Part 4 : Culture, Perception and the Language of Photography


Culture and Perception

 The arts, customs, and institutions of a nation, people, or group
(Pocket Oxford English Dictionary [2001:213] 9th edition)

 Culture consists of the meanings its subjects produce and reproduce.
                                   (C. Belsey 2001:26)

Human beings are social animals that form groups for security and protection, children are nurtured (more or less) and hierarchies of power maintained. Human psychology and perception works through differentiation – what’s me, what’s not me, what’s safe/difference. Social groupings rely on difference – me, not me, them, us. Laws are created to impose rules of behaviour so that chaos and anarchy can be avoided. This mass of expectations, responsibilities (and, subsequently, rights) is enforced by cultural norms which work through language (oral and written) visual arts ,related history and myths and beliefs as to how the world should be. The different languages we speak reinforce similarity and difference, them/us. “Why is it that we kill a cow or a pig (English) to yield beef or pork? (French) “ asks a recent Aeon article  It’s because English speaking labourers slaughtered the animals for the moneyed French speakers at the table ‘The different ways of referring to meat depended on one’s place in the scheme of things, and those class distinctions have carried down to us in discreet form today.’ Class distinctions and categorization as ‘other’ continue more overtly through regional variations in pronunciation.

John Berger (1972) reminds us also that, ‘The way we see things is affected by what we know or believe’. ‘Reception theory holds that ‘Art is not a body of works but is, rather, an activity of perceivers making sense of images’. The British Psychological Society  recently reported on research done to discover why different people saw different colours in a striped frock which appeared on the internet. It was actually blue/black but some people saw the dress as white/gold. 28 people with normal vision had their brains scanned whilst looking at the photograph. Scientists discovered that the 14 who saw white/gold showed extra activation ‘in a raft of brain areas but there were no group differences when the participants simply looked at large coloured squares that matched two of the colours that feature in the dress, but without any contextual information also visible’. This fitted with the idea that ‘the white/gold perceivers were engaged in more interpretative mental processing when looking at the dress’ . I watched a television programme on colour last night and in one segment they followed-up on this experiment. Some people just couldn’t believe that what they were seeing was not a white/gold dress.

Thinking of not being able to believe what you see. How many times do people not read non-verbal visual clues or alternatively respond to hidden stimuli in an image (something that has been attempted in adverts I understand)? Added to that, we know that, although a camera might faithfully record a scene, the point of view has often been carefully composed by the photographer to shape the viewer’s perception. The photograph by Elliott Erwitt on p. 97 of the Handbook is a light-hearted example of this. We see all the information at once, initially ‘see’ the legs of two people with a dog and then realise that’s not the case. The photograph is cropped in such a way to achieve this ‘illusion’ and also framed so that one’s eye goes to the tiny dog with it’s cute hat – looking askance at us – head tilted slightly on one side to emphasize the long ears and large eyes and contrast with the straightness of the other legs. Is there a meaning in that photograph? I can make one for myself regarding getting pleasure from the small things in life or, having personal experience of a Chihuahua , large personalities can exist in small creatures! Did Erwitt intend a meaning or was his interest in surreal aspects of life; pointing out incongruities and juxtapositions?

The Language of Photography 

IMG_1628 the Language of Photography

Whenever we look at a photographic image we engage in a series of complex readings   which relate as much to the expectations and assumptions that we bring to the image as to the photographic subject itself. Indeed, rather than the notion of looking, which suggests a passive act of recognition, we need to insist that we read a photograph, not as an image but as a text.
                                               (Clarke, G [1997:270] )

Is there a language of photography and does the use of the word ‘text’ confuse the issue? I find this question difficult because I’m beginning to think that I rarely see a photograph that has no words attached to it in some form or another. These words usually guide me as to how I’m being invited to ‘look’. Even more – being a student I actively seek words about the photograph and the photographer. The photograph itself then becomes an illustration as opposed to holding a narrative within itself. Tim Carpenter reminded me of this in a recent essay published online in June this year

Thousands upon thousands of words now encumber a quantity of photographs. …. The latest example of the current cultural mania to transform one thing into another, and eventually into words. To reside in one thing or another appears to be impossible. On the evidence, the thing itself – the person, the object, the painting, the book, the music, the sunset, the operation – exists primarily as a point of departure, a launching pad from which we take off into an orbit of our own.

If I think about the image containing meaning within itself then I have to seek to understand what it’s showing me to interpret what I am seeing; to enter in a dialogue with it. When I interpret I bring along my own knowledge, experience, cultural assumptions etc and place them as a template on top of the image. To enter into a dialogue I need to put this template aside.

The C&N Handbook (p.93) states that ‘there’s no such thing as a universal photographic language which can be directly understood in the same way as spoken or written language can …..’.  I agree. Language has grammar, rules are followed, although, of course, these rules can and have been broken. You need to know the rules to consciously break them. That apart, what about translation from one language to another? I’ve referred in other posts to Elif Shafak the author who talks about English being her intellectual language and Turkish the emotional one. Different languages have different tones and nuances and these subtleties can be lost in translation. There are frequent misunderstanding and miscommunications between people who speak/write the same language even. Think of how you read your tutor’s feedback for example.

If language, with its rules is difficult then how easy or difficult is it to ‘read’ a photograph? Some might seem easy to read – a beautiful landscape for instance, image of mother with new baby etc. However they may have a different underlying meaning from the one on the surface. In a recent Disphotic post  Lewis Bush referred to Marvin Heiferman’s view ‘that photography might be multiple languages, with the particular language of different photographic fields understood by corresponding groups of people’.  Bush mentions Ruth Berlau’s comparison of photography with hieroglyphics and then went on to Thomas Struth’s ‘comparison between photographs and riddles’. Struth, ‘..described the photograph as a constructed series of clues, which if correctly interpreted might lead the viewer to understanding the photographer’s message’.

There’s continual discussion as to whether a photographer intended a particular meaning or not and how re-contextualisation can change meaning. John McPherson, of Duckrabbit blog had something to say about this recently regarding a photograph of his. He was referring to a comment by an art critic on vernacular images and how Erik Kessel’s re-contextualisation of ‘found’ photographs gave them a significance beyond their creator’s intention. McPherson writes about a photograph he took of a lego fire engine made by his son that Bush then took and his son showed to the firemen who had saved his mother’s life. His wife recently met one of those firemen and they spoke together about what had happened

[…..] and then they parted. Connected by a shared experience that few people will ever know or fully comprehend. An experience encapsulated, in part, in a simple image of some red Lego blocks held by the hands of a child.
All you ‘post photographic’ curators out there, yes by all means “re-contextualize” these banal cast-off images in any way you wish. And do so with my blessing. But don’t ever presume to invest any more valuable meaning in them than was invested by their creators.

So – there are dangers inherent in interpretations of meaning in photography and the photographer’s intention. What tools to use, remembering as well that photographs are referents – they may look like the real thing but they are not and what we’re interpreting is the photograph as a document in the sense that it has been framed in a particular way. It also gives all the information at the same time, therefore, it needs more than one look, preferably with some time in between – at least for me. I’ve frequently found that if a photograph doesn’t appeal to me it’s important to investigate why because I learn a lot about my assumptions, beliefs, likes and dislikes.



Belsey, C (2002) Poststructuralism : A Very Short Introduction OUP, Oxford
Berger, J (1972) Ways of Seeing Penguin Classics, Reprint edition 2008
Clarke, G (1997) The Photograph Oxford OUP

(Accessed 24.11.2015)






9 thoughts on “Part 4 : Culture, Perception and the Language of Photography

  1. Interesting piece and interesting blog links – food for thought before I start thinking about my essay – I struggler with the term ‘language of photography’ as a clearly defined thing and am more accepting of a structure within which to analyse an image along with the photographers intent, if known, and its possible understanding from my viewpoint and other groups with a vested interest eg Landscape photographers etc. No doubt this is too simplistic but as well but I guess is my staring point for now.


  2. I did find the C&C Handbook somewhat bitty here, which meant that I was following strands that interested me. I’m very much with you on having that clear structure for analysis – just hope I can find it!


  3. Great final paragraph, Catherine. Clues, texts, interpretations, assumptions …all tell me how complex reading an image can be – & it’s because we have to hear/see, understand and interpret the photographer’s language/voice in a limited time and space. Your suggestion in your last sentence is very true, I think.


      • I have mentioned it in my last blog post – you may not have the link to my UVC blog as I’ve not advertised it all over the place but it can be found in the ‘blogs I follow’ on this site which is accessible in the top right hand corner. It’s such an interesting book. And he’s an amazing man I think. I’ve not quite finished it yet… Just been learning about ants farming!


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