Finding Your Voice in the Non-Verbal Medium of Photography

Language is an underlying reality in our everyday world, present in our thoughts, our words, and even our haptic gestures. When interacting with someone else we are incorporating language to translate abstract thoughts into communication, communication into meaning, and meaning into understanding.

Spoken verbal communication relies on shared dictionaries/thesauruses where meaning can be cross-referenced or explained when there is uncertainty. There is always room for miscommunication, but broadly words and written text as you are reading now are a very effective and efficient way to translate meaning.

With some exceptions, photographs are largely a non-verbal medium for communication. The role of a photographer performing as a “visual communicator” is to be a translator; in the same way, a linguistic translator substitutes one set of words and phrases for another while maintaining the underlying meaning a photographic communicator also produces a substitute, broadly: a still, two-dimensional representation of a moving, living, three-dimensional reality.

This translation will have meaning, just as words forming a sentence have meaning. The visual aspect that contains meaning is a “symbol” it represents something other than itself. For example, a rose is a flower with petals and a thorny stem, but in the context of a photograph a photographer can use it as a symbol to represent something else, maybe romance, if the rose is being handed between a couple, or grief if it’s being left on a gravestone.

The rose on its own does not inherently contain these meanings; there is no inherent “romance” or “grief” to the visual reality of a rose — instead, there is cultural significance to the contextual uses of a rose, and a photographer can adopt these as appropriate in order to communicate their meaning.

In this non-verbal medium it is not words that contain the meaning, but visible symbols. For academics, the study/decoding process of symbols is called semiotics, and in photography, these systems are present in every image whether they are included knowingly or unknowingly by the photographer.

The photographer can intend meaning, and a viewer can project it. Part of the responsibility of a “visual communicator” is narrowing the possibility of miscommunication. An environmental portrait communicates more than just what someone looks like, but it does so without an accompanying write-up that describes the emotion, direction of the eyes, tilt of the head, corners of the mouth, and so on. Instead, the communication is contained within those features, predetermined by the expression on their face and the way the photographer went about capturing it.

Semiotics at each stage are collaborative; it’s possible for a portrait sitter, photographer, and viewer to each find a different meaning behind an expression, and each may interpret that visual sign differently. A simple portrait can contain many meanings for many people, but even so, it is relatively straightforward compared to photographs with multiple subjects and complexity beyond just facial expressions.

Meaning can be intended by a photographer but may not come across in their image. I could take a photograph of a moment of joy and have someone else interpret it as melancholy. Out of context, an image can mean whatever someone wants it to, but in context, along with possible captions and testimony, the possibility for this is reduced.

AI art is an interesting intersection where verbal and non-verbal semiotics converges and produces collaborative imagery. Typing a verbal description in order to produce a visible consequence means that your result is limited by your ability to use verbal language; ie if you struggle to write your specification in words then you’ll struggle to produce that visual result.

AI art is so far “by request/commission” which means the semiotics are pre-determined and the image is conjured to that specification; the inverse of this is the exploration of a photographer with a camera piecing together semiotics they may never have been able to imagine for a result that they could not have specified before that process of exploration. This is why a journalistic application of AI art feels disingenuous to me, whereas a replacement for studio and commission-based imagery feels more appropriate.

On a micro level individual photographs base meaning on the semiotics incorporated within that particular frame. Photographs in sequence, like a diptych or longer photo essay, can inform one another, changing the context with more to look at than just individual frames. A photo essay can explore some complex and nuanced ideas while keeping each individual photograph simplistic, using association and sequencing to guide interpretation through each page.

On the macro scale, we can examine many photographs, collected bodies of work, photo essays, and publications and see consistency. A photographer’s “voice” is based on the message and themes, the intent and feeling that their entire body of work conveys, even when it is disparate and diverse, the vision is from the same source. Even here, the photographer can have their intention clear and present in their work, but still have pieces or the whole misinterpreted by a viewer. Even the clearest translation is open to projection and contextual reshaping.

A photographer who refers to their cultural upbringing has a library of possible symbols open to them, and through research and personal development can create all kinds of imagery that say exactly what they want to say, even though they may use different visual symbols to do so. You can recognize humanistic messaging from the way a photographer portrays people because of the way that humanism informs the signs that photographer looks for and captures in their imagery.

The reverse is also true, and a photographer may emphasize a negative portrayal using signs that signify dehumanization. It’s also entirely possible for a photographer to work in one direction and have their work interpreted another way. Once imagery is published the semiotic collaboration is between the audience and the work, no longer the photographer and the subject matter.

If the photographer has done a poor job of encoding their information in the narrative and meta-text of the work then a viewer may take away something unintended. If a photographer has put in as much effort as possible to put across their message it is likely a viewer who was not the intended/target audience, coming from a different background or culture, and informed by a different set of semiotics, will also take away a message the creator did not intend.

A photographer could also choose to leave their intent ambiguous, allowing their work to become a reflective surface, simply mirroring back whatever a viewer brings to it. This work tends to be decorative at most, and I personally don’t think such work is worth spending a lot of time with. I’d rather see work where the photographer has something to say, something to agree or disagree with, to learn from – not just reflecting something you already think, but offering something new!

If your process is to photograph at random, or based entirely on aesthetics and to leave the meaning to the viewer, then it isn’t you who is assigning that meaning. Maybe afterward, when curating and editing with a mosaic in mind built on the tiles of those individual frames, and maybe you want to keep your intention private, allowing and encouraging projection. But for a photographer who says there was never a meaning and that it’s all for the audience to decide, they are either not conscious about their voice, or the work truly has no meaning. While you can always project meaning onto meaningless work I have to ask, why bother?

Even here, the absence of a defining boundary around the meaning of the work serves as its own definition. A photographer can offer as much or as little as they want, but they will always be communicating something, even when they choose to remain silent.

Without that photographer’s clear intention, via communication or lack thereof, it is harder to intuit their voice. If the photographer has nothing to say how will they ever find a voice with which to say it? Even an exploratory direction is better than nothing. Introspecting on my own work I have looked over many hundreds of articles I’ve written during my time as a photographer, all of which look at different ideas around my photography.

Even in pieces where I’ve expressed uncertainty or experimentation, I can find my voice — ideas I have fully formed today that were formerly notes and speculation. In the places I’ve changed I can see how those early thoughts could have become an entirely different branch if I had spent more time exploring them.

I don’t think a voice needs to be something surgically precise, tone and form and expression change over a lifetime, and there will be times of loudness and times of subtlety. All will contribute towards the final tapestry of ideas, and from that macro perspective, the cohesive thread will be apparent. Some may pick up a theme or topic and run with it, and others may discover it along the way – but if they are open and personal with their approach then they will find it has always been there.

Once a voice is “found” it can become self-fulfilling, leaving plenty of room for fresh exploration and experimentation, but from a strong basis and foundation. Visual style becomes subservient to that, photography to serve the message, not the other way around as with open-to-interpretation, reflective surface type imagery. Projective misinterpretation will still happen, but this will be incidental rather than the entire point.

To photographers who look at the work of others to learn from them, ask yourself whether you are looking at the visual aesthetic of an image, or the information that aesthetic contains. Are you looking to be inspired, or are you looking to be influenced? You won’t find your own voice if you just adopt someone else’s way of talking. If you want to be influenced, then don’t be surprised when you don’t connect with the work you produce as a result of that influence.

To be inspired is to absorb semiotic interpretations and then frame the underlying message through your own lens. To be influenced is to see how someone else used a symbol and simply use the symbol in the same way.

For example, for the iconic image Approaching Shadow by Fan Ho, a darkroom technique was used to introduce a bold diagonal element that stretched away from his cousin, who posed for the picture. This line allegedly represents the passage of time, a tragedy as her youth fades away.

Approaching Shadow (right) the original photo (right) by photographer Fan Ho.

I can look at this photograph and be inspired to create an image using bold light and shadow, directional shapes, and atmosphere, to say something I want to say. I can also look at this photograph and be influenced to create an image where a heavy line of light represents the passage of time. One borrows a vibe onto which I can transpose my own message. The other takes what he wanted to say, and the way he said it, and makes only superficial changes. One will result in an image that may feel like one of his, and the other will be one that looks different but means the same thing.

I don’t think influence is a strong path toward work you are happy with. Style can’t be “canned”, there’s no template or checkboxes that will result in your voice being heard. It’s down to you to determine what you want to say, how you want to say it, and how you want to encode meaning into your images. You won’t get that by being influenced by the way someone else said what they wanted to, unless you’re saying the same thing as them.

Start somewhere. You won’t find your voice if you aren’t looking for it. Dabble in everything: aesthetic fine art, meaningless ambiance, intensely humanistic journalism, nature and wildlife, studio still life. Find out what resonates with you and why. Run with that towards a goal you want to achieve, and then start towards the next.

About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.