Barthes Semiotic Theory and September 11th, 2001
University of Colorado at Boulder
Each and every day we are exposed to hundreds of photographic images. These images are often easily accessible and utilized in a variety of mediums. Whether it be an image on the nightly news, local newspaper or simply and advertisement on the side of a bus, we are often encompassed in a world of aesthetic appeal. Thus, the audience both voluntarily and involuntarily sees a variety of diverse images. Nonetheless, they capture our eye and express cultural values, meanings, and functions. Barthes’ (1977) theory, “The Photographic Message,” describes the multiple messages embedded within images through the co-existence of denotation and connotation. First, this application paper aims at describing Barthes’ theory through the definition of connotation and denotation, as well as discussing the impact of text. Secondly, the semiotic theory of “The Photographic Message” will be applied to a photograph of September 11th, emphasizing connotative procedures and textual analysis. Lastly, the Barthes’ theory will be critiqued with the central focus of challenging Barthes’ argument about the possibility of pure denotation. Ultimately, Barthes presents a unique theory that is critical to understanding both the implicit and explicit messages present in photographic images.
Explanation of Barthes’ Semiotic Theory: “The Photographic Message”
Roland Barthes semiotic theory focuses on the social phenomena of signs, specifically photographs. Barthes theory emphasizes how signs constitute culture and ideologies in particular ways. According to Barthes, these messages are constituted in two ways: through denotation, the literal meaning and reference of a sign and/or connotation, the meanings that are suggested or implied by the sign. For instance, “Hitler” denotes an historical individual. Meanwhile, Hitler connotes, “evil, genocide, racism, etc.” (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 4th, 2007). Therefore, a photographic image by itself without a code is pure denotation. But Barthes claims that the denotative status of a photo “has every chance of being mythical” (Barthes, 1977). However, what exactly does mythical mean? Barthes uses mythical as a way of describing the characteristics that are associated with common sense, or in other words, the characteristics of a photograph that have the opportunity to represent and convey ideological norms of a culture. Consequently, a photograph can also connote cultural meaning. Barthes states, “The press photograph is an object that has been worked on, chosen, composed, constructed, treated according to professional, aesthetic or ideological norms which are so many factors of connotation” (Barthes, 1977). Thus, there is a photographic paradox in which there is a co-existence of denotative and connotative messages.
In order to truly understand and the connotative messages within a photo, Barthes suggests the awareness and ability to recognize the following connotative procedures: trick effect, pose, objects, photogenia, aestheticism and syntax. These procedures will be discussed in more detail for the application portion of this paper.
Although the photo itself often holds many connotative messages, the text around the photo also contributes to its connotation. Barthes describes the text as “parasitic” on the image. In other words, the text borrows the objectivity of the image, while at the same time loading the image with hidden connotations. Thus, words are not just duplicating messages within the photo but also, always adding new meaning (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 4th, 2007).
Ultimately, it is not the photo itself that is significant but rather the historical and cultural elements of the photo. Accordingly, there are modes of connotation that one uses to identify the ideologies and messages. The first is perceptive, where an individual automatically categorizes what they perceive. The second is cognitive, where an individual recognizes elements that they personally know about. For example, they identify with a particular place and time of an event. Thus, connotation relies on the reader or viewer’s knowledge. Lastly, the ideological or ethical mode is when recognizes a certain value that is being depicted such as beauty (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 4th, 2007). Through such modes of connotation Barthes' semiotic theory frames problems through shared meaning. Misunderstandings are then a result of different meanings whether it is unconscious cultural differences or hidden ideologies.
Application of the A Photographic Message using a Photo of September 11th: Representative Of Largest 9/11 Families Group Says Government Complicit In Attacks (Watson, 2006)
For purposes of this paper, the above September 11th photographic image that appears with an article by Paul Joseph Watson on Prison Planet.com will be discussed using Barthes’ theory of “The Photographic Message.” First let's begin by describing the messages that the photo denotes. Once again these messages are strictly the literal meaning of the photo. In this case the photo denotes the attacks on September 11th, and the fall of the World Trade Center buildings. This is mutually agreeable by all, however the messages, which the photo connotes, are most important and interesting to Barthes’ semiotic theory.
As mentioned earlier there are six connotative procedures that are used to amplify, enhance, and magnify the cultural messages within the photo. As it appears, trick effects (fake photos or digital editing), pose (the posture and arrangement of people), syntax (arrangement of photos in a series), and aestheticism (imitation of artistic styles) are not utilized in this photo (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 4th, 2007). However, the connotative procedure of objects (the placement of objects) is used in this photo to intensify the connotative messages. For example, the Statue of Liberty is strategically placed in front of the collapsed towers as a symbol of freedom, pride, resilience and strength. However to read this connotative sign of the image requires a sort of knowledge of the audience. The audience must have a “cognitive” knowledge to recognize the Statue of Liberty and its symbolism of American freedom. In addition the sign requires an ideological and ethical significance producing the belief that the form of American life is the correct and virtuous one. Barthes most accurately states this significance of object placement as follows, “The interest lies in the fact that the objects are accepted inducers of associations of ideas” (Barthes, 1977). Thus, the Statue of Liberty associates viewers with freedom. Secondly, Paul Watson uses the photogenia, or technical aspects of photo lighting, exposure and printing in the above image. The foreground of the image (the Statue of Liberty) is very bright and well light with a vibrancy of color compared to the dreary darkness of the background. This connotative emphasis produces a message that socially categorizes the strength and will power of American’s to overcome the devastation of the attacks. As Barthes states, the photograph allows the photographer to conceal elusively the preparation to which he subjects the scene to be recorded” (Barthes, 1977). In this case it happens to be the Statue of Liberty.
Although the connotative procedures amplify various social categories and messages, the text of the photo also connotes further messages. Barthes argues that the closer the text is to an image the less it seems to connote. According, this headline of this article, “Representative Of Largest 9/11 Families Group Says Government Complicit In Attacks” connotes more than a caption would. This headline is parasitic on the image because it borrows its aura of objectivity or denotation, and loads it with further hidden connotations (R.T. Craig, lecture, October 4th, 2007). For instance, the photo's text may create a message juxtaposed to the image to create sarcasm. It can be argued that the text suggests the government is complicit in attacks, suggesting the government performs illegal acts behind (as in the photo) the knowledge of Americans represented by the Statue of Liberty. This is only one of the many messages an individual can connote from the text and image; therefore, Barthes’ theory adequately describes the possibility of text adding new meaning to a photograph.
Critique of A Photographic Message: The lack of pure denotative images.
Barthes’ semiotic view of “A Photographic Message” presents both strengths and weaknesses that are important to understanding the process of communication. The first characteristics that will be examined are the strengths of Barthes’ theory.
Barthes’ presents a unique view of communication framing techniques. His theory of “The Photographic Message” presents many strength, most importantly, the ability to bring attention to connotative messages that are categorized in common culture. Barthes’ theory uses semiotics to further understand the systems of meanings expressed in relationships, social classes, clothing and other cultural produced phenomena. It is important to understand these connotative messages because they eventually affect many other aspects of our communication whether it is our identity, decision - making abilities, or our role as consumers. These messages are often times hidden so an awareness of how they are being emphasized through connotative procedures will help to open up a form of debate and communication that often times is not easily accessible in contemporary media. This awareness of connotative messages is extremely valuable as it can help society better understand both impact and intentions of images.
However, Barthes’ semiotic theory also has some weaknesses or spots of vulnerability. Most importantly, the most vulnerable aspect of Barthes’ theory is the impossibility for pure denotation in photographic images. Barthes argues that pure denotation is only possible in traumatic events. He states, “The trauma is a suspension of language, a blocking of meaning” (Barthes, 1977). In fact he argues that pure denotation is possible in events such as “fires, shipwrecks, catastrophes, violent deaths, all captured 'from life as lived'” (Barthes, 1977). However, I would argue that these images are not in fact purely denotative because they are being taken from a certain perspective. An individual chooses to take that picture at a certain time and angle and capture specific objects or people in that frame. I would argue that there must be a motivation for why that picture is being taken and what that individual is trying to accomplish. For example, why is a picture being taken of a violent death? Thus, photographic images are inherently always connotative as they present (frame) and capture a specific target from an individual for specific reasons. Entman states, “To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient” (Entman, 1993, p. 52). Accordingly, photographers always select aspects of a perceived reality and make it more salient in one form of another resulting in connoted messages.
Ultimately, Barthes’ semiotic theory of “A Photographic Message” presents a unique perspective of photographic images and their meanings. It has many benefits including an increased awareness of cultural norms, tensions, and differences. However, the theory also relies heavily on the knowledge of the audience and presents points of vulnerability. All in all, Barthes’ semiotic theory is a beneficial way of further understanding communication systems from a different perspective.
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.
Watson, P, J. (2006). Representative Of Largest 9/11 Families Group Says Government Complicit In Attacks. Retrieved from http://www.prisonplanet.com/articles/july2006/080706governmentcomplicit.htm.