Semiotics in Photography


Imagine living in a world where there are no words and no languages. Infact all communication is done through the use of gestures, signs, and visuals. It would be simply interesting to even try a day communicating only with signs and no words. And now here arises the major topic “Semiotics” into limelight. It becomes important to understand how meaning or messages are communicated via the use of signs. But what exactly are these signs, and how do they work within the context of the study of semiotics?

In this article, we will know about the Semiotics applied in photography and its impact on visual media. Further, we will here understand how signs, symbols, and context interact to create meaningful and story telling images.

What is Semiotics?

The term “Semiotics” is derived from the Greek word “Semeion.” It is the study of signs and symbols, as well as the study on how these signs and symbols are utilized or interpreted. It is concerned with understanding how humans use signs and symbols to represent and communicate their ideas, concepts, emotions, and information. These signs and symbols can take many forms, including words, images, gestures, sounds, and even objects.

Semiotics is used to define a systematic effort to understand what signs are and how they function. The study of semiotics can be applied to a wide variety of human activities, including film, performing arts, dance, designing, advertisements, architecture, painting, politics, medicine, historical research, and religion, etc…

Key Components of Semiotics

The application of semiotics relies on two important components namely Signifier and Signified.


The signifier is the physical representation of a sign, the visible or audible aspect that represents the meaning or the message. It could be a word, an image, a sound, a symbol or even a gesture.

For example: people, texts, signs, symbols, objects, etc…


The signified is the message, meaning or the concept that is conveyed through the signifier.

street photography by abin alex

Semiotics focuses on understanding signs and symbols found in the field of images and visuals. For instance, a red heart symbol denotes “love”, a green light denotes “go,” and an octagonal-shaped stop sign denotes “stop.” These signals are easily recognizable and understood because our cultural and social semiotic system has set them there.

How Semiotics is applied in Photography

Photography is an effective visual medium that allows us to capture incidents, emotions, and memories. However, each shot is filled with significance and interpretation. Semiotics, or the study of signs and symbols, plays an essential role in understanding these hidden meanings in photographs.

In this image, there are various subjects and elements to be considered as signifier. And there is one signfied.

Signifiers: Child, drawing on the paper, child’s action and emotion, man and woman in the background, their action, the house behind the child.

Signified: The message conveyed through each signifier is what we call as signified. The subjects in the background and their action tells about the quarrel and the broken relation between father and the mother. As in the foreground there is a child with a different emotion. The drawing and the child’s deep look into that drawing conveys his wish to have a happy home.

In the practical world, we find that Semiotics is not only applied in Photography or still images. In fact, semiotics plays a vital role in all visual media including drawing, painting, videography and so on.

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