EDIT: this draft is no longer current as the essay is being reworked based on early feedback. New draft here.
This is the proposed essay for Assignment 4, awaiting peer review from kind-hearted fellow students.
It is missing sources at the moment, as I will add these in the version I submit for my tutor.
It’s currently slightly under word count, so I have a little room to play with if certain aspects need expanding.
The Unphotographable: Semiotics for the Documentary Photographer
The worlds of semiotics and documentary photography may not seem to naturally overlap much at first. Broadly speaking, documentary maintains a reputation for showing ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ (even though this has been proven to be problematic); it is generally expected to depict concrete events, places, objects and people to tell its stories. The field of semiotics – the use of coded signs to communicate messages – is normally applied to other genres of photography with more control over subject matter, such as advertising, fine art and portraiture, and less often to documentary. Much of the documentary canon appears to place itself above such mental manipulation by deferring to the literal, relying on the indexical nature of the medium to promote its highly prized quality, ‘authenticity’.
This is however a limited view on documentary, a genre that “hovers between art and journalism” (Bate 2008: 56). A case could be made that dogmatic documentarians are missing out on an underused yet valuable tool that could allow them to communicate ideas that cannot be physically photographed. This essay explores the question: is semiotic signification a valid technique for the documentary photographer?
Documentary is used here in the generally accepted sense of photography that is intended to inform its viewers of some reality, “having a goal beyond the production of a fine print” (Ohrn 1980: 36). At its simplest, semiotics is the theory of signs. Applied to visual communication like photography it is useful to think of the sign as being comprised of its two inseparable parts, the signifier and the signified (Saussure 1916) – the object captured in the photograph and what it symbolises. The linguistic substitution that occurs when ‘thing A means idea B’ can take different forms, the most common being metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor is when similarity is evoked – the signifier and the signified have characteristics in common (e.g. death connoted by a derelict building). Metonymy is when association is evoked – the signifier and the signified are connected within the same paradigm, in a causal relationship (death connoted by flowers tied to a lamppost) or as synecdoche (a corpse connoted by a toe-tag).
Clarke proposes that we recognise the hidden hand of authorship: “Far from being a ‘witness’, [the documentary image] is often a director of the way events are seen.” (1997: 150), though in reality there is a continuum of photographic signification. At one end, conscious authorial intention places (or finds) symbols that communicate an intended meaning; along the continuum is the photographer that reflexively introduces symbolism without overt intention; at the other extreme is the photograph with signification perceived entirely by a viewer’s interpretation – the reader as author (Barthes 1977: 142-148). This essay is focused on the first point above: the deliberate use of signification, where an intended message is encoded into the image at the moment of production, with the expectation that the target audience will decode it appropriately at the moment of consumption (Hall 1980: 128).
Documentary photography can be categorised as didactic or ambiguous (Franklin 2016: 146). Didactic refers to the traditional, pseudo-objective, ‘eyewitness’ work of photojournalists, for example. Ambiguous photography is more open, allowing cognitive space for the viewer to interact with the image, to mentally process the signification and come to a conclusion. If didactic photography is analogous to prose writing, then ambiguous photography is more like poetry (ibid: 151) – more expressive, fragmentary, difficult to immediately understand, but more rewarding to the viewer-reader once the connotative connection is made. Instead of the communication experience being a linear process from subject to photographer to viewer, it becomes more of a triangulation between the three. Ambiguity is however only a useful communication tool if there is a second (connoted) meaning embedded behind the literal (denoted) reading; ambiguous does not equal meaningless.
This relates to what Stephen Shore calls ‘mental modelling’ – what goes on in the mind when viewing a photograph (2010: 97). The cognitive effort needed to ‘resolve’ an ambiguous image means that it is held in the mind for longer, and has a better chance of being remembered or thought of positively (and may even make the viewer feel clever for ‘getting it’).
There are clearly advantages to applying semiotic tools to documentary photography, but what kinds of situation are best suited to this approach? Semiotics can open up opportunities to depict subjects which are inherently impossible (or unacceptable) to photograph directly. There are three categories under discussion here: taboo subjects, intangible concepts and temporal shifts.
To start with that which is ‘unphotographable’ at a cultural rather than the literal level: some subjects are not photographed directly because to do so would break taboos. General examples include death, violence and sexuality; more specific ones could be blasphemy or abortion. A photographer may have restrictions placed on their work, at the point of shooting or of distribution, or may self-impose limitations to conform to cultural norms, such as considering the ethics of depicting victims of atrocities and the sensitivities of the viewing public.
Gilles Peress used both metaphor and metonymy in this image of children playing in a Sarajevo square; it doesn’t show a murdered body but alludes to it in the substitution of the shadow for a corpse, and the chalk line drawn around it. In a way this image speaks more of the horror of war than a shot of an actual sniper victim would have done; it says more than ‘people died here’, it also says ‘and children accepted this as normal’.
A 2016 project by Laia Abril looked at the dangers to women in countries where abortion is illegal. For obvious reasons of sensitivity (or self-censorship) Abril did not include gruesome images of mis-handled medical procedures, but circumvented the taboo by photographing surgical equipment used. In the exhibition space this metonymy reached its visceral peak not with a photograph but a three-dimensional piece: a pile of wire coat-hangers.
A larger category of ‘unphotographable’ subject matter is the realm of intangible concepts, such as thoughts, emotions, sensations or characteristics. How can a documentary photographer depict, for example, indecision, infatuation, pain or stoicism? Perhaps the key lies in the transference of meaning between signifier and signified, where “Objects do service as carriers of emotion” (Wells 2009: 98).
One of Bill Brandt’s most famous images, A Snicket, Halifax (1937) is rich with metaphor. It denotes exactly what its title says, but what it connotes is more interesting: it uses the steep, bare, gloomy, narrow cobbled hill to signify the struggle of a 1930s working class northern life. The adjectives used to describe the physical scene transpose directly onto the lives of the invisible human subjects. This was no coincidence; in his essay on the photo Nigel Warburton states: “Brandt described his photography as a quest to achieve atmosphere… The source of atmosphere need not itself be pleasant or attractive.” (Warburton 2005: 58)
Alec Soth’s project Songbook was intended to capture “the tension between American individualism and the desire to be united” (Soth 2014), and there’s one particular image that does this in a single frame using metaphor. The placement of the single figure in the middle of a grid pattern becomes a metaphor for the paradoxical loneliness of online ‘social network’ interaction – a reading that only arises once the location is revealed in the caption.
Another use of semiotic tools in documentary photography is what could be termed temporal shift. Given the nature of the medium, one can inherently only take a photograph of the present moment – the past is history and the future is a mystery. One can however take an image that evokes a past (aftermath photography does exactly this) or an image that foreshadows a future.
Simon Norfolk’s photograph of a staircase at Auschwitz was taken over 50 years after the death camp closed and yet manages to bring to mind the hundreds of thousands killed there. What looks like an ordinary staircase takes on its horrific significance once the viewer notices the punctum (Barthes 1993: 27) of the worn steps, with their distinctive pattern made by people walking two abreast. Along with the caption situating the staircase inside Auschwitz, this metonymic detail unlocks the meaning of the image. The difference between what a photograph is of and what a photograph is about becomes clear. It is a photograph of a staircase; it is a photograph about genocide. Metaphor is subtly present in the image as well, with both the connotation of stairs with ascension to heaven, and of the reflection of the ‘other side’ to the right of the picture.
An iconic example of the anticipatory semiotic image is Josef Koudelka’s wristwatch hovering over an empty street on the day of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague. Even if the reality is that the watch shows the time the invasion reportedly started elsewhere in the city, by positioning it over the empty road it takes on a metaphorical significance – it connotes waiting for the invasion. By juxtaposing a signifier for ‘waiting’ with the empty arena of conflict, it becomes a tension-filled image about invasion taken before the invaders actually become visible. It is, in one sense, a photo of a future event.
As powerful as it can be, the use of semiotic concepts in documentary photography is however not without its limitations and risks. In a genre where the viewer is generally conditioned to see ‘facts as they are’, the use of symbolic imagery needs to be carefully weighed up to avoid decoding problems. On one hand, the symbolism may simply go over the head of the viewer and no non-literal reading is made, ‘correct’ or otherwise. On the other, there could be a negotiated or oppositional reading (Hall 1980) where the viewer identifies that symbolism is being employed but draws a conclusion that doesn’t fit with the photographer’s intended encoding. The underlying explanation for this slippage risk is that an aligned communication of a photographic connotation requires a shared context between the photographer and the viewer, i.e. both working with the same ‘code’.
This shared context needs to be both macro-level and cultural (e.g. in the Peress example the viewer needs to be familiar with the practice of drawing chalk lines around murder victims) and micro-level and specific to the viewing experience e.g. by use of supporting text such as an anchoring caption or artist’s statement (the text accompanying the Peress image explains that the location of the photo is a Sarejevo square known for sniper shootings). With this latter point we can appreciate how Barthes’ three messages explained in The Rhetoric of the Image (1977: 36) – the linguistic, the denoted image and the connoted image – need to work together.
The distribution channel, and its accompanying purpose, can also dictate the use of semiotic messages. News photography needs to “give up its meaning quickly” (Seawright 2014) and so didacticism rules, while in a book or gallery environment, reflective viewing is encouraged so ambiguity can be employed.
These limitations notwithstanding, there are enough examples of powerful documentary photographs that have used semiotics to prove that it can be a legitimate technique at the documentarian’s disposal. Once a photographer accepts that there is a ‘rhetoric toolbox’ available – containing other tools such as light, colour, vantage point, cropping and so on (Franklin 2016: 129-134) – then the use of semiotics should also be considered legitimate.
John Grierson, who coined the phrase ‘documentary’, defined it as “the creative treatment of actuality” (1933). If the creative treatment is at the service of communicating the underlying actuality then the use of semiotic concepts absolutely is a valid technique for documentary photography.