Assignment 4: refined theme

I’ve been thinking about, reading around and generally reworking the essay plan for my critical review. The draft theme and essay plan were based around the following proposed title:

The use of metaphor as a tool in documentary photography.

However, my reading and research since that draft has moved my thinking on – expanding the scope a little in one dimension and refining it to a tighter focus in another.

Not just metaphor

Quite early on I realised that I had been using the word metaphor to mean a wider set of concepts than it actually does.

Specifically, I had been conflating metaphor with the phenomenon of metonymy, and while those two concepts are related – both about linguistic substitution – they are distinct:

  • Metaphor = similarity
    • the signifier is in some way like the signified
    • e.g. hill = struggle; closed door = rejection; blanket = hug
  • Metonymy = connection
    • the signifier is in some way associated with the signified
    • could be causal e.g. footprints = walking; empty bottle = drunk; grave = death
    • could be synecdoche (part standing in for whole / whole standing in for part) e.g. walking stick = elderly person; suit = business; parliament = politician

I realised that quite a few of the images I had been admiring in my research were examples of metonymy rather than metaphor.

The picture than led to this breakthrough is this Simon Norfolk image I saw in an exhibition in London recently:

3600
Auschwitz: staircase in a prison block, 1998 by Simon Norfolk

Zooming out a little, I realised that both metaphor and metonymy are kinds of symbols and exist in the broader field of semiotics.

Semiotics and the unphotographable

There is a widely held view (certainly in all my reading so far) that semiotics is most relevant for the genres of photography where the photographer-author is in control of the subject matter and by extension the intended message – genres such as advertising, fine art and portraiture are generally used to give examples of the application of semiotics in photography.

Documentary photography, with its general (though highly problematic) reputation as “truthful”, tends not to get too closely associated with semiotic manipulation.

And this is exactly why I find the subject so interesting!

I started thinking a lot about why a documentary photographer might employ semiotic techniques (why is more interesting than how, to me anyway). In the best examples I could find, a thread emerged: the photographers that used semiotics well were in one way or another doing so in order to photograph the unphotographable.

There are certain things that a photograph cannot (either literally or ethically) show directly, and must reply on semiotics of one form or another to imply through signification:

  • Intangible subjects such as thoughts, emotions, sensations, characteristics
  • Temporally shifted subjects i.e. the past and the future
  • Taboo subjects

This led me to my breakthrough – my essay will be the use of semiotics by documentary photographers in order to photograph the unphotographable.

New proposed title:

The unphotographable: semiotics for the documentary photographer.

Next steps

  • Revise the essay plan
  • Further reading
  • Gather further example images to support key points
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