Interpreting the Language of Photography

If you are not responsible for the meaning behind your photographs then who is?

The camera can be many things, but compared to fine arts outside of photography it can be seen as a buffer between the artist and their art. In paintings you can see the difference between hard and soft brushstrokes, in sculpture you can see where the clay has been aggressively twisted or calmly worked. The process behind these arts lends itself to a tactile, directly hands-on manipulation of material where pressing a shutter does not.

This means that even when an artist does not have a direct message for their audience they can at least talk about their intention towards the art itself. For example, a painter who throws art on a canvas may not tell you what the shapes look like to them and leave it for you to figure out, but they can tell you whether they were angry, upset, or dancing when they threw the paint.

The camera as a buffer means that whether the photographer is happy or sad when they make an image may have little effect on the image itself. Unless someone is shaking with rage so as to blur the frame, or making some other active decision, the actual relation between what a photographer is feeling and what their viewer feels when they see the image can be very distant without specific guidance.

Words in language are something of a Rorschach inkblot, open to interpretation. Through convention and collective agreement we shape the shared meaning of words, a non-rigid process that constantly evolves through use. The same is true of visual symbols, although unlike words there is no dictionary to keep track of what those visual symbols mean or imply. The idea of photography as a universal language further complicates this, as even when you may identify some consensus on the meaning of a visual symbol it is not possible to assume that this meaning can be extrapolated across a universal level.

This difficulty to attach even broad meaning to a symbol encourages a mentality where the duty for deriving meaning is placed on the viewer. In these instances even when the photographer has something they want to say with their work it is simpler to present it ambiguously than to put the work into offering a guided understanding.

Why hand the responsibility for deciding what your work means over to anyone else? Is it really that low a priority for you to have the literal authorial voice over the photographs you have authored?

It is not easy to force your meaning into an image if it goes against the flow of popular understanding of those symbols. It is easier to lean into existing archetypes and guide them towards your intended use, but even then you cannot be certain that someone else will accept your definition. For example, using an image of a lamb to imply something other than innocence will take some contextualization to make your use distinct from that cross-cultural connotation. There are literally thousands of years of reinforcement behind the iconography of a lamb, especially from religions, either by way of metaphor or literal sacrifice.

As much as you may want your audience to see something other than this meaning it will not happen purely by your intent, or even the addition of a caption – instead by juxtaposing elements either in the frame itself or in sequence you contrast one idea against another, and somewhat displace the original meaning, supplanting your own. A photograph of something horrific in isolation will not mean beauty until the photographer actively affirms that understanding, through context and portrayal.

I often see attempts to convey complex subject matter in a way that just doesn’t carry that meaning across – much like how in comedy a hilarious joke can be told about a taboo topic, but a different joke may tackle the same topic far less effectively. The difference is in the execution; a mediocre joke not only won’t be funny but can be considered actively disrespectful, whereas with a joke that’s actually funny, you can see that the work has gone into covering all possible ways of misinterpretation.

Cultural differences are where interpretation really plays a role in the photographic depictions of literal differences in ways we manifest our behaviors. A good example of this is the iconography of a common gesture, two hands with palms together – or “Anjali mudra” as it’s commonly referred to in Indian religions. To some this is seen as a form of greeting, to others it may be a sign of prayer. The prayer connotation of the symbol lends itself to the idea of a request, which means it is further associated with begging. So if you have a photograph of hands in this position, without context, what will the meaning be? A greeting? Prayer? Begging?

From this we can see how a photograph with a meaning intended to be about welcoming, or prayer, can be interpreted as about begging – or vice versa. This is where contextualization is absolutely key. If in my example image I had not included the rest of the group and the facial expressions to go with them, it’s possible that the truth of the image (prayer) would have been perceived as something else.

Even when you clearly understand what you are going for in your photograph the execution both in individual frames and in a sequenced body of work is paramount. Elimination of subtext and reinforcement of your intention throughout a project means that you equip your viewer with the tools necessary to take from it exactly what you want the impact to be, rather than leaving it for them to provide.

If you find your viewers are often misinterpreting your photographs, consider how that is happening, which aspects are being seen as meaning something other than what you meant, and figure out how better to offer more in the periphery to prevent that misconstruction.

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.

Image credits: Photographs by Simon King