• Jana

Week 4: READING PHOTOGRAPHS.

The semiotic of photography.

Since a picture is not written in a text and we cannot read it, we have to interpret the signs in a picture and learn to read the characters. Semiotic means something like sign theory.


The fascinating subject of how we decipher a photograph, take it apart into individual parts and try to decode the image can be as interesting as reading a story.

The task is to consider our background as: family, social background, heritage or education. Political ideas, philosophical, significant changes or events that might shifted our perspective when it comes to decoding images.


When we look at an image for the first time, we should let the picture sink in.

And then we should ask ourselves why does the picture have this effect on us and try to describe the individual means that cause this effect.


How and why does this picture affect me?

First we describe it. What is shown. Secondly we analyse how it is presented. Third comes the interpretation of why and what for it is presented in this way and what it want to cause in us.


Reading a picture like that of Luc Delahaye with the name Taliban is a difficult task.

The picture gives us the impression of aesthetically depicting the dead soldier almost like a historical painting. Since we have no textual information other than the name Taliban, we come to very different interpretations.

In the description of the picture we come to the same conclusion. A younger man, a Taliban soldier, with no visible weapon, shoes off, eyes half open, a well-emptied wallet nearby, lies in a dusty dry ditch. Photographed from a higher perspective. The posture and the wound on the neck indicate his death. The posture, reminiscent of historical pictures, and the format of the picture allow us to perceive the picture as art. The soft brown-green tones of the image and the man dressed in khaki, combine and aestheticise death. The aesthetics are also supported by the precision of the recording.


After disassembling the picture in the seminar with Jesse Alexander, the webinar with Colin Pantall dealt shortly with the question of the ethics of the picture.

I learned from these perspectives how much my reading of the picture is influenced whether it was photojournalism or the presentation of death in the field of art.

What moves me the most is what the photographer wanted to convey. The fact that the picture was taken with a large format Linhof Technorama 612 panoramic camera showed a certain amount of preparation. Was the intention here a high quality image to sell in large format outside of newspapers? In such a case, how can you distance yourself from the person depicted and their rights? The fact that the picture was offered in NY 2003 in the "History" exhibition at the Ricco-Maresca Gallery for 15,000 USD in the size 4”x8”, made it even more difficult for me to look at it. The picture of the dead soldier was taken on site like a press photograph. With this oversized enlargement of 2.5 meters, it is deliberately reminiscent of historical pictures of large-format paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries. But I can't look at the dead soldier with the same distance that I can look at, for example, suffering in historical pictures.

If there was a photograph of a, for instance, 21 year old, having been shot dead in a school shooting in Munich, would any photographer also get his equipment ready to take the perfect, cinematic photograph of his corpse? Would that picture be sold in a large format for thousands of dollars? What kind of criticism would follow these same actions in that changed context? It's hard for me to accept that you can sell a picture of a dead person as art when their family and friends are still alive and could see it and it would certainly hurt them.


‘Taliban, 2001 ‘- Luc Delahaye

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