Assignment 4: The Unphotographable

This is the reworked version of this critical review essay assignment for assessment, following feedback and reflection. The revisions are in sequencing, minor text edits and the addition of example images.

My interest in metaphor and metonymy was triggered in Assignment 2 and the subject continued to fascinate me throughout the rest of the course and beyond.

Original submission | Tutor feedback | Response to feedback


The Unphotographable:
a comparison of metaphor and metonymy
in documentary photography

Printer-friendly PDF version (8.2MB)

Introduction

The indexicality of photography implies that ‘authenticity’ is one of its primary qualities, so we generally expect documentary photography to depict concrete events, places, people and things to tell its stories. This is however a limited view of documentary, described by John Grierson as “a creative treatment of actuality” (1933).

Many enlightened practitioners have successfully worked with the ‘creative’ part of the definition by deploying the hidden hand of authorship. Documentarians have long been applying semiotic theory (consciously or otherwise), employing signs to communicate ideas that cannot be directly photographed.

Documentary here describes any photography where there is an intention to inform its viewers of some reality, “beyond the production of a fine print” (Ohrn 1980: 36). Semiotics is the study of signs (Saussure 1983), and for visual communication we consider a sign in terms of its inseparable parts, the signifier and the signified – the thing photographed and what it represents. The linguistic transference that occurs when ‘thing A means idea B’ can take the form of metaphor or metonymy.

A metaphor evokes a similarity between signifier and signified (e.g. a field of wilting flowers connoting death), while a metonym evokes an association – whether a causal connection or a synecdoche – between signifier and signified (e.g. fresh flowers tied to a lamppost also connoting death, in a different way).

As a documentary photographer, does it matter which to use? Is one more appropriate, useful or reliable than the other? This essay examines the respective uses, advantages and limitations of metaphor and metonymy as rhetorical tools for communicating subject matter deemed to be ‘unphotographable’.

Language, authorship and ambiguity

Both types of figurative comparison sit at the foundation of language itself, though often overlooked. According to Bate, Jacques Lacan believed that “metaphor and metonymy [are] the two most important rhetorical figures, because they account for the ‘slippages’ in language that occur in everyday life” (2009: 42).

bowery_NCRstewed
The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75 by Martha Rosler

One reading of Martha Rosler’s meta-critique of documentary photography The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75) is that the titular systems are not specifically verbal and visual, but more broadly metaphor and metonymy (Edwards 2012: 106); it just so happens that Rosler used metonyms for the photographs and metaphors for the text cards, having decided not to photograph actual drinkers.

Barthes identifies three messages in a photograph (1977: 36): the linguistic message (accompanying or embedded text, working descriptively as ‘anchoring’ or indicatively as ‘relay’), the denoted message (what is in the picture) and the connoted message (what the components of the image represent). To differentiate between denotation and connotation is to understand the distinction between what a picture is of and what it is about.

Before dissecting metaphor and metonymy it’s useful to consider their common ground as figurative rhetorical tools. According to Franklin (2016: 146), documentary photography can be categorised as didactic (pseudo-objective ‘eyewitness’ work such as photojournalism) or ambiguous – allowing the viewer the cognitive space to bring their own imagination and context to create the meaning in their mind. If didactic images are analogous to prose, ambiguous ones are more like poetry (ibid: 151) – more expressive, fragmentary, potentially difficult to immediately understand, but more rewarding and memorable once the viewer-reader has made the connotative connection.

The distribution channel and the viewing environment can determine whether using ambiguity is appropriate; in photojournalism the image needs to “give up its meaning quickly” (Seawright 2014), but in a book or gallery environment one can create a more engaging, reflective viewing experience.

There is a continuum of authorship: at one end is consciously placing (or finding) signifiers to communicate a message; along the continuum is the photographer working reflexively and introducing signification without overt intent; at the other extreme is the image where connotation is entirely in the mind of the viewer – Barthes’ reader as author (1977: 142). This essay covers the first of these: the deliberate encoding of a photographic message at the moment of production with the intent of it being appropriately decoded at the moment of consumption (Hall 1980: 128).

Metaphor

Metaphor represents linguistic substitution: one item for another (whereas metonymy represents linguistic combination: one item to another) (Jakobson 1956). Metaphor simultaneously relies on similarity and difference (Fiske 1982: 96); signifier and signified must be sufficiently similar in some quality for them to co-exist in the mind, yet be different enough for the contrast to be evident.

One advantage of metaphor is its flexibility of form: the signifier can be an object in the frame, or a colour, shape, pattern, shooting angle, lighting choice, focal point or even a compositional element such as juxtaposition or position in the frame. A red colour palette can connote danger; a low upwards angle can connote authority; a person on the edge of the frame can connote isolation.

Another benefit of metaphor is that it can work at a subconscious level; a viewer may not know why an image makes them feel calm, happy, angry or unsettled, but it may be due to encoding by the photographer.

Metaphors require some creative cognition in the viewer and can therefore be riskier to employ; the universe of potential similarities to select from can be vast and diverse. The signification may go over the viewer’s head entirely, or there may be a negotiated or oppositional reading (Hall 1980: 128). Thus it is the ‘micro-level’ context that matters with metaphor: the viewing experience needs to provide supporting information such as text or other images, giving some ‘bumper rails’ within which to frame potential readings. The earlier example of death connoted by wilting sunflowers may not be immediately understood as an isolated image, but with relevant supporting text, and positioned between photographs of a derelict building and an execution site, it gives up its meaning more easily.

Metonymy

Metonymy is “the invocation of an object or idea using an associative detail; […] it does not require an imaginative leap (transposition) as metaphor does.” (Bezuidenhout 1998). Not requiring this leap gives metonymy an advantage in some situations: the transference of meaning between signifier and signified relies less on a creative receiving mind and more on knowledge and relational cognition. Metonyms can be therefore be easier to decode by the average viewer.

Metonymy relies less on the specific viewing experience than metaphor does, and can more reliably stand alone – as long as the ‘macro-level’ context exists, i.e. the knowledge that connects signifier to signified is part of a shared cultural code: flowers tied to a lamppost will connote death without further clues, as long as this form of memorial exists in the culture of the viewer.

The downside of using metonyms, aside from the risk of the cultural code not being shared, is that they are normally less ambiguous than metaphors and therefore potentially less expressive or ‘poetic’, which may render them less potent or memorable.

Now to look at when a documentarian might employ metaphors or metonyms – when one may need to portray subject matter that is either impossible or unacceptable to photograph directly.

Taboo subjects

First there is that which is unphotographable not literally but culturally: subject matter that breaks a taboo. There are subjects that are inappropriate or forbidden to depict in certain societies, with general examples being death, violence and sexuality and more specific ones including blasphemy or abortion. The photographer may have limitations placed on the shooting and/or distribution of images, or may self-impose restrictions for ethical reasons, such as the dignity of victims or the sensitivities of the viewing public.

Gilles Peress employed both metonymy and metaphor in this 1993 image of children playing in a Sarejevo war zone; the chalk line connotes murder victim and the shadow connotes a (child-sized?) corpse, but the former allusion is the more immediate and potent. The use of signification makes this image more powerful than a photo of an actual sniper victim, as this doesn’t just say people were killed here’ – it adds ‘and children accepted this as part of normal life’.

There’s a sub-genre of contemporary documentary that employs metonymy in an almost typological way. In 2016 Katherine Cambereri did a project photographing the clothing worn by rape victims, presented against a plain black background. It’s a combination of taboo subject matter and temporal shift, and uses the synecdoche of clothing to represent the victim.

Temporal shift

The second unphotographable category is what might be termed temporal shift. By its nature photography can only capture the present moment – the past is history and the future’s a mystery. What photography can do however is evoke a past (aftermath photography does exactly this) or foreshadow a future.

Simon Norfolk arrived at Auschwitz over 50 years too late to capture the killing that took place, but this staircase carries the message through a causal metonym. The punctum (Barthes 1993: 27) of the distinctive wear pattern on the steps, which when coupled with the caption placing the staircase in Auschwitz unleashes the horrific meaning of the image – the sheer volume of death. Metaphor is present as a secondary device; stairs as an allusion to ascension to heaven and the ‘other side’ in the blurry reflection to the right. This is a photo of a staircase, but about genocide.

Anticipatory or foreshadowing photographs are less common, but Josef Koudelka’s wristwatch image from the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague is a good example. Despite the reality that the photo denotes the time the invasion reportedly started elsewhere in the city, it takes on a connoted meaning by using the watch as a metonym signifying anticipation, emphasised by the purposeful posing of the arm over an eerily empty street. It is a photo about invasion taken before the invaders arrive on the scene, and so becomes a photo about a future event.

Intangible concepts

The broadest category of unphotographable subjects is intangible concepts such as thoughts, emotions, sensations and characteristics. How can one photograph indecision, infatuation, anxiety or stoicism? Wells suggest that “Objects do service as carriers of emotions” (2009: 98). This is an area where metaphor is more flexible and potentially more successful than metonymy.

Bill Brandt’s A Snicket, Halifax (1937) shows how long documentary has embraced metaphor. The steep, narrow, gloomy cobbled hill powerfully implies the struggle inherent in the lives of the northern working class he was chronicling, without depicting people.

An advantage of metaphor mentioned earlier was its ability to work beyond the constraints of the frame; it can extend into the presentation format. Edmund Clark’s Control Order House (2011) examines the life of a terror suspect held without charge under a form of house arrest. In the exhibition installation one room is covered floor-to-ceiling with all the JPGs from his memory card, unedited – a potent metaphor (to a photographer anyway) for permanent surveillance.

Conclusion

I’m increasingly deploying a combination of metaphor and metonym in my own work. In the example in the introduction I used flowers to metonymically connote bereavement. My final Level 2 assignment was concerned with regional stereotyping in the aftermath of the EU Referendum, and metaphor and metonym were employed as authorial devices to communicate stereotyped ideas.

Taking the broadest view, it can be argued that all documentary photography is metonymy – specifically synecdoche – in that it uses fragments of the world to represent a wider subject. Within the frame however, metonyms are particularly suited for subject matter that is not technically unphotographable but rendered so by taboo or timing; an associative detail does its best to stand in for the thing not shown.

Metaphors, on the other hand, excel at mentally evoking subject matter that is genuinely not physically photographable – the intangible concepts category. Provided the viewing audience can be reasonably expected to decode the message, in the appropriate context and perhaps after a suitable period of contemplation, then the world of metaphor offers the open-minded and expressive documentary photographer a potentially infinite box of rhetoric tools.

In the hypothetical situation of being forced to choose, I choose metaphor.

(1997 words)


Sources

Baker, S. (ed.) (2014) Conflict Time Photography. London: Tate Publishing.

Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage Classics.

Barthes, R. (1977) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press.

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Edwards, S (2012). Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. London: Afterall

Fiske, J. (1982) Introduction to Communication Studies. 2nd edn. London: Routledge

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon Press.

Grierson, J. (1933) ‘The Documentary Producer’, Cinema Quarterly, 2.

Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. 2nd edn. London: Laurence King.

Howarth, S. (ed.) (2006) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. New York: Aperture.

Lubben, K. (ed.) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Norfolk, S. and Ignatieff, M. (1998) For Most Of It I Have No Words: Genocide, Landscape, Memory. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Ohrn, K. B. (1980) Dorothea Lange and the Documentary Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press

Rosler, M. (1981) ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Saussure, F. de (1983) Course in General Linguistics. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court

Wells, L. (ed.) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th edn. Abingdon: Routledge.

Bezuidenhout, I. (1998) A Discursive-Semiotic Approach to Translating Cultural Aspects in Persuasive Advertisements http://ilze.org/semio/008.htm (accessed 13/10/2016)

Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding, Decoding’ https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/SH-Encoding-Decoding.pdf (accessed 20/10/2016)

Jakobson, R. (1956) The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic980277.files/Jakobson%20-%20Metaphor-Metonomy.docx (accessed 22/10/2016)

Paul Seawright interview (2014) http://vimeo.com/76940827 (accessed 19/10/2016)

Katherine Cambereri http://www.katcphoto.com/well-what-were-you-wearing.htm (accessed 25/10/2016)

Gilles Peress https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/conflict/gilles-peress-farewell-to-bosnia/ (accessed 20/10/2016)

Edmund Clark http://www.edmundclark.com/works/control-order-house (accessed 23/10/2016)


 

 

Assignment 5: portraying people without people

No people

One of the decisions I made early on in Assignment 5 planning was to exclude people. This in itself is making the whole thing more of a challenge, as it’s generally accepted that including people as subject matter is more successful that not doing – the viewing eye is drawn to human subjects, and documentary photography tends to be about issues that involve and affect people. So to exclude people seems to be a perverse limitation I’m putting on myself! But I can explain…

The whole concept underpinning the work is concerned with the dangers of over-simplification, manifesting here as deliberate stereotyping of people who live in a particular town (based on EU referendum voting data). However, I am morally opposed to using actual people to portray deliberate stereotypes, as I strongly believe that to do so is disrespectful to the individuals in question.

I wasn’t consciously aware of the precedent at the time of making that decision, but I was reassured to see that Martha Rosler held a similar moral stance in her seminal work The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1973-75), which I have retrospectively realised was an inspiration to my own work here. She depicted empty street scenes so that the drinkers that were the nominal subject of the work would not be “twice victimised: first by society, and then by the photographer who presumes the right to speak on their behalf” (Owens 1985: 69) – a damning but valid criticism of most documentary photography.

Symbolism

To communicate the notions of various pairs of opposing stereotypes circling around the cliché of ‘there are two kinds of people in the world…’ I need to apply the theories of semiotics and create signifiers to stand in for signified hypothetical people.

This means working with metaphors (signifiers that evoke similarity) and metonyms (signifiers that evoke association) to stand in for that which I am not depicting visually. I am increasingly fascinated with the notion of authorship in documentary photography and the deliberate embedding of messages that are not always immediately obvious. I wrote my critical review essay on this topic.

Of the two, it seems to me that metonyms are more useful (certainly easier to find and less obscure) for this assignment. In a recent post I brainstormed a list of potential subjects against the shortlist of caption pairings. It was a long list, with 30 signifier/signified combinations, and except where noted below are all the connotations I had chosen were metonyms (associations) rather than metaphors (comparisons):

  • Remain
    • Straight road
  • Leave
    • Exit sign
  • Upwardly Mobile
    • New build
  • Down and Out
    • Derelict building

Research

Last month I went on a very interesting study visit to the Strange and Familiar exhibition of photographs of Britain by international photographers, and subsequently bought the accompanying book. I was particularly interested in looking for images of British communities that didn’t include people yet still managed to evoke a sense of the presence of people. I also reviewed a number of photography pamphlets I’ve acquired from Cafe Royal Books who specialise in British documentary photography, notably from the 1960s-1980s.

A few summary takeaways:

  • Lots of examples of formal graphical elements in the composition
    • Lines, shapes, repetition etc
    • So a visually appealing image and use of leading lines to manage the viewer’s focus are important when there are no people to look at
  • International photographers leaned on metonym more
    • I presume the objects themselves held some novelty, and using them to make an association with the people not in the frame would be more attractive to the outsider, maybe?
  • British photographers in the CRB series made more use of metaphor
    • e.g. decaying buildings = deprived communities, long road = isolation, empty room = loneliness, etc

Learning

I need to lean less on metonymy and find more metaphors!

Sources

Edwards, S (2012). Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. London: Afterall

Rosler, M. (1981) ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Owens, C. (1985) ‘The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernists’, in Foster H. (ed) Postmodern Culture. London: Pluto Press

Assignment 4: Metaphor and Metonymy [original]

NOTE: this is the original version of the assignment as submitted to my tutor. The reworked final version for assessment is here.


Printer-friendly PDF version is available here.

Comparing the use of metaphor and metonymy in documentary photography

The indexicality of photography implies that ‘authenticity’ is one of its primary qualities, so we generally expect documentary photography to depict concrete events, places, people and things to tell its stories. This is however a limited view of documentary, described by John Grierson, who coined the term, as “a creative treatment of actuality” (1933). Some enlightened practitioners have successfully worked with the ‘creative’ part of the definition by deploying the hidden hand of authorship. Documentarians have long been applying semiotic theory (consciously or otherwise), employing signs to communicate ideas that cannot be directly photographed: “Objects do service as carriers of emotions” (Wells 2009: 98).

The linguistic transference that occurs when ‘thing A means idea B’ can take the form of metaphor (evoking similarity) or metonymy (evoking association). Jacques Lacan “selected metaphor and metonymy as the two most important rhetorical figures, because they account for the ‘slippages’ in language that occur in everyday life” (Bate 2009: 42). As a documentary photographer, does it matter which to use? Is one more appropriate, useful or reliable than the other? This essay examines the uses, advantages and limitations of metaphor and metonymy as rhetorical tools for communicating subject matter deemed to be ‘unphotographable’.

Documentary here means any photography where there is an intention to inform its viewers of some reality, “beyond the production of a fine print” (Ohrn 1980: 36). Semiotics is the study of signs (Saussure 1983), and for visual communication we can consider a sign in terms of its inseparable parts, the signifier and the signified – the thing photographed and what it represents. A metaphor evokes a similarity between signifier and signified (e.g. death connoted by a derelict building). A metonym evokes an association between signifier and signified; this can be causal (death connoted by flowers tied to a lamppost) or by synecdoche (death connoted by a toe-tag). Barthes identifies three messages in a photograph (1977: 36): the linguistic message (accompanying or embedded text, working descriptively as ‘anchoring’ or indicatively as ‘relay’), the denoted message (what is in the picture) and the connoted message (what the components of the image represent). To differentiate between denotation and connotation is to understand the distinction between what a picture is of and what it is about.

Before dissecting metaphor and metonymy it’s useful to consider their common ground. Documentary photography can be categorised as didactic or ambiguous (Franklin 2016: 146). Didactic means pseudo-objective ‘eyewitness’ work such as photojournalism. Ambiguous images allow the viewer the cognitive space to bring their own imagination and context to create the meaning in their mind – often via metaphors or metonyms. If didactic images are analogous to prose, ambiguous ones are more like poetry (ibid: 151) – more expressive, fragmentary, difficult to immediately understand, but more rewarding and memorable once the viewer-reader has made the connotative connection. It may even be that resolving the ambiguity makes the viewer feel clever.

The distribution channel and the viewing environment can determine whether using ambiguity is appropriate; in photojournalism the image needs to “give up its meaning quickly” (Seawright 2014), but in a book or gallery environment one can create a more engaging, reflective viewing experience.

There is a continuum of authorship: at one end is consciously placing (or finding) signifiers to support a communication objective; along the continuum is the photographer working reflexively and introducing signification without overt intent; at the other extreme is the image where connotation is entirely in the mind of the viewer – Barthes’ reader as author (1977: 142). This essay covers the first of these: the deliberate encoding of a photographic message at the moment of production with the intent of it being appropriately decoded at the moment of consumption (Hall 1980: 128).

Metaphor represents linguistic substitution: one item for another (while metonymy represents linguistic combination: one item to another) (Jakobson 1956). Metaphor simultaneously relies on similarity and difference (Fiske 1982: 96); signifier and signified must be sufficiently similar in some quality for them to co-exist in the mind, yet be different enough for the contrast to be evident.

One advantage of metaphor is its flexibility of form: the signifier can be an object in the frame, or a colour, shape, shooting angle, lighting choice, focal point or even a compositional element such as juxtaposition or position in the frame. A red colour palette can connote danger; a low upwards angle can connote authority; a person on the edge of the frame can connote isolation.

Another benefit of metaphor is that it can work at a subconscious level; a viewer may not know why an image makes them feel calm, happy, angry or unsettled, but it may be due to encoding by the photographer.

Metaphors require some creative cognition in the viewer and can therefore be riskier to employ – the universe of potential similarities to select from can be vast and diverse. The signification may go over the viewer’s head entirely, or there may be a negotiated or oppositional reading (Hall 1980). Thus it is the ‘micro-level’ context that matters with metaphor – the viewing experience needs to provide supporting information such as text or other images, giving some ‘bumper rails’ within which to frame potential readings. The earlier example of death connoted by a derelict building may not be immediately understood as an isolated image, but with a relevant caption, and positioned between photographs of a rotten vegetable and a black suit, it should give up its meaning more easily.

Metonymy is “the invocation of an object or idea using an associative detail; […] it does not require an imaginative leap (transposition) as metaphor does.” (Bezuidenhout 1998). Not requiring this leap gives metonymy an advantage in some situations: the transference of meaning between signifier and signified relies less on a creative receiving mind and more on knowledge and relational cognition. Metonyms can be easier to decode by the average viewer.

Metonymy relies less on the specific viewing experience than metaphor does, and can more reliably stand alone – as long as the ‘macro-level’ context exists, i.e. the knowledge that connects signifier to signified is part of a shared cultural code. Returning to the death examples, flowers tied to a lamppost will connote death without any further clues, as long as this form of memorial exists in the culture of the viewer; a toe-tag will connote death for any western viewer of police dramas.

The downside of using metonyms, aside from the risk of the cultural code not being shared, is that they are normally less ambiguous than metaphors and therefore potentially less expressive or ‘poetic’ – which may render them less potent or memorable. As can be seen in the remainder of this essay, however, they do often communicate more effectively than metaphors in some situations.

Now to look at when a documentarian might employ metaphors or metonyms – when one may need to portray subject matter that is either impossible or unacceptable to photograph directly. Here we look at three categories and consider the application of metaphor and metonymy: taboo subjects, temporal shifts and intangible concepts.

First, that which is unphotographable not literally but culturally: subject matter that breaks a taboo. There are subjects that are inappropriate or forbidden to depict in certain societies, with general examples being death, violence and sexuality and more specific ones including blasphemy or abortion. The photographer may have limitations placed on the shooting and/or distribution of images, or may even self-impose restrictions for ethical reasons, such as the dignity of atrocity victims or the sensitivities of the viewing public.

Gilles Peress employed both metonymy and metaphor in this 1993 image of children playing in a Sarejevo war zone; the chalk line connotes murder victim and the shadow connotes corpse, but the former allusion is the more immediate and potent. The use of signification makes this image more powerful than a photo of an actual sniper victim, as this doesn’t just say people were killed here’ – it adds ‘and children accepted this as normal’.

There’s a sub-genre of contemporary documentary that employs metonymy in an almost typological way. In 2016 Katherine Cambereri did a project photographing the clothing worn by rape victims, presented against a plain black background. It’s a combination of taboo subject matter and temporal shift (discussed next) and uses the synecdoche of clothing to represent the rape victim.

The second unphotographable category is what might be termed temporal shift. By its nature photography can only capture the present moment – the past’s history and the future’s a mystery. What photography can do however is evoke a past – aftermath photography does exactly this – or foreshadow a future.

Simon Norfolk arrived at Auschwitz over 50 years too late to capture the killing that took place, but this staircase carries the message through a causal metonym. The punctum (Barthes 1993: 27) of the distinctive wear pattern on the steps, coupled with the caption placing the staircase in Auschwitz, unleashes the horrific meaning of the image. Metaphor is present as a secondary device; stairs as an allusion to ascension to heaven and the ‘other side’ in the blurry reflection to the right. This is a photo of a staircase, but about genocide.

Anticipatory or foreshadowing photographs are less common, but Josef Koudelka’s wristwatch image from the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague is a good example. Despite the reality that the photo denotes the time the invasion reportedly started elsewhere in the city, it takes on a connoted meaning by using the watch as a metonym signifying anticipation. It is a photo about invasion taken before the invaders appear on the scene, and so becomes a photo about a future event.

The largest category of unphotographable subjects is intangible concepts such as thoughts, emotions, sensations and characteristics. How can one photograph indecision, infatuation, anxiety or stoicism? This is an area where metaphor is more widespread and potentially more successful than metonymy.

Bill Brandt’s A Snicket, Halifax (1937) shows how long documentary has embraced metaphor. The steep, narrow, gloomy cobbled hill powerfully implies the struggle inherent in the lives of the northern working class he was chronicling, without depicting a human being.

An advantage of metaphor mentioned earlier was its ability to work beyond the constraints of objects in the frame; it can extend into the presentation of the work. Edmund Clark’s Control Order House (2011) examines the life of a terror suspect held without charge under a form of house arrest. In the exhibition installation one whole room is covered floor-to-ceiling with all the JPGs from his memory card, unedited – a potent metaphor (to a photographer anyway) for permanent surveillance.

Increasingly I’m consciously deploying a combination of metaphor and metonym in my own work, predominantly to represent intangible concepts. In a recent project I used flowers to metonymically connote bereavement and trees as a metaphor for resilience. I’m currently working on a project on societal inequality, using juxtapositions of metonyms such as a new car on a drive connoting wealth and a bus stop connoting poverty. In the same project I’m working on visual metaphors at a more subtle level, such as the ‘haves’ being depicted in bright, open, wide-angle shots and the ‘have nots’ in more sombre and claustrophobic compositions.

Taking the broadest view, it can be argued that all documentary photography is metonymy – specifically synecdoche – in that it uses a fragment of the world to represent a wider subject. Within the frame however, metonyms are particularly suited for subject matter that is not technically unphotographable but rendered so by timing or taboo; an associative detail does its best to stand in for the thing not shown.

Metaphors, on the other hand, excel at mentally evoking subject matter that is genuinely not physically photographable – the intangible concepts category. Provided the viewing audience can be reasonably expected to decode the message, in context and perhaps after a suitable period of contemplation, then the world of metaphor offers the open-minded and expressive documentary photographer a potentially infinite box of rhetoric tools.

Sources

Baker, S. (ed.) (2014) Conflict Time Photography. London: Tate Publishing.

Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage Classics.

Barthes, R. (1977) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press.

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Fiske, J. (1982) Introduction to Communication Studies. 2nd edn. London: Routledge

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon Press.

Grierson, J. (1933) ‘The Documentary Producer’, Cinema Quarterly, 2.

Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. 2nd edn. London: Laurence King.

Howarth, S. (ed.) (2006) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. New York: Aperture.

Lubben, K. (ed.) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Norfolk, S. and Ignatieff, M. (1998) For Most Of It I Have No Words: Genocide, Landscape, Memory. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Ohrn, K. B. (1980) Dorothea Lange and the Documentary Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press

Saussure, F. de (1983) Course in General Linguistics. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court

Wells, L. (ed.) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th edn. Abingdon: Routledge.

Bezuidenhout, I. (1998) A Discursive-Semiotic Approach to Translating Cultural Aspects in Persuasive Advertisements http://ilze.org/semio/008.htm (accessed 13/10/2016)

Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding, Decoding’ https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/SH-Encoding-Decoding.pdf (accessed 20/10/2016)

Jakobson, R. (1956) The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic980277.files/Jakobson%20-%20Metaphor-Metonomy.docx (accessed 22/10/2016)

Paul Seawright interview (2014) http://vimeo.com/76940827 (accessed 19/10/2016)

Katherine Cambereri http://www.katcphoto.com/well-what-were-you-wearing.htm (accessed 25/10/2016)

Gilles Peress https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/conflict/gilles-peress-farewell-to-bosnia/ (accessed 20/10/2016)

Edmund Clark http://www.edmundclark.com/works/control-order-house (accessed 23/10/2016)

Assignment 4: critical review – second draft

Revised essay for peer review.

Comparing the use of metaphor and metonymy in documentary photography

The indexicality of photography implies that ‘authenticity’ is one of its primary qualities, so we generally expect documentary photography to depict concrete events, places, people and things to tell its stories. This is however a limited view of documentary, described by John Grierson, who coined the term, as “the creative treatment of actuality” (1933); some enlightened practitioners have successfully worked with the ‘creative’ part of the definition by deploying the hidden hand of authorship. Documentarians have long been applying semiotic theory (consciously or otherwise), employing signs to communicate ideas that cannot be directly photographed: “Objects do service as carriers of emotions” (Wells 2009: 98).

The linguistic transference that occurs when ‘thing A means idea B’ can take the form of metaphor (evoking similarity) or metonymy (evoking association). Jacques Lacan “selected metaphor and metonymy as the two most important rhetorical figures, because they account for the ‘slippages’ in language that occur in everyday life” (Bate 2009: 42). As a documentary photographer, does it matter which to use? Is one more appropriate, useful or reliable than the other? This essay examines the uses, advantages and limitations of metaphor and metonymy as rhetorical tools for communicating subject matter deemed to be ‘unphotographable’.

Documentary here means any photography where there is an intention to inform its viewers of some reality, “beyond the production of a fine print” (Ohrn 1980: 36). Semiotics is the study of signs (Saussure 1916), and for visual communication we can consider a sign in terms of its inseparable parts, the signifier and the signified – the thing photographed and what it represents. A metaphor evokes a similarity between signifier and signified (e.g. death connoted by a derelict building). A metonym evokes an association between signifier and signified; this can be causal (death connoted by flowers tied to a lamppost) or by synecdoche (death connoted by a toe-tag). Barthes identifies three messages in a photograph (1977: 36): the linguistic message (accompanying or embedded text, working descriptively as ‘anchoring’ or indicatively as ‘relay’), the denoted message (what is in the picture) and the connoted message (what the components of the image represent). To differentiate between denotation and connotation is to understand the distinction between what a picture is of and what it is about.

Before dissecting metaphor and metonymy it’s useful to consider their common ground. Documentary photography can be categorised as didactic or ambiguous (Franklin 2016: 146). Didactic means pseudo-objective ‘eyewitness’ work such as photojournalism. Ambiguous images allow the viewer the cognitive space to bring their own imagination and context to create the meaning in their mind – often via metaphors or metonyms. If didactic images are analogous to prose, ambiguous ones are more like poetry (ibid: 151) – more expressive, fragmentary, difficult to immediately understand, but more rewarding and memorable once the viewer-reader has made the connotative connection. It may even be that resolving the ambiguity makes the viewer feel clever.

The distribution channel and the viewing environment can determine whether the ambiguity is appropriate; in photojournalism the image needs to “give up its meaning quickly” (Seawright 2014), but in a book or gallery environment one can create a more engaging, reflective viewing experience.

There is a continuum of authorship: at one end is consciously placing (or finding) signifiers to support a communication objective; along the continuum is the photographer working reflexively and introducing signification without overt intent; at the other extreme is the image where connotation is entirely in the mind of the viewer – Barthes’ reader as author (1977: 142). This essay covers the first of these: the deliberate encoding of a photographic message at the moment of production with the intent of it being appropriately decoded at the moment of consumption (Hall 1980: 128).

Metaphor represents linguistic substitution: one item for another (while metonymy represents linguistic combination: one item to another) (Jakobson 1956). Metaphor simultaneously relies on similarity and difference (Fiske 1982: 96); signifier and signified must be sufficiently similar in some quality for them to co-exist in the mind, yet be different enough for the contrast to be evident.

One advantage of metaphor is its flexibility of form: the signifier can be an object in the frame, or a colour, shape, shooting angle, lighting choice, focal point or even a compositional element such as juxtaposition or position in the frame. A red colour palette can connote danger; a low upwards angle can connote authority; a person on the edge of the frame can connote isolation.

Another benefit of metaphor is that it can work at a subconscious level; a viewer may not know why an image makes them feel calm, happy, angry or unsettled, but it may be due to encoding by the photographer.

Metaphors require some creative cognition in the viewer and can therefore be riskier to employ – the universe of potential similarities to select from can be vast and diverse. The signification may go over the viewer’s head entirely, or there may be a negotiated or oppositional reading (Hall 1980). Thus it is the ‘micro-level’ context that matters with metaphor – the viewing experience needs to provide supporting information such as text or other images, giving some ‘bumper rails’ within which to frame potential readings. The earlier example of death connoted by a derelict building may not be immediately understood as an isolated image, but with a relevant caption, and positioned between photographs of a dead plant and a black suit, it should give up its meaning more easily.

Metonymy is “the invocation of an object or idea using an associative detail; […] it does not require an imaginative leap (transposition) as metaphor does.” (Bezuidenhout 1998). Not requiring this leap gives metonymy an advantage in some situations: the transference of meaning between signifier and signified relies less on a creative receiving mind and more on knowledge and relational cognition. Metonyms can be easier to decode by the average viewer.

Metonymy relies less on the specific viewing experience than metaphor does, and can more reliably stand alone – as long as the ‘macro-level’ context exists, i.e. the knowledge that connects signifier to signified is part of a shared cultural code. Returning to the death examples, flowers tied to a lamppost will connote death without any further clues, as long as this form of memorial exists in the culture of the viewer; a toe-tag will connote death for any western viewer of police dramas.

The downside of using metonyms, aside from the risk of the cultural code not being shared, is that they are normally less ambiguous than metaphors and therefore potentially less expressive or ‘poetic’ – which may render them less potent or memorable. As can be seen in the remainder of this essay, however, they do often communicate more effectively than metaphors in some situations.

Now to look at when a documentarian might employ metaphors or metonyms – when one may need to portray subject matter that is either impossible or unacceptable to photograph directly. Here we look at three categories and consider the application of metaphor and metonymy: taboo subjects, temporal shifts and intangible concepts.

First, that which is unphotographable not literally but culturally: subject matter that breaks a taboo. There are subjects that are inappropriate or forbidden to depict in certain societies, with general examples being death, violence and sexuality and more specific ones including blasphemy or abortion. The photographer may have limitations placed on the shooting and/or distribution of images, or may even self-impose restrictions for ethical reasons, such as the dignity of atrocity victims or the sensitivities of the viewing public.

Gilles Peress employed both metonymy and metaphor in this 1993 image of children playing in a Sarejevo war zone; the chalk line connotes murder victim and the shadow connotes corpse, but the former allusion is the more immediate and potent. The use of signification makes this image more powerful than a photo of an actual sniper victim, as this doesn’t just say ‘people were killed here’, it adds ‘and children accepted this as normal’.

There’s a sub-genre of contemporary documentary that employs metonymy in an almost typological way. In 2016 Katherine Cambereri did a project photographing the clothing worn by rape victims, presented against a plain black background. It’s a combination of taboo subject matter and temporal shift (discussed next) and uses the synecdoche of clothing to represent the rape victim.

The second unphotographable category is what might be termed temporal shift. By its nature photography can only capture the present moment – the past’s history and the future’s a mystery. What photography can do however is evoke a past – aftermath photography does exactly this – or foreshadow a future.

Simon Norfolk arrived at Auschwitz over 50 years too late to capture the killing that took place, but this staircase carries the message through a causal metonym. The punctum (Barthes 1993: 27) of the distinctive wear pattern on the steps, coupled with the caption placing the staircase in Auschwitz, unleashes the horrific meaning of the image. Metaphor is present as a secondary device; stairs as an allusion to ascension to heaven and the ‘other side’ in the blurry reflection to the right. This is a photo of a staircase, but about genocide.

Photographs that depict a future are less common, but Josef Koudelka’s wristwatch image from the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague is a good example. Despite the reality that the photo denotes the time the invasion reportedly started elsewhere in the city, it takes on a connoted meaning by using the watch as a metonym signifying anticipation. It is a photo about invasion taken before the invaders appear on the scene, and so becomes a photo about a future event.

The largest category of unphotographable subjects is intangible concepts such as thoughts, emotions, sensations and characteristics. How can one photograph indecision, infatuation, anxiety or stoicism? This is an area where metaphor is more widespread and potentially more successful than metonymy.

Bill Brandt’s A Snicket, Halifax (1937) shows how long documentary has embraced metaphor. The steep, narrow, gloomy cobbled hill powerfully implies the struggle inherent in the lives of the northern working class he was chronicling, without depicting a human being.

An advantage of metaphor mentioned earlier was its ability to work beyond the constraints of objects in the frame; it can extend into the presentation of the work. Edmund Clark’s Control Order House (2011) examines the life of a terror suspect held without charge under a form of house arrest. In the exhibition installation one whole room is covered floor-to-ceiling with all the JPGs from his memory card, unedited – a potent metaphor (to a photographer anyway) for permanent surveillance.

Increasingly I’m consciously deploying a combination of metaphor and metonym in my own work, predominantly to represent intangible concepts. In a recent project I used flowers to metonymically connote bereavement and trees as a metaphor for resilience. I’m currently working on a project on societal inequality, using juxtapositions of metonyms such as a new car on a drive connoting wealth and a bus stop connoting poverty. In the same project I’m working on visual metaphors at a more subtle level, such as the ‘haves’ being depicted in bright, open, wide-angle shots and the ‘have nots’ in more sombre and claustrophobic compositions.

Taking the broadest view, it can be argued that all documentary photography is metonymy – specifically synecdoche – in that it uses a fragment of the world to represent a wider subject. Within the frame however, metonyms are particularly suited for subject matter that is not technically unphotographable but rendered so by timing or taboo; an associative detail does its best to stand in for the thing not shown.

Metaphors, on the other hand, excel in mentally evoking subject matter that is genuinely not physically photographable – the intangible concepts category. Provided the viewing audience can be reasonably expected to decode the message, perhaps after a suitable period of contemplation, then the world of metaphor offers the open-minded and expressive documentary photographer a potentially infinite box of rhetoric tools.

Assignment 4: rethink

I posted a draft of my essay yesterday and fairly quickly got some challenging feedback (thanks Eileen) that made me step back and rethink the shape and content of the whole thing.

Feedback

There were two main comments, both valid, and one relatively minor and fixable but the other quite fundamental.

To paraphrase, the main points were:

  • Terminology:
    • I have been using ‘semiotics’ to cover both the study of signs and the use of signs, when it only means the former
    • I’ve also been using terms like ‘symbolism’ and ‘signification’ interchangeably with semiotics, which can be problematic
    • This lack of rigour around definitions is making the essay more woolly and easier to pick holes in than it should be
    • If this was the only issue then I could work through the terminology I’ve used and tighten it up throughout the essay
  • Core thesis:
    • I’ve built the essay around a core thesis that ambiguity and the use of signs is an underused technique in documentary photography…
    • … but in fact this concept is widely accepted in photography
    • Instead of being a critical analysis of the subject, I’ve mainly been regurgitating existing knowledge without adding too much
    • This is where I need to rework the overall thesis and structure, even if I re-use some of the core argument text

There were also a couple of pieces of other feedback I need to consider:

  • More contemporary examples
  • How this topic relates to my own practice

Take a step back

Over and above the general (and weak) ‘documentary photography should use ambiguity and signs more’ argument that bookended the last draft, there are two dimensions of the essay that – if analysed rigorously – can still form the basis of a meaningful critical review:

  • The distinct types of sign used:
    • Metaphor (similarity)
    • Metonymy (association)
  • The categories of ‘unphotographable’ subject matter:
    • Taboo subjects
    • Intangible concepts
    • Temporal shift

Based on these two axes I believe I can construct a more tightly focused and more distinctive thesis than the last draft. My thinking is that I can dig deeper into the different uses of (and pros/cons of) metaphor and metonymy, examined across the three categories of unphotographable subject matter.

This would make it more of a comparative critical review than before, and wording my hypothesis as an argument or question may be tricky, but I’ll come back to that after having a go at rewriting the main text.

Mind map

On my tutor’s advice I’ve started using mind mapping as a technique for organising my thoughts. It’s useful for spotting gaps and connections between aspects of the content, and in particular for helping to structure the flow of the argument.

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Revised title

My current working title for this reworked essay is:

Comparing the use of metaphor and metonymy as tools for photographing the unphotographable.

Revised essay plan

  • Introduction
    • Establish argument
    • 150 words
  • Definitions
    • Documentary
    • Signifier/signified
    • Metaphor
    • Metonymy
    • 200 words
  • Ambiguity theory
    • Continuum of authorship
    • Didactic vs ambiguous
    • Encoding/decoding
    • Cognitive effort
    • 250 words
  • Metaphor
    • Critical theory
    • Advantages
    • Disadvantages
    • 250 words
  • Metonymy
    • Critical theory
    • Advantages
    • Disadvantages
    • 250 words
  • Unphotographable subjects
    • Intro section
    • 50 words
  • Taboo subjects
    • Explanation
    • Metaphor suitability
    • Metonymy suitability
    • Examples
    • 200 words
  • Intangible concepts
    • Explanation
    • Metaphor suitability
    • Metonymy suitability
    • Examples
    • 200 words
  • Temporal shift
    • Explanation
    • Metaphor suitability
    • Metonymy suitability
    • Examples
    • 200 words
  • Application to own practice
    • Examples
    • 150 words
  • Conclusion
    • Refer back to opening argument
    • 100 words

Assignment 4: critical review – draft

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.

Assignment 4: progress update

I’m not entirely sure how much of my actual work-in-progress to put up here as I don’t think it’s a draft worth sharing yet, it’s still very rough. But I think I should a least document my process and progress so far.

essay

Having refined the theme, title and structure based on my first round of research, I have this week been attempting to get a first draft written down.

A few notes:

  • It currently stands at 1700 words
  • It is missing 2-3 examples I’d like to include (largely because I haven’t decided what examples to use)
  • It is missing lots of quotes to back up my points – I know there’s good lines in some key writers’ works that support my arguments (Barthes, Bate, Wells, Clarke etc) but need to sift through quotes that I have previously highlighted to see which best make my case
  • It is VERY rough – almost a stream-of-consciousness in parts…
  • … but I’m really glad I got it down, as at least now I have a scrappy first version to improve upon, which is so much better than a blank page staring back at me – writing is rewriting!

I’m finding myself mentally improving upon it as I spend time away from consciously thinking about it. I’m having brainwaves whilst out walking the dogs and coming back to scribble things down before I forget them…

Next steps

My plan for knocking the rough draft into shape breaks down as follows:

  • Confirm further example photographs to illustrate arguments
    • Do a second draft based on the above
    • i.e. improve the content
  • Identify appropriate quotations from relevant critical theory
    • Do a third draft based on the above
    • i.e. improve the content further
  • Refresh my reading on academic essay writing
    • I got a book on this last year for C&N and found it to be a useful redrafting aid
    • Do a fourth draft based on the above
    • i.e. improve the structure and flow
  • Share fourth draft with other students for feedback
  • Finalise fifth version based on this feedback
    • As suitable for submission to tutor

Assignment 4: essay plan v2

As per my last preparation post I have refined my critical review subject area and title:

The unphotographable: semiotics for the documentary photographer.

So here is the updated essay plan:

  • Introduction
    • State hypothesis / pose question
    • 200 words
  • State definitions / frames of reference
    • documentary
    • semiotics
    • metaphor
    • metonymy
    • 200 words
  • How semiotics manifests itself
    • consciously (authorial stance)
    • subconsciously (reflexive authorship)
    • in interpretation (reader as author)
    • 200 words
  • Intangible subjects
    • thoughts, emotions, sensations, characteristics
    • with quotation
    • with example
    • 300 words
  • Temporal shift
    • past (aftermath)
    • future (anticipation)
    • with quotation
    • with example
    • 300 words
  • Taboo subjects
    • death, violence, sexuality, abortion etc
    • with quotation
    • with example
    • 300 words
  • Risks/limitations of semiotics
    • non-interpretation
    • misinterpretation / negotiated reading
    • requires shared cultural context
    • requires specific project context (e.g. anchor text, place in sequence)
    • 300 words
  • Conclusion
    • revisit hypothesis / answer question
    • with quotation
    • 200 words

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:

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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

Research point: Semiotics

I studied semiotics (and structuralism, and post-structuralism) last year as part of Context & Narrative. I won’t reproduce the whole post here but will summarise my basic understanding, augmented by what I have learned since.

Bull (2009) and Bate (2009) give good summaries of the linguistic analysis work of Ferdinand de Saussure. The key point is that a sign is made up of:

  • The signifier (visual or verbal); and
  • The signified (thing or concept itself)

Notes:

  • Both parts must be present for the sign to function as communication
  • There does not need to be a logical, traceable connection between the signifier and the signified, it can be arbitrary and vary between cultures (indeed this is most often the case with words as signs)
  • There is no ‘meaning’ inherent to a sign; ‘meaning’ is something that takes place in people’s minds, and is a function of the difference between the sign and other signs in the same ‘language’

In The Rhetoric of the Image (1964) Barthes extends the theory to distinguish between:

  • Denotation (the visual signifier/s) – what it ‘is’
  • Connotation (the cultural signified) – what it ‘means’

With written/spoken language the connection is a generally accepted one; with visual language there is a sometimes a clear consensus on the sign (e.g. red means “danger”) and sometimes a certain amount of scope for interpretation available to the viewer – in the visual arts for example.

Not all signs are consciously formed: “The appearance of a sign or symbol in a photograph may or may not have been a predetermined and orchestrated consideration of the photographer.” (Short 2011: 126). There is a continuum of intent, from highly deliberate to entirely unintentional. In the middle are the shots where the photographer didn’t consciously realise at the time why they pointed their camera where they did, but saw something in the frame afterwards.

And according to Barthes’ The Death of the Author (1967), the reading of a photograph is personal and so any ‘meaning’ intended by the creator is no more or less important than a ‘meaning’ read by a viewer.

Though I haven’t quoted directly from it here, the most useful book by far was Sean Hall’s This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics (2012). It is highly recommended for a simple and step-by-step explanation of many aspects of visual communication.

Sources

Barthes, R. (1977). ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ in Elements of Semiology [English translation]. London: Jonathan Cape.

Barthes, R. (1977). ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image/Music/Text [English translation]. London: Fontana.

Bull, S. (2009). Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.

Bate, D. (2009). Photography: the Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.

Short, M (2011) Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA