Roland Barthes: The Photographic Message- Lecture 9

During this lecture we discussed one of the most influential writers of the 20th-century Roland Barthes, exploring some of his most central concepts in the area of semiotics (the relationships between signs and what they mean). Barthes was a literary theorist writing about culture and literature, who saw photography as something more complex in how we read images. Barthes proposed a way of ‘reading’ photographs based on the existing theory called Semiotics and we looked at a method Barthes proposed to analyse photographs.

What is Semiotics?

The term ‘Semiotics’ comes from the Greek word semeion’ meaning “sign”. Semiotics is the relationships between signs and what they mean; a theory that was developed in order to understand how language works. Semiotics asks questions such as: How do we use language to communicate? and, What is the relationship between the words we use and the real things in the world that we are referring to? Signs can be words, pictures or symbols and is a way of analysing meanings by looking at signs which communicate these meanings.

Why use Semiotics?

Communication isn’t a straight process, semiotics reveals the hidden nature of verbal and visual communication; the mechanics of communication. It positions an audience in the key part of what is going on and gives the responsibility of the message to be understandable to its audience for meaning to take place. Semiotics studies image and words; how does 1 thing have so many ways of saying it and sounds. Semioticians see the generation of meaning as an active process; image/language/culture. Culture allows us to understand.

Aspects of study in semiotics

1.The sign itself (image/word)

  • Variety of different ways signs have of conveying meaning

2.The codes or systems into which signs are organised (language)

  • A variety of codes have developed to meet the needs of a society/culture

3.The culture within which these codes and signs operate.

  • The use of these codes and signs for the culture’s existence, form and extension.

Pierce- Icon, Index, Symbol

An icon relies on image, as it signifies in virtue of its resemblance, or its analogical relation to what it wishes to represent. The icon is the simplest sign that physically resembles what it stands for. For example, below we are presented with 2 very clear photographs. On the left we have the Eiffel Tower and on the right we have a sign that clePicture2arly represents ‘No Smoking’.


A symbol focuses more on the proportion of language as it does not resemble what it refers to; it signifies through the force of convention. It doesn’t say anything about that thing. For example:

the word ‘Apple’                                              Or the word ‘Dog’




An index does not necessarily resemble its referent.  It signifies in virtue of a relationship with its referent, often defined by some sensory feature (it doesn’t resemble but it refers to). For example: Smoke is an index of Fire.







Saussure: Signifier- Signified

This is the communication of how we understand the world. Saussure offered a two-part model of the sign. He defined a sign as being composed of:

  • a signifier- the form which the sign takes; and
  • the signified- the concept it represents.


For example:

The word open can be used in a number of contexts. In the case of an open sign in a shop window- the signifer is the word ‘open’, and the signified concept is that the shop is open for business.

Take the word ‘Cat‘ as another example. The signifer of this word is the 3 letters in which it consists of “c-a-t”, the sound and the appearance of the word. The reader/listener sees/hears the sign, but considers the concept of “cat” as opposed to an actual cat: Four legged furry animal which meows and purrs. There is no relationship concreted between sounds and what it is and so the audience bring their own idea to experience. This is a general understanding for the audience as they share acknowledgement of what it is.

  • How do signs and meanings relate?

When we think of the signifer ‘cat’, it doesn’t relate to a single individual- it stands for all cats. Your image of a cat will be very different to mine. There is an arbitrary relation between a sign and its meaning. The relation between signs and what they signify is based on convention. If the relation between signifier and signified is only defined by convention, then meaning or signification is socially and historically constructed.

Barthes: The Photographic Message

Roland Barthes adapts the linguistic ‘science’ of semiotics and uses it to interrogate culture. He uses semiotics and adapts that culture. This presents a system of understanding culture in a more vigorous way.

  • From the study of verbal language to that of cultural phenomena: films, photographs, fashion, advertising, etc.
  • Developing a common vocabulary and a rigorous method for the critical analysis of mass culture.
  • Understanding the complexity and meaningfulness of all cultural artefacts despite their apparent “obviousness”.

Messages and Codes

As a Linguist, Barthes makes a distinction between ‘messages’ and ‘codes’:

  • message is a picture of writing; it convey’s what is getting across.
  • A code is an abstraction created by the reader; constructs materials from the message, e.g. our understanding. We saw this before in the example of the ‘Open’ shop sign

Barthes argues that this distinction between messages and codes is problematic when we deal with photography, because of the special nature of the image.

  • Barthes argues that this distinction between messages and codes is problematic when we deal with photographic image, because of the special nature of photographs.
  • Photographs are pictures of things in the world. They are true likenesses of those things. This close relationship between the image and the thing depicted makes it difficult to see how the viewer can add their own meaning to it.

The ‘reality effect’ of photographs

The “reality-effect”: So-called “realism” of the image makes it appear to be “natural” rather than socially and historically constructed. The photograph transmits the precise realism of the scene portrayed, however there is no obligation to set up a relay between the object and its photographic image (to create a code). The photograph appears to be a ‘message without a code’. There are other messages without codes –  drawings, paintings, cinema, theatre. These are all analogues* of reality (*comparable, similar, related). All these ‘imitative’ arts carry a denoted message (their resemblance  to reality) and a connoted message which is the way in which we approach these art forms (as stylistic interpretations of reality which in themselves carry additional messages).

However, the photograph seems to only carry a single message – the denoted message.  This first order message completely fills it and leaves no room for a second order (connoted) message. Because of the ‘reality effect’ of photographs in particular, because of their method of construction, we are in danger of not realising that photographs are capable of connotation (of code) unless we think about the content and contexts of the image more carefully.

The Photographic Paradox

Photographs appear to be objective and factual, however it’s likely that they also have connoted messages. The photographic paradox is the existence of 2 messages:

  • the one with a code= the connotation
  • the one without a code= the denotation

The denotation in a message is what we are shown and the connotation is what we take from that. The message is 2D and the code is 3D.

Relationship between terms

Message and Code

Signifier (representation)= Signified (meaning)

Denotation= Connotation

Photograph= Caption

Obvious or Informational= Symbolic

‘Natural’ or non-coded= ‘Ideological’/ cultural code

What is photographed= How and why it is photographed

Denotation – ConnotationPicture7

  • Denotation= what is literally depicted in a photograph. Basics in the image which gives us facts.
  • Large, ornate building, blue sky, empty surroundings, wide space


  • Connotation= what is suggested by the depiction of the viewer. Extras associated through the knowledge of the context of the image.
  • Buckingham Palace, London, royalty, wealth, ‘Britishness’, political inequality etc.

Forms of connotation

  • Perceptive– the photograph is verbalised at the moment it is perceived. (this is similar to denotation, in that facts about the image content are perceived by the viewer immediately and without needing to name them).
  • Cognitive– factual elements of the image are picked out or understood because of the viewer’s knowledge.
  • Ideological and Ethical– the elements that convey the strongest and most complex message.


This image denotes a graveyard surrounded by buildings and power-lines. These are the elements that can easily be pointed out as they can be seen clearly by the viewer, The use of the larger cross in the image connotes religion, with the differences between life and death being connoted from the graveyard being placed opposite a row of houses.

Photographic Connotations

  • In ‘The Photographic Message’ Barthes identifies some forms of connotation which seem particular to photography. He sees these as forms of connotation that are created at different points in the production of the photograph.

He identifies six forms of photographic connotation:

  • Pose
  • Objects
  • Aestheticism
  • Trick effects
  • Photogenia
  • SyntaxPicture9

Pose: the position of a figure which itself contains messages from culture, history, literature, painting (e.g, pieta, praying).

Objects – objects are signifiers and associate with ideas in culture.  The arrangement or selection of objects creates a connotation in the photograph.

Aestheticism – photographs which compositionally emulate paintings or other culturally known images.

Trick effects – the disruption of the credibility of the photograph as an analogon of reality by creating a false simulation.

Photogenia – an informational structure related to the technology of photographic production (lighting, exposure, printing) through which certain effects (motion blur, double exposure etc) create connotations in the photograph

Syntax – the connotation create by viewing a sequence of images and which emerges from the photographs in relation to each other rather than singly.


Text and Image

Text and image can never be read as the same thing.  Sometimes text invents and projects an entirely new set of signifiers onto the image which are not detectable in the photograph.  Or it can contradict what appears to be shown in the image.

The Crescent. Rochester, USA 2012 A former US Marine corp sniper with his weapon. Rochester, NY.

But as it turns out, the subject of the photograph is a photojournalism student named Shane Keller who said he was not a former sniper and never lived in The Crescent.





Beyond Connotation

Picture14“Truly traumatic photographs are rare, for in photography the trauma is wholly dependent on the certainty that the scene ‘really’ happened: the photographer had to be there (which is the mystical definition of denotation).  Assuming this….the traumatic photograph is the photograph about which there is nothing to say.. ” (Barthes 1978 p.209)


The Rhetoric of the Image

  • A few years later, Barthes refined the initial analysis of photographic meaning that he had set out in ‘The Photographic Message’ in a further essay entitled ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’ (1964).
  • In this and later writings Barthes is particularly concerned with the ‘hidden messages’ that come to us via advertising, and how text and image combine to create meanings that are culturally created but yet are seen as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ because they are so familiar.
  • To do this he refined some of his terms, although the basic principles of his analysis remain the same.

Multiple Messages of Advertising

Looking at advertising, Barthes identified 3 messages:

  1. The Linguistic Message: the words and text used to accompany images.
  2. Non-coded Iconic Message: The “literal message” or ‘denotation’ of the picture.
  3. Coded Iconic Message: The “symbolic message” or ‘connotation’ of the picture.



Some signs become so closely linked with a certain set of connotations that the reading of the messages becomes culturally and socially constrained to a particular set of ideas – they become ideological. Barthes refers to these ideological messages as Myth. The function of Myth is to naturalize the cultural – in other words, to make dominant cultural and historical values, attitudes and beliefs seem entirely ‘natural’, ‘normal’, self-evident, timeless, obvious and ‘common-sense’ – and thus objective and ‘true’ reflections of ‘the way things are’. Myth creates a third order of signification beyond denotation and connotation. In the third (mythological or ideological) order of signification the sign reflects major culturally-variable concepts underpinning a particular worldview – such as masculinity, femininity, freedom, individualism, Englishness etc.

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