Communicating Through Photography
University of Colorado at Boulder
"Communication breakdown, itís always the same, Iím having a nervous breakdown, drive me insane!" It seems that we have refined and expanded our forms of communication. At the same time, it seems that the more we communicate, the less we may actually be communicating. Of course, communication is an extremely expansive and broad field which is unavoidable in our daily lives. We constantly use it as a tool to process and relay information with one another. However, it becomes more complex as people frame communication differently. In doing so, meanings are construed and sometimes falsely or inaccurately represented. In this paper, I will focus on Barthesí theory of semiotics, how it relates to photo journalism, and how meaning can be conveyed differently in photos. In conclusion, a critique of strengths and weaknesses of the theory will be detailed.
Roland Barthes wrote about news photographs as messages. His theory states that there is a structured system of signs or codes that function as social phenomena, in regards to how they work in society. These codes constitute a system of cultural knowledge. Meanings are portrayed through myths, rituals, clothing, food, social class, previous knowledge, and so forth. These ideologies or unconscious meanings that express particular values are embedded in semiotic systems (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 2, 2008). Barthes used the news photograph to further explain this concept. He introduced the concepts of denotation and connotation. Denotation or "which is the analogon itself" and the connoted message "which is the manner in which the society to a certain extent communicates what it thinks of it" (Barthes, 1977). Barack Obama, for example, is a man. Through the lens of connotation however, he is the first African American President, the leader of the Democratic Party, a father, husband, and so forth. Barthe talks about a photograph as being the closet example of pure denotation. However, when text is added to the photograph the meaning and denotative status are changed. It detracts from the image.
Barthes writes about "The Photographic Paradox". The photographic image by itself is a message without a code or pure denotation but the denotated status of the photo "has every chance of being mythical" (Barthes, 1977). The paradox is there is a co-existence of two messages: connotated and denotated. "The photographic paradox can then be seen as the co-existence of two messages, the one without a code, the other with a code; structurally, the paradox is clearly not the collusion of a denoted message and a connoted message, it is that here the connoted (or coded) message develops on the basis of a message without a code" (Barthes, 1977). Continuing with this idea of connotation, or the second meaning of a photographic message, there are trick effects (fake photos), pose (arrangement of people), placement of photos, technical aspects of the photo, aestheticism, and syntax which do alter meaning.
Barthes further explores the relation of text to an image or how the text around a photo connotes it. First, "the text constitutes a parasitic message designed to connote the image" (Barthes, 1977. Text loads the image with hidden connotations. Second, "the effect of connotation probably differs according to the way in which the text is presented" (Barthes, 1977). The closer the text is to an image the less it connotes. Lastly, the words never duplicate the image. Instead, they always add new meaning.
Barthesí theory can clearly be applied to photo journalism. Every day we are faced with hundreds of pictures that are connoted differently. My example stems from Hurricane Katrina that tragically hit New Orleans in 2005. I found two pictures, one of two African American women wading in water with groceries and the other a Caucasian couple swimming with their newly found groceries. From an objective standpoint, these four people are all doing the same thing, trying to survive due to the devastation of a hurricane. However, photo journalists captioned this photo differently. The African American women were deemed "looters" while the Anglo couple were "finders" of food. Photo journalism as a field of work is paradox in itself. A photo journalistís job is to objectively report news through photography, but this does not happen due to the text that surrounds it. Cultural codes depict the final meaning. Looting conveys stealing which is a stereotype for African Americans. Finders, however, has no negative meaning.
One study that examined the way Blacks were portrayed in the media, analyzed African Americans in relation to photographs. The study suggests that "The news media may create or cause cognitive associations between Blacks and crime by providing the viewer with a host of examples in which the criminals, and particularly violent criminals, are more likely to be Black than White" (Oliver & Fonash, 2002, p. 139). Further, "The news media may not necessarily create or cause stereotyping, but rather provide information or images that are interpreted or remembered by the view in ways that serve to sustain or reinforce existing beliefs (Oliver & Fonash, 2002, p. 139). The implications of connoted meanings with text and photograph leave lasting stereotypes in general. So although the news photo with caption was suggesting that the African American women were stealing, this reproduces an already stated stereotype in mainstream culture that African Americans are looters or criminals. Barthes stated that captions add new meaning, and this is precisely what occurred with regard to the two photographs from Katrina. The Caucasian couple on the other hand, captioned finders of food, does not reinforce any stereotype as it is suggested they are lucky to find food in a time for survival. The relationship between text and image in this situation makes one dependent on the other instead of without text being an independent photo.
This concept has been perfected by political campaigns. To appeal to the racist vote, the George H.W. Bush campaign attacked Michael Dukakisí policies with regard to prison furloughs in Massachusetts with the infamous Willie Horton ad. Displaying a stark head shot of Willie Horton, an African American, the ad campaign was directed to crassly appeal to southern white voters. It was very effective.
Another study extended on Barthesí ideal of text adding meaning. In every example and addition to text and caption, the caption adds or changes meaning. The ideal of extension is portrayed precisely in the photograph. "Extension is a relationship between an image and a text in which either the one or the other add new, related informationľ .we consider the information an addition because it goes beyond what is represented in the image, beyond its participants, processes and circumstances (Martinec & Salway, 2005, p. 351). In this case, with the addition of text, representation of the image is skewed and given a new meaning.
Barthesí theory speaks of photographic insignificance and that significance is historical and cultural instead of intrinsic to the photo itself (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 2, 2008). He talks about three forms of connotation. There is perception, where we automatically categorize what we perceive; cognitive, where we recognize things that we know about which depends on the readerís knowledge; and lastly, ideological or ethical, where we recognize values depicted. I agree with him that in relation to photographs, we produce a meaning constituted by common culture. However, the notion that we share systems of signs or codes that constitute a common culture requires that one has the same cultural knowledge as the next person. A photograph of two African American women deemed as looters is culturally inappropriate in common culture. However, those culturally different might see all African Americans as people who steal or think that the Caucasian couple are looters. As well, the text and photograph relation requires a sense of common culture. I think we have to begin to question who constitutes our culture and what culture is. Culture is patterns of behavior and thought that define who we are and these are dictated by mainstream media in the application of photo journalism. So these images are being produced in our minds and filtered by common culture. In mainstream society, this produces a culture; however, if one is not part of our culture or any culture for that matter then they are unable to produce meaning significant or insignificant with previous learned cultural behaviors.
Overall, though, I think Barthesí theory of semiotics is pertinent to the reality of our daily lives. With the Presidential election, the Olympics, and other huge recent cultural events in our society, I think that his theory will help me in analyzing and perceiving photographs in a different light. Looking at a photograph in a denotative style is difficult but arguably important for it makes the viewer depict captions and ideas and become aware of the connoted meaning of the image. Because we live in a society that is so much involved in its culture I think Barthesí theory is especially useful and especially helpful in regards to photo journalism. Since communication is so prevalent in everyday life, studying it through a lens of different theories is useful in challenging and aiding how we communicate with others through shared cultural meanings.
Barthes, R. (1977). The photographic message (S. Heath, Trans.) In S. Heath (Ed.), Image, music, text (pp. 15-31). New York: Hill and Wang.
Martinec, R. & Salway, A. (2005). A system for image-text relations in new (and old) media. Visual Communication, 4(3), 337-371.
Oliver, M.B. & Fonash, D. (2002). Race and Crime in the news: Whitesí identification and violent and nonviolent criminal suspects. Media Psychology, 4, 137-156.