The semiotics of Photography.

The definition of semiotics is the study of signs, symbols and signification. We read semiotically everyday when reading news papers, looking at social media etc.

Semiotics can be traced back to two key people.


Ferdinand de Saussure (a Swiss Linguist) was one of the first people to discover and explain his theory of semiotics. He said ‘It is… possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeîon, ‘sign’). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not yet exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place ready for it in advance. Linguistics is only one branch of this general science. The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics, and linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human knowledge.’


According to Charles Sanders Pierce, a sign may be simple or           complex. Unlike Saussure, Peirce does not define the sign as the smallest unit of signification. Any thing or phenomenon, no matter how complex, may be considered as a sign from the moment it enters into a process of semiosis.

The process of semiosis involves a triadic relationship between a sign or representamen (a first), an object (a second) and an interpretant (a third).

These days, it is said that Semiotics is a useful set of tools which help to identify the formal patterns that combine to make meaning of various factors of our culture, particularly the media.

There are two components to reading semiotically. ‘The signifiied’ and ‘the signifier’.

The signified is the connotation (meaning) and the signifier is the denotation (image/word). This relationship is referred to as signification. 

For example, when you look at this image you may just see a truck (the denoation) but semiotics goes further when you have prior knowledge or you are familiar with this western culture and therefore the advertising world. I look at this image and think of the soda drink Coca-Cola. I also think of the phrase/slogan ‘holidays are coming’ and begin to get excited for the holiday season and christmas (connotation). 


Saussure explained a sign as anything that makes meaning. However Umberto Eco said that a sign is anything that can be used to tell a lie. This is an interesting way to look at it as images can used in many ways and with many implications. An image can be misleading.

If you encounter something which is not familiar in your culture framework it can be hard to understand. For example, someone from a third world country or an aboriginal tribe may see a camera as something ‘out of this world’ and may find other technologies like this hard to comprehend. In this video ( Kenyan children have their first experience with an iPad using video call technology and are fascinated with it.

When you look at an image as yourself some questions to gain understanding of it and look for an familiar cultural objects.


With this image (Candy Cigarette – Sally Mann), I first see three children, one with a cigarette (denotation) but when i look at it for a while, ask my self some questions about it and read the photo in a more in depth way I see a girl mimicking adults, outside with her two friends and being given a lot of freedom for someone of such a young age (connotation). However looking into the name of the photo and some information on the Photographer, I have discovered that it is a candy cigarette and the Photographer is her mother, taking photos of her children mimicking adult behaviour.

The museum of contemporary photography said ‘ For the “Immediate Family” series, Mann’s children, who often appear nude, are posed or simply arrested in their activity to convey both primal and playful aspects of human behavior. The images in her later monograph At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women (Aperture, 1988) capture the confusing emotions and developing identities of adolescent girls. Candy Cigarette (1989) is a striking example of Mann’s distinctive combination of careful planning and serendipity. In this work Mann’s daughter, Jessie, suspends her activity and gracefully balances a candy cigarette in her hand, appearing to be the innocent miniature of a blonde and gangling twenty-something beauty. Mann’s expressive printing style lends a dramatic and brooding mood to all of her images.’


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