Simply put, a symbol is something that represents something else (Short, 2011, p124). Short continues by explaining that a symbol does not resemble the concept it represents, instead the relationship between the two must be learnt.
When discussing symbols, it is important to note that symbolic interpretation can vary enormously. Will some symbols may seem to be universally understood, such as heart to mean love, many more will be interpreted differently depending on the viewer’s social, political and cultural experiences.
Symbols to represent concepts
This exercise asks that I find symbols to represent a number of concepts and consider how they might be used in a photograph. The concepts are: growth, excess, crime, silence and poverty.
Growth- Symbols could include:
- a small plant or seedling breaking through the earth, the colour green also has associations with nature, which is directly linked, to growth.
- a close-up shot of a flower bud
- a graph showing an upward trend, this could be used as a prop in a still life-arrangement or on wall in the background of an office environment.
- a heavily pregnant woman, if she was already pushing a pram this could show growth also in the size of her family.
- A child’s height being measured against a doorframe with the previous (smaller) height being visible.
- The construction of a high-rise building, particularly if its neighbours were low rise buildings.
Excess- Symbols could include:
- a plate piled high with food. Close up shot, including a hand holding a piece of cutlery to show scale.
- an overflowing recycle bin with empty beer and wine bottles.
- a bulging stomach over a waist band, focus only on torso area
- an overflowing suitcase, with someone sitting on it, attempting to force it closed.
- Money, arranging notes so that they overfill the frame.
- Luxury car, detail shot of the car logo.
- Jewellery, shot with a jewellery box. Arrange necklaces and pendants etc. so that they appear to be spilling out of the box.
Crime- Symbols could include:
- The stereotypical image of a burglar with a stripy jumper, eye mask and bag of swag.
- CCTV camera, close up shot
- Dark alleyway, shadowy figure, perhaps wearing a hoodie as in some areas of the UK they have been perceived as being associated with youths and anti-social behaviour.
- Graffiti or vandalism. Could be in the background of a scene to convey idea of unsafe area.
- Yellow police crime scene tape around an area or building.
- Chalk outline of person on the ground as though a murder has taken place.
Silence- Symbols could include:
- Finger on lips, probably the most cliché symbols for silence. It seemingly arises from Mythology.
- Children studying. Heads bent down towards their desks and books.
- An ‘Exam in Progress’ sign, hung on a closed-door.
- Hands covering a mouth, as in one of the Three Wise Monkeys who speaks no evil.
- A landscape scene, showing no people or movement. Including a section of still, calm water would also reinforce the idea of silence.
- A cemetery, again showing no people or movement
- Monks praying together. Heads bowed.
- Someone sitting cross-legged in a yoga style pose with his or her eyes closed as though meditating.
Poverty- Symbols could include:
- An outstretched hand with palm face up, as though waiting to receive something. Could be shot with one hand to emphasis the empty palm of many hands in the frame to stress the scale of the need.
- Empty plate, held forward. This could be shot as above, with one plate or many plates.
- A street beggar. It could be shot sensitively by only including a ‘Please help’ sign and the receptacle for the donations.
- Queues for food at food banks or food kitchen. Could be shot from the back of the queue towards the source of food.
- Bare-foot child. Often seen in newspapers and in charity publications to raise awareness of the plight of many people suffering from the effects of famine, drought, war or natural disasters.
- Shantytowns. Photograph taken from a distance to illustrate the scale of town.
Although this has been a brief exercise it has given me a lot of scope for thought. I find myself looking more closely at photographs in advertisement to note how symbolism has been used whether through objects, colours, weather or even time of day.
However, Short (2011, p126) cautions that the appearance of a sign or a symbol in a photograph may not have been a predetermined or orchestrated consideration of the photographer. She explains that while set photography offers a photographer time and control, photojournalism and reportage do not and often photographers have to make on-the-spot decisions about what to include.
This seems to emphasise the fact that reading a photograph is very personal. Viewer’s interpretations could be very different from a photographer’s intention and can vary widely based on the their prior experiences and understanding.
Short, M. (2011) Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA