an image

Reading a photograph can be initiated by asking “the five Ws”: who, what, when, where and why? When we read an image, our evaluation and interpretations may change and differ from person to person or even on different occasions when we return to view the same photograph.

When using the five Ws, during our first reading of an image, we see what is actually in the photograph, i.e. the literal items, the subject’s matter itself.

Imagine a photograph of a bird in flight against a blue sky. We see the bird, its colour and perhaps even recognise its species. We also see the blue sky with perhaps some white, wispy clouds. The literal “who?” and “what?” we see in the image is, therefore, a bird flying under a blue sky with white clouds. 

“When” might be dictated by observing the light in the scene. It might be a summer’s day when the sun is high. It might not be obvious where it was taken but perhaps the type of bird offers a clue? “Why” the image was taken could be to document a bird in flight or perhaps to represent freedom or escape. Either reasons will fuse in the mind of the viewer as they read and interpret the photograph.

We can apply elements of this process to any image and some will warrant more reading than others. 

Beyond an image’s literal content and meaning, which we call denotations, images and subject matter will have something that is called connotations. A bird in flight is the denotation, i.e. that which we literally see on the first reading. The connotation in this context might be freedom, escape and flight, for example. These are the associations and they can arise from ideological or emotional perspectives that we, the viewer brings. 



Interpreting cultural norms

Let’s return to those restaurant toilet doors. Gender-neutral toilets and those for wheelchair users are clearly identifiable by signs. They represent literal items and so are denotations. They are recognisable to those who can associate with them. We can decipher and understand the connotations (gender, accessibility) due to our socio-cultural experiences and knowledge. 

The heart shape that we all know and recognise as signifying love, looks nothing like a human heart. It is a representational sign that we have all come to understand. A red rose is a flower but the connotation is that of love, an emotion that can be difficult to articulate in words. 

Signs, signifiers, denotations and connotations are all constituents of semiotics, a fascinating subject that explores signs and symbols as a way of communicating.

What we include in our composition, how we pose people, what we allow or omit can affect how the viewer reads and interprets our photographs. Getting into the habit of actively reading images will help you evaluate, not only the work of others but your own images. So the next time you pick up a photograph, don’t just look at it, read it.


If you’re interested in learning more about semiotics, have a look at this beginner’s guide or Daniel Chandler’s book Semiotics: The Basics.


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Written by: Anthony Griffin

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