“Migrant Mother” (1936) by Dorothea Lange for the FSA, is one of the most defining images of The Great Depression era in the United States. It became known throughout the world as a symbol of poverty and hardship.

If you want to bring more complexity and nuance to your images, start thinking like a semiotician. If you want to get more out of viewing other people’s images, start thinking like a semiotician. What the hell is that? A social scientist that tries to make sense of how we create, communicate, and receive meaning via messages and cultural codes.

Photography is littered with references to cultural codes. Depending on their context, they influence how images and subjects become associated with stereotypes in the minds of viewers. This is especially pertinent when making images of marginalized groups, who generally need more serious ethical consideration.

Like all media and communication, photography contains ‘denotative’ and ‘connotative’ aspects. The denotative aspects are what we can see: the literal; the concrete; the verifiable; the identifiable. Connotative value is less tangible. It references what is implied. It’s the contextual; the cultural; the intertextual; the subjective; and It varies depending on the viewer’s own life experience and interpretation.

As image makers and viewers, we need to remember that the subject of an image can communicate to viewers in various ways. They can do it through their facial expressions, or with their body language. They can do it through their association to various objects enclosed in the frame, and the environment they present in. More communication happens through technical choices. Harsh lighting stresses facial angularities, casts unattractive shadows, and highlights every line and blemish (see Bruce Gilden‘s work). Soft light is much more forgiving.

Distance

The framing of subjects in photographs can take on a variety of forms. It could be intimate, personal, social or impersonal. This context matters when reading images because several important sensory shifts happen from one proximity to another. These shifts affect how the viewer interacts with the subject pictured. At one extreme, is the extreme close up. The other — the very long shot.

  • Close-up shotsClose-up, intimate shots, usually humanize the subject (see Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother). At this range, the subject’s presence unequivocal, and the image conveys a high possibility of contact and physical involvement. You may have heard the Robert Capa quote: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”Capa wasn’t suggesting the use of longer lenses; he asking the photographer to get physically get closer to their subject. This closeness would force the photographer to become more involved and intimate with them. Important to note, however, if you get too close with a very wide lens you distort your subject unflatteringly (again, see Bruce Gilden‘s work), and that can actually do the reverse — dehumanizing them.
  • Mid-shotsIn mid-shots, the subject is visible from below waist/halfway thigh, with space around the figure. Impersonal business usually happens at this distance.’
  • Long-shotsLong-shots can do the opposite of close-ups. Instead of distorting the subject, they tend to compress their facial features and can look quite flattering. Conversely, however, they can also feel voyeuristic and distanced. They can relegate the subject to the category of other like an exotic creature from a faraway place. Long-shots are impersonal — they existing outside normal zones of human involvement and interaction. Most nonverbal communication shifts from the face, to gesture and the body. It also becomes difficult to empathize with subjects at this proximity.

Contact

The solemn woman pictured in Lange’s image — Florence Owens Thompson — is looking outward. Her gaze directed elsewhere. I’ll call this variable ‘contact’, and It can either offer or demand. In this case, it is the former. Owens Thompson is offered to us.

  • DemandA subject who demands, for instance, makes eye contact with the viewer. They gaze, or gesture, as though they want something. They might smile, demanding social affinity. They could stare coldly, demanding we relate to them like a superior. Or, they could pout—demanding we desire them. A subject who demands, commands a sense of respect, connection, and engagement from their audience. Demand-subject images are common with photographs of authority figures, like celebrities and role models.
  • OfferConversely, subjects who offer — like the Owens Thompson in the Lange picture — don’t engage with the viewer at all. They are passive. Their image is offered to the viewer, as an object of disinterested reflection.

Facial Affect

Related to contact is ‘facial affect’ describing the subject’s emotional state of being. It can be positive, neutral, or negative. A positive facial affect shows the subject in a way that is flattering, enhancing beauty, unlikely to cause embarrassment. These subjects may smile, asking the viewer to relate to them, forming social affinity. Other signs might include: teeth showing, raised or curved eyebrows, and curved or upturned lips.

  • Neutral Facial AffectA neutral facial affect shows the subject in a way that neither enhances nor decreases, beauty. This subject would not feel embarrassed, or flattered, by the image. Neutral signs might include relaxed facial muscles, with eyebrows and lips in a resting position.
  • Negative Facial AffectA negative facial affect, on the other hand, portrays the subject unflatteringly. It decreases beauty and is likely to cause embarrassment. These subjects are also often characterized by the display of negative emotions. Other signs include lips curving downward, and downward. or, inwardly arched eyebrows. Negative facial affects can create drama — making the image more compelling. Yet, the photographer must finesse whether they are in turn exploiting their subject, or advocating for them.

Next time you view an image, consider it from these variables. Ask yourself what sort of narrative the photographer is propagating. Is their work exploitive or didactic? Is this intentional? Does it change the way you think about composing your own photograph?