The Semiotics of Photography

As part of my research for Project 2 I’m trying to find out more about the Semiotics of Photography. In lame terms (and as i understand it) it relates to the study of meaning. It looks at how we attach meaning to the real world, to words, images and sounds.

Semiotics was invented by Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist, who argued that the written and visual language are a system of signs divided into two parts;

A Signifier and Signified.

The Signifier is the form of the message, so in photography it will be an image that we see that is easily recognisable and the Signified is the concept of the signifier and what it represents.


Take this photo of Che Guevara (by Alberto Korda), for example. Arguably one of the most iconic portraits in modern history, it shows Che as a young Cuban revolutionary (Signifier) at a funeral service for the 136 people who were killed when a French ship carrying arms to Havana was sabotaged and blown-up by America. Cuba and US ended diplomatic relations soon after.

However, to many Cubans, Che Guevara’s implacable stare captured in this photo symbolised the struggle of the Cuban people against the US and the anti-capitalism sentiment that followed.

This photo perpetuates Che Guevara as the face of revolution, the opposition to capitalism and imperialism. His beret links him to the common man and his faraway look (some say) is not unlike that in depictions of the Buddha or Christ. In short, it represents the rise of the people against the establishment.

On a less somber note and more up to date ‘photo analysis’ JLo and Drake recently posted in their Instagram account.


According to ‘The Sun’ (pls don’t shoot me!) here’s what the photo means:

“Drake, 30, and Jennifer, 47, went public with their romance this week with a loved-up picture posted on social media.

But Funkmaster Flex claims the date is loaded with significance for the pair – and may suggest Drake was taking a dig at his old rival. There has been bad blood between the pair for years, and they previously clashed at a club in Las Vegas in 2014. Funkmaster Flex is adamant Drake knowingly took a dig at his nemesis over his new romance with Combs‘ ex-girlfriend.

In a series of posts on Twitter, he wrote: “JLo? That’s the get back for a punch in the face? “Took me all day to figure this out!…“Doggy saved the pic for the anniversary and everything!!! Haaaa! Wow! Sensitive new n**** fail!”

It seems that the hidden meanings in photography is more common than we think, which is why my research must continue. I promise there will be no more mentioning of The Sun tho!