Semiotics is an entirely new concept for me, struck for the first time in Context & Narrative. In an effort to provide some clarity to myself about the topic, I decided to do some research and collect some key information about semiotics and especially as it applies to photography.

Signs and so on …

The starting point of semiotics is the sign.  Wells (2015) provides an introduction:

“The science of signs, first proposed in 1916 by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, but developed in particular in the work of Roland Barthes (France) and C.S. Peirce (USA). Semiotics – also referred to as semiology – is premised upon the contention that all human communication is founded in an assemblage of signs – verbal, aural and visual – which is essentially systematic.”

Clearly, this concept of sign is central – it is the basis for all of our communications and therefore might be said to be a fundamental part of how we live with other people.

Wells goes on to say that “the sign proper has two aspects, signifier and signified. The signifier is the material manifestation, the word, or pictorial elements. The signified is a mental concept that is conventionally associated with the specific signifier. While separable for analytic purposes, in practice the signifier and the signified always go together.”

Short (2011:121) explains the term signifier as being “the form that the sign takes” and the signified as “the concept it represents”. Grundberg (1990) gives the example of the dots and dashes of Morse code being signifiers while the letters of the alphabet are the signified.

Salkeld (2017)  states that “a sign comprises two elements: the signifier – its physical form, such as a word (spoken or written), an image, a gesture, or an object; and the signified – the mental concept triggered by the signifier”. He goes onto give the example of the letters D – O – G as being signifiers which trigger the mental image of a dog. Of course, this isn’t universal – it plainly only works for people who understand enough English to make the mental connection. Salkeld calls this an “arbitrary signifier” – there is no specific connection between the letters “dog” and the mental concept – it is learned – and this is a characteristic of most spoken and written languages.

Salkeld (2017) adds another layer with the term ‘referent’ – “the thing that the sign as a whole stands for, but which is not physically present”. I understand this to mean that we have a chain of reasoning from the signifiers (D – O – G in the previous example) to the signified (our mental understanding that the letters “mean” a dog) to the referent (an actual dog).

Separating the ideas of the signified from the referent wasn’t so simple for me. My interpretation settled on the following:

  • Signifier: the (possibly arbitrary) collection of letters, sounds, gestures, images
  • Signified: the mental image prompted by the signifier
  • Reference: the actual object or person in the real world

From this point of view, I can make the example of a photograph of a friend. The signifier (the image), prompts the mental image of my friend (the signified). I therefore recognise the sign as indicating my friend. However, this is separate from the real person (the referent). There is therefore a clear separation from the image and the referent, the instant after the image is formed.

Symbols and Icons

Short (2011:123) provides some further terminology which is essential to semiotics: symbols and icons. She defines a symbol as “something that represents something else. In this instance, the signifier does not resemble the signified”. The important point is that the relationship must be learned and is therefore culturally specific. Examples include: languages, numbers, traffic lights and flags.

La Grange (2005) explains that “the symbol is essentially the same as de Saussure’s signifier in that their relationship to the subject is arbitrary and they need to be interpreted”. Grunberg (1990) points out that “the signifier is wholly arbitrary, a convention of social practice rather than a universal law”.

Short then goes on to explain that icons are different. “In this case the signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified: bring similar in possessing some of its qualities”. Examples include a portrait, a cartoon, a scale-model, metaphors, sound effects and imitate gestures.

Indexicality of Photos

A particular type of signifier is the indexical signifier or just index which “is physically or causally linked to the signified. This link can be observed or inferred.” (Short 2011:123). Examples include smoke (indicating fire or heat), thunder (indicating lightning) and footprints (indicating footsteps).

Short goes not to state that indexicality “is particularly pertinent to photography simply because a photograph is a literal ‘trace’ of its original subject”. This “trace”, no matter how distorted or realistic then becomes separated in some sense from the referent, the actual subject, due to the image being frozen in time.


Grundberg, Andy (1990) The Crisis of the Real. New York: Aperture

Hall, Sean (2014), This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. (2nd ed) London: Laurence King Publishing

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed on 23 Nov 2016)

Salkeld, Richard (2017) Reading Photographs: An Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images.  [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed 31 Jan 2018)

Short, Maria (2011) Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed on 23.09.15)



One thought on “Semiotics

  1. Pingback: Reading Photographs | Darryl's Context & Narrative Learning Log

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