An Image and Its Thousand Meanings
University of Colorado at Boulder
Today in the 21st century, with the advancements in technology such as the internet, cell phones, and media, we are exposed to thousands of photographic images each day with easy access. Whether we consciously or unconsciously see the wide array of images in our daily lives on magazines, newspapers, television, or advertisements on cars, buses, and even airplanes, we live in a world consumed by aesthetic beauty. When an image captures and intrigues our eye, it expresses cultural values and ideologies that one may not see directly. This application paper will first give an in-depth explanation of Barthes’ semiotic theory "The Photographic Message" by defining key terms such as connotation and denotation, along with discussing the multiple messages embedded within the image along with the impact of the text. Next, the theory of "The Photographic Message" will be applied to a photograph of the Atomic Bomb dome of Japan, emphasizing the connotative and denotative procedures. Finally, Barthes’ semiotic theory will be critiqued by its strengths and weaknesses based on the application by focusing on Barthes’ argument about shared meaning and pure denotation.
Explaining Barthes’ Semiotic Theory-"The Photographic Message"
Roland Barthes semiotic theory focuses on a structured system of signs, specifically photographs, as social phenomena. His theory emphasizes how these signs are codes of cultural knowledge and ideologies. In order to fully comprehend all of the implied meanings in an image, one must understand the cultural ideologies that are brought forth. According to Barthes’ theory, messages are composed through denotation and connotation. Denotation is the literal meaning or reference of a sign, whereas connotation is the meanings suggested or implied by a sign. For instance, Mickey Mouse denotes a specific cartoon character, while Mickey Mouse connotes "Disneyland, ‘happiest place on Earth’, childhood, etc." Thus, a photographic image by itself without a sign or code appears to be purely denotative. However, Barthes states that the denotated status of a photo "has every change of being mythical" (Barthes, 1977). His use of the word "mythical" is pertaining to the characteristic of a photograph that represents and conveys cultural ideological norms. As a result, there is a photographic paradox in which there is a co-existence of denotative and connotative messages in an image.
The historical and cultural elements of a photo are just as significant, if not more, than the photo itself. There are modes of connotation used to identify cultural ideologies and messages within a photo. The first mode is perceptive, where we automatically categorize what we perceive. The second mode is cognitive, where we recognize things that we know about, depending on one’s knowledge. And the last mode of connotation is ideological or ethical, where we recognize values that are depicted such as beauty ideals and fashion (R.T. Craig, lecture, February 28th, 2008). Consequently, connotation relies on the historical and cultural knowledge known by the viewer; therefore misunderstandings rise as a result of different meanings due to one’s knowledge.
Although the connotative procedures amplify various social messages, the text of the photo connotes even further messages. Barthes states that photographs and their cultural meanings, whether it is attached with text, have changed over the years (Barthes, 1977). In the past, the image illustrated the test, but today, the text "rationalizes the image" (Barthes, 1977). Barthes argues that the closer the text is to an image, the less is seems to connote.
Applying the theory to a picture of the Atomic Bomb dome
This is an image that has meaning to me, historically, culturally, and personally, as a second generation Japanese-American. This is a photograph taken of the famous Hiroshima Peace Memorial, better known as the A-dome. In this photograph, the image denotes the attack on Hiroshima, Japan by the United States on August 6th, 1945 during World War II and the remains of the dome today. However, the messages the photo connotes are a little different.
A photographer can add a meaning different than that of the cultural meaning by adding six connotative procedures that are used to improve and strengthen the messages within a photo: trick effects (fake photos or digital editing), pose (the posture and arrangement of people), objects (placement of objects in the photo), photogenia (the technical aspects of the photo such as lighting, exposure, and printing), aestheticism (imitation of artistic styles), and syntax (arrangement of photos in a series) (Barthes, 1977). A photographer is able to imply the illusion of pure denotation by altering the reality of the photograph by using trick effects, pose, and objects.
Using this image as an example, the bright pink flowers blossom in front of the remains of the dome symbolize life, rebirth, and beauty. Culturally speaking, most would assume that something of nature is coming to life, as this flower does. When spring arrives, nature comes alive after the harsh winter, and the grass, flowers, and trees come alive. This process of life and death can be seen anywhere around the world. As Barthes believes, the image produces and associates with certain ideas (Barthes, 1977).
The photographer of this picture uses the connotative procedure of photogenia tactically. The main object of the image, the A-dome, is half demolished and very dull in color, symbolizing a lifeless monument. But with the contrast of the blossoming flowers, bright blue sky with no clouds in sight, and the natural beauty of the trees, give off a completely different message to the viewer. The connotative message that is produced through this image is the rebirth of not only nature, but Japanese society as a whole to bring Hiroshima back to the beautiful city it once was, yet sending a message to the world of what devastating outcomes result from the use of the atomic bomb. Through such tragedies, life continues, and because the past can not be forgotten, the historical monument stands in peace in a newly industrialized society.
The text that accompanies the image reads "Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park." Right off the bat, the word "atomic bomb" depending on the cultural knowledge is referring to Japan, the only nation to have ever witnessed the powerful and devastating outcome of the bomb. The images evoked by the use of the word are burned citizens due to radiation, innocent people dying slowly searching for their loved ones, and a demolished nation. The usage of words "atomic bomb" and "Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park" are complete opposites of what they represent. But with the results of using the atomic bomb, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was born to bring peace to this world of conflict. This example shows the relationship between the image and its text. Combined, they imply the message that bombs, especially the atomic bomb, deteriorates a dome with so much history and meaning to the Japanese people; as it was the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall at the time the bomb was dropped. With the help of the text, these different meanings are connoted. Separately, the image and the text carry out its own meaning.
Critiquing Barthes’ theory
When critiquing Barthes’ theory, there are strengths and weaknesses in understanding the communication process.
Roland Barthes semiotic theory of "A Photographic Message" presents a unique insight of images and their visual and hidden meanings. Barthes' theory is useful when analyzing the objectiveness of a photograph. The text and image relationship also makes the viewer understand how the two can add meaning to one another.
The main weakness in Barthes’ theory is that shared meaning isn’t always shared. In "The Photographic Message," the sender and receiver are assumed to have the same cultural knowledge. For example, if one has no historical and cultural knowledge of Japan, they would assume that the demolished dome is the result of a fire or tsunami, not an atomic bomb. But with the text, it is evident that the dome is the outcome of an atomic bomb and today, it is a monumental symbol of peace.
Barthes argument that pure denotation is only possible in traumatic events is another weakness in his semiotic theory. He believes that pure denotation is possible in events such as fires, catastrophes, and death (Barthes, 1977). One may disagree with his statement and believe that photographic images are connotative because there is reasoning behind presenting and capturing a certain target for an image. Therefore Entman believes that photographers "select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient (Entman, 1993, p. 52)."
Roland Barthes’ semiotic theory is useful to communication because it differentiates a code or sign and what it signifies.
Barthes, R. (1977). The photographic message (S. Heath, Trans.). In S. Heath (Ed.), Image, music, text (pp. 15-31). New York: Hill and Wang.
Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51-58.