Introducing Grammar to the Language of Photography

While photography and linguistic language share characteristics, when it comes to actually applying theories and practices between one and the other, it can be hard to remain coherent. This is down to the flaw in thinking that just because a comparison can be made aspects can be transposed between them.

Despite the flaws in treating photography like a language, I find there are some deeply useful ideas to be found in studies of language as a tool for communication that can be applied to making photographs that have that same goal of communicating.

If you want to work with photography as an expression or extension of language the first obstacle to overcome is that you will have to offer a guide, not unlike a dictionary, for every context you want to be understood in. A dictionary does not tell you how a word must be used; instead, it describes how a word has been observed to be used. Just as verbal meanings change all the time visual meanings and relationships are constantly in flux. An image that denotes one thing can have a great many connotations, and a photographer seeking to be an effective communicator will work to narrow these so that they do not risk misinterpretation.

An example I often offer in my lectures is the simple symbol of two intersecting lines, a cross. Anyone who has encountered Christianity knows that this is a significant symbol and that it represents a method of torture and death. However, people may see it as a representation of hope, love, the cosmos, or peace. Some may see it as a symbol of oppression, violence, domination, and control.

It doesn’t matter which of these are “correct” as they all can be, and many other possibilities as well, depending on the context. What matters is which of these ideas the photographer wants to use in their work, and how they go about doing that.

If we use the linguistic analogy a simple photograph of a cross can carry the same meaning as the word “cross”. On its own, it does not offer a lot to an observer of that work. However in combination with other words, and other context clues, you can convey with great clarity your intended message.

Here is a photograph of a cross, taken during a river-blessing ceremony earlier this year. The Shard is in the background, contextualizing the symbol in location, but not offering much more than that.

How could I take this symbol and offer clarity in terms of the different possible connotations I mentioned above? How can I make it about love, or hate, hope, or oppression? You could simply title the image “Hope”, which would go some way towards explaining your meaning, but it isn’t a strong visual, photographic solution, it’s augmenting imagery with writing.

Solving it photographically I think would take two forms. Either I take a better photograph, where the cross is in a different context than just being against a backdrop of London, or I find a different photograph to position in sequence next to it. Each individual image is still open to interpretation, but if you take the sequence as a whole then each image exists in the context of what comes next, what came before, how the sequence begins and ends, and the flow throughout.

Here are some possible diptychs, where the second image informs the first. Each of these contains a strong visual denotation; a military parade saluting a Minister, a woman hunched in prayer at the back of a church, and a young boy and girl dressed in fine clothing leading a procession.

The first image in each is the same, and grounds the topic of the diptych: Christianity in London, and the others expand on that topic in very different ways. To take this further we would introduce a third image, a fourth, and so on, until we have a photographic essay that introduces an idea, expands on it, and clarifies a message the photographer wants to communicate.

By working in this way, we have introduced a form of grammar to photography; in structuring a sequence of photographs in a way that refines meaning as each photograph is seen you allow for the closest comparison between a sentence written in words and a “sentence” presented in images. The part of grammar relating to structure is syntax, and syntax is very hard to determine when dealing with only one photograph.

The internal structure of a single image is usually more ambiguous than the combined sequence of ambiguous structures, which, when taken collectively, refine meaning. Just as you can communicate without grammar in many ways (laughter does not have grammar, nor does a child’s cry, yet the meaning of both is usually apparent) you can present a photograph without clear syntax, but when the objective is clarity then this structure becomes essential to achieving that goal.

A lone photograph can easily contain a strong idea or emotion. Stringing together individuals allows more linguistic characteristics to be drawn from, and allows for a more cohesive presentation of an idea. Once that sequence works, meaning can be derived from it as a whole, and then on the individual scale, rather than being a chaotic and interpretative experience throughout.

When a photographer pieces together such a mosaic is when their voice can really come through clearly, to have a specific intent, leave a specific impression, convey a specific meaning. Photography articulating via the individual image is not usually enough unless that idea is already so big and vivid and iconic and recognizable that it can be summarized and contained within just that single frame. Even those will often be accompanied by a title or caption offering specific context.

This process was part of the considerations I’ve written about before, my thoughts on documenting and presenting a story about the military occupation of Washington D.C. in early 2021. I knew what I chose to denote in my images would be interpreted in many ways, so I wanted to make sure when I pieced together the final book it would be in a way that emphasized those symbols in the context of the wider project, and not simply free association to anyone looking at them.

It is harder to apply ideas of grammar/syntax to individual photographs, because the aesthetic and symbolic structure may change across every single image in a portfolio. Even if two photographs contain the same visual structure they may not have the same structure in their meaning. Once you are looking at individual photographs I think a different system ought to be used, one closer to that guide/dictionary I mentioned at the start, which offers an understanding of each photographic “unit” on that individual scale.