#1285. Should we look for meaning in our photographs?

By pascaljappy | Opinion

May 04

Conveying more meaning in mine has been on my mind for some time, and a frequent source of frustration. Maybe this was chasing the wrong goal all along, though.

One more cat photo on the web

Trying to analyze the “value” of a photograph is probably futile. But that’s how my mind works, and I need to formalize ideas in order to better integrate them in my work and life.

To my eyes, a photograph’s value comes from its production value (camera, lens, PP, print quality if printed, …) the meaning conveyed by the image and the personal style of the author. And whether the 3 are cumulative or work as a product is an important question: would a high production-value photograph with great style and little meaning have close to zero value for a viewer, as a multiplicative model would suggest? Or would the first two components still grant it good value?

My line of reasoning has leaned towards the first option. Pretty photographs that didn’t make me think felt flat and not worth the hard drive storage they occupy. Since that describes 99% of my best photos, it was an issue 😉


That way of thinking is not without its own flaws, however.

First of all, photojournalism typically produces the images with the most meaning, and is still one of my least favourite genre of photography. They are of utmost importance as testimonies, but often uninspiring to look at. And photojournalism with a strong style and high production value is deeply disturbing to me, as if those components cannot mix well. There’s something almost obscene about making a beautiful object from the suffering of others (which constitutes a large chunk of photojournalism).

Worse, I can’t help thinking about how misleading many of them can be, as well. Having seen images of protests I witnessed first hand, I know how a selective shot can convey a very different feel to what the event actually was. Whether that is a deliberate choice by the author or not changes nothing to the fact that meaning cannot be transferred objectively from author to viewer. Meaning should only be conveyed through objective forms of communications, such as essays. Not in an artform that enables a slight change of framing to change the idea completely. I think there might be meaning in the mind of the photographer when he/she shoots, and there might be meaning in the mind of the viewer, but those two meanings can rarely be the same.

Evocation or meaning?

And then, there’s the matter of trends and fashion in meaning.

What we find important today will be trivial, or poo-pooed, in a few years time. Who knows who will find the photo above racist, sexist, misogynistic, anti-American, or anything else, in a few years time, when all I saw here was a fun juxtaposition?

Meaning really is too fickle, and often dictated by herd mentality, to be a worthy goal for any self-protecting author. Today, I believe that looking for evocative images is far more important. You can convey fake meaning and short-lived, manipulative ideas, but evocation is here to stay.

No souls were stolen during the making of this photograph

While meaning comes from the author and will only be accepted by viewers with the same worldview, excluding others, evocation builds a bridge between the viewer and the author as soon as both see something in the image. It doesn’t have to be the same thing. But the same image evoques thoughts in both. I suppose evocation is the first step towards meaning, after which everyone’s worldview superimposes a personal layer of meaning. The important thing to me is to get the viewer’s mind interested in finding a story that fits the image.

The title above imposes a meaning on the photograph. It’s all about me again being grumpy about the impossibility of photographing human faces without consent in France. Had the title been “enjoying the view”, or “need a smoke” you might have seen the image in a different light. All of those options feel lightly manipulative. And all feel inadequate because the photograph doesn’t achieve a goal without accompanying text. I strongly believe images should work alone.

If, however, you feel some interest in the images on this page, and they make you want to fill in the blanks for yourself, that is much more positive. I obviously saw something noteworthy in every scene. If something makes me want to agitate electrons in my camera, and makes you want to look and interpret, that’s good enough.


And this is where I believe the other two components in my equation come into play.

Post processing and style, both very subjective qualities, have little to do with meaning, objective by definition. But both can contribute to the evocative power of a photograph.

Both serve to reinforce the photographer’s vision. And, therefore, to reinforce the visibility of whatever it was that caused a finger to press the shutter. The framing, the composition, the contrast, the saturation, …, all contribute to make that initial thought, whether formalized in the author’s mind or not, more evident to the viewer.

Roofs of Fayence

So, I initially thought the mistake in my equation was to use a product instead of a sum (so to speak). It felt like a meaningless image with high-quality PP and strong style could be of interest to the viewer. But I think this is wrong. My mistake was to use meaning, rather than evocative power, in the product. Todd Hido writes “Photographs should raise more questions than they answer”, and I agree entirely. Meaning isn’t a goal. Ambiguity, suggestion, inspiration, evocative power … are far more useful to elevate a shot from pretty picture to masterpiece.

Yes, to me, a photograph with strong style and great PP, but not evocative power, offers very little value. This feels consistent with the idea that “valuable” images are those we look at the longest. Of course, this has nothing to do with collectibility. By value, I mean the positive impact the photograph has on the viewer, not anything financial, which was never what photography was about. Case in point: abstracts. Often fascinating (turn to any of Nancee Rostad’s post for vivid examples of this) and yet conveying zero meaning, they are in fact pure evocative machines.

And another point in favour of evocation, is that it can be light-hearted. Meaning almost has to be intense. Whereas an image can evoke something as simple as “I’d love to spend an hour on that roof terrace with a cold drink”. Or “In how many roof hops can I get from the terrace to the church” 😉

No title, no influence. (though I will tell you there is a lady sitting under the arch, in the shadow. You can just make out a foot next to the bags)

What say you? Those are my personal reflections, and I know that not everyone agrees. Firs of all, do you believe photographs need to create value for the viewer to be successful? Or is a photo good enough if it pleases its author? And secondly, how do you think either can be achieved?


​Never miss a post

​Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Quoi? Chacun à son goût! I want to explore the world, the light, the whatever-and-everything-I-can-think-of! Straightjackets are for otherwise uncontrollable lunatics – I point blank refuse to have anything of the kind applied to my brain or my heart, when I playing the piano or cooking dinner or taking photos. Probably refuse it for any other purpose too!

    Pascal – I sense an attempt to “rationalise”. Which I would see as somehow “inappropriate” in this setting.

    And I feel kind of excluded anyway, quite apart from that. Because I very much doubt whether I am as clever as you are, and I feel kind of left behind, in all of this.

    So – instead of attempting to answer any of your questions or comment on the rest of the text, I gazed at the photos instead.

    J’adore le chat dans l’ombre, et l’autre chat au cyclamen – I love the two cat photos – I’ve always loved animals (and other living creatures, plants etc) – you can always pluck the strings in my heart with these images!

    And the contrast in the next image – not the contrast of “black’n’white” – but the contrast between the self-isolated socio-path on the left, transfixed on his stupid cellphone, when he’s only metres away from something VASTLY more interesting than his toy phone will ever be! Two faces of our civilisation. One makes your heart and mind flutter, the other makes you shudder.

    The lady waiting outside the office of l’Association Tourrettes Heritage might have a long wait – the ATH seems to thrive of seminars – none today! I’m sending you a brochure separately – it’s a shame we can’t share it in this comment, but unlike some other DS members, I’ve no idea how to do that!

    “Why?” indeed? Who on earth puts a marble statue head on the drain under a public water supply?

    Fayence is fun – some washing on the line, someone’s terrace that we’re all spying and wondering what it would be like, with a lunch party or similar. But for you, mon ami, the analysis – trace your lines over it, analyse the shapes and where the lines draw the eye. To the inevitable church, and beyond. Is that le Lac de Saint-Cassien I see, in the top-right quarter?

    Then back to the bizarre, the incomprehensible. “Why?” use a statue as a clothes horse, to display both a dress and various bags etc. And more bags on a hook at the lower level. And a bundle of cushions, on a table down there. The only sign seems to read “Atelier de Creation”, so I can only assume the place is occupied by a design business – perhaps it’s one you use in your marketing work?

    And finally a plant, in flower, making the most of hostile terrain.

    Maybe you can add all of that rubbish to your list of unanswered questions – maybe it’ll – probably not – more likely to screw up your perspective!

    • Ian Varkevisser says:

      I just love waiting for your comments Pete. You are the Voltaire of our time 🙂

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Pete,

      Glad you liked the cat photos. I share your love for the feline buggers, and their utter disdain for togs. It felt interesting to share two very different type of cat images, since they are supposed to be the less interesting type of pics on the web, only useful for training AI 😉

      The lady was just having a fag. That village is up and down all along, so visitors tend to need a rest here and there. It’s a shame that photos compress slopes, because the one in front of her was no joke.

      The marble head immediately caught my attention. In a way, photographing something eye-catching like that is cheating a bit. It’s sure to elicit a reaction from others. So I, at least, tried to make a good photo of it, to present viewers with more value than simply “hey look at this weird thing”.

      The poor guy with the phone – I feel I’ve stigmatised him, now – was probably on duty and standing where he needed to be. Dunno for sure. But frames in the doorway like that, it all made for a photo that cannot be missed.

      As for the photo with the white dress, it has its own mystery. A little mystery can go a long way. I think the PP needs explaining (beyond the fact I alway overcook mono stuff 😉 Had this been low contrast, the lady under the arch would have been plaily visible and the story would have been very different. She was just smoking hot. I mean it was hot, so she was smoking in the shadown. But I wanted to picture to be about the ghostly white dress, so I contrasted the life out of the shadows and got a central subject. So much for objectivity ;à

      My eyes have serious astigmatism. All my photos are as wonky as France’s budget. Not a lot can screw up my perspective. Give it your best 😉


  • John Wilson says:

    Pascal – a slippery, thorny, divisive and complicated subject. My one disappointment is that you failed to define what you mean by “meaning” in the context of photography, but I follow your train of thought and generally agree with you that being “evocative” (having a suitable degree of ambiguity) has more staying power than pure “meaning” (whatever that is). I’ve seen to many images that are technically flawless that only leave me with the question “Why did you bother”?

    I’m firmly in Pete’s camp except for his analysis of the BW image with the man with the phone. I think you may have succumbed to a knee-jerk reaction fueled by your biases (and yes, I share some of them). There is a whole universe of reasons why he was in that place at that time looking at his cell phone, none of which have anything to do with whatever interpretation/judgement any of us chooses to apply to the scene. In retrospect, it illustrated the downsides of context and ambiguity … a negative interpretation of the image is just as valid as a positive one; regardless of what the photographer intended. The essential point is it stopped you and elicited an emotional reaction. Isn’t that the ultimate goal we all strive for in our photographs?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi John, not sure how to define “meaning” as you rightly guessed. What I mean is that some photographs seem to try to convey a predefined idea that cannot be interpreted differently.

      You could photograph a little girl crying the grass at night with creepy light all over her and make us all feel very worried for her, when there might just be a fun fair right behind you projecting those lights on a girl who just happened to slip, or was in fact laughing.

      You can’t communicate objectively with photography, so I believe it’s more interesting to go for peaking interest instead.

      I think the guy in the picture might have been a guard, probably bored from standing there, or just checking new instructions. The moment felt interesting, and that’s all there is in that photograph. Any interpretation is in the viewer’s mind and it would be wrong of me to pretend I’m telling anyone a true story with it.

      So, to keep images “valuable”, I think they need to elicit an emotional reaction and possibly peak the viewer’s interest, on top of displaying copacetic style and production value. Just a thought I wanted to confront to the ideas of others 🙂


  • Dear Pascal

    The photograph that puts it all together is a rare find. Finding a “meaning”, idea, or the overused story in a photo, in my mind, is not that effective. Or effective at all. I have seen a story in a photo but only if the story had been written or told or I am familiar with the subject.

    Amazement, magic, or at least the depiction of something interesting are what get me to take a second look at a photograph. I never look for a meaning or a story.

    I never saw either in the photos of Bresson, Winogrand. Others of course.



    • pascaljappy says:

      Exactly, Claude. Why did it take me so long to put that together in my mind …? 😉
      We want to surprise, to mystify, to evoke, … but never to tell. That’s an important lesson, it’s only taken me a few decades to understand.

      All the best,

      • A Cake says:

        I am late to the conversation, and maybe no one will see this…both of which conditions usually apply in photography as well. When we listen to music, we can enjoy a specific performance for technical reasons, and we also enjoy the broader effects, which are closer to your emotional reactions and evocations. Because photography is often assumed to be documentary, there is a corollary assumption that it carries a freight of meaning or a message. As you say, that expectation can lead to mistakes and misunderstandings. Photojournalism, street photography…even landscape and travel photography without an explicit message can carry an implicit message that the subject is particularly beautiful, or dramatic, or worthy.

        A “successful” photograph may best be measured by the photographer: does this result, regardless of how it may be received, match my intention or my hopes? Has my witness and skill made something more of this moment?

        A “meaningful” photograph may best be measured by the viewers, and each may derive his or her or their own meanings. Here again the specific becomes universal, and the single perspective on a single moment blooms richly and evocatively in many different lives.

        I think about the Eugene Smith photograph of the nun, holding a plush toy, waiting for survivors of the Andrea Doria…whatever the context, whatever his intent, the beauty and the sadness and the hope and the human gestures eclipse everything, whenever I see it, and any objective effort at technical analysis falters. It means the world.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Thank you. I find your sentence “Has my witness and skill made something more of this moment” particularly interesting. Of course, it is subjective and in the eye of the beholder. But the idea of making something more, through our personal sensitivity and craft is particularly appealing.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Claude, the ones that “talk” to me ar generally the “simpler” ones – the ones with less clutter, and the “subject” clearly there – in front of you – can’t miss it.

      Like Kim Phuc Phan Thi – the “napalm girl”, whose photo changed public opinion on the Vietnam War. Nobody could forget seeing that image!

      Having said that, there are plenty out there where “the everything-else-in-the-frame” manages to all by disappear, and take its rightful pace AS purely “background”, simply by BEING “clutter”. It works as a paradox – in some photos.

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    This is all to Monty Python for me I shall just stick to the mantra below 🙂

    “I just shoot what I see in front of me it is for others to find meaning in my work”

    I was going to say I will sit back and chill and suck on a Bud Light and watch the show – but hell one cannot even entertain such thoughts these days LMAO.

    In all earnestness I might just punch out a quick article following on this topic based on an interaction to some images I posted yesterday on that highly educational platform FaceBook.

    • pascaljappy says:

      The I will grab a Bud Light (is a Corona allowed?) to sip while reading it 🙂

      • Ian Varkevisser says:

        Sadly not Pascal. Corona is firmly in the “tranny fluid” stable as I recall. 🙂

        Let me rather courier you a case of local Malbec just to be safe – that is if you have no objections 😉

        • pascaljappy says:

          You guys do Malbeq? Had no idea. My usual source is South America. Fly over with a case of ZA’s finest and we’ll compare notes on continents 🙂 Or maybe I could fly over with mine 😉

          • Ian Varkevisser says:

            Pascal I am concerned about your failing mental faculties. No Idea about us having Malbec ? Did we not already have a discussion about that in #1271 ?? My Dr prescribes red wine to counter senility.

            • pascaljappy says:

              Oh dear me, we did? I’m overworked. It’s not my fault. Or maybe I did it on purpose for some reason I’ll think about sooner or later 😉 Still, the comparative tasting idea appeals. How about I send you a bottle from Chile and you send me one from SA 🙂

              • Ian Varkevisser says:

                At the moment my stock comprises of Argentinian from the Mendoza region

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      “I just shoot what I see in front of me it is for others to find meaning in my work”

      Ha ha ha – moi aussi! – me, too

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Pascal, Thanks for an interesting post.

    Here’s a contrary view. Yes we can find all kinds of uses in our photographs: they can document events and conditions (and people), they can record memories, they can tell stories, provide meaning–and, of course, they can be monetized (by some). But I find images to be primarily something we enjoy just to look at. I even think the goal, if we have one, should be to “capture” (or sketch) something beautiful. Now I recognize that beauty is a notoriously slippery concept, and I won’t go on about it here. I accept Pete’s point that chacon a son gout (sorry for lack of diacritical marks), though I would emphasize the similarities in human tastes and not their differences. But I think the value at which we (or at least I) do aim and should aim in photography is enjoyment of beauty.

    That said, I also think that our experience of beauty can be enhanced by putting more into it: knowing the circumstances, the technique, the story, the meaning, and much more. The experience is enriched by all this. But it starts and ends with a visual appearance that strikes us because we find it beautiful.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you so much Lad. Very interesting reply. I’ll just answer quickly, with these two points.
      (1) There is a follow-up post that might elicit more along your line of appreciation.
      (2) Possibly for a separate thread, but even more important, what would you say the similarities in tastes (as opposed to the differences) are? We could try to publish a collection of ideas on the subject, one day. Where would you point me, as a professional philosopher, for more ideas?
      All the best

      • Lad Sessions says:

        Thanks Pascal. I look forward to hearing your further comments.

        Similarities in tastes: Gosh, I’d have to think for some time about this. I really didn’t read a lot of philosophical aesthetics. I’m mostly familiar with Kant (Third Critique) and Dewey (Art as Experience), neither of which would quite address your question, though perhaps I could extrapolate. Have you ever consulted the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy? Their articles are up-to-date and competent.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Than you Lad. No, I haven’t, but might if we go ahead with this.
          To be honest, I probably wouldn’t know what to make of it, as it probably flies way above my intellectual and academic capacities. But I do like the idea of projects that find common denominators rather than those who separate and segment. Cheers

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Lad, the keyword for me is “enjoyment”. That’s what attracts me to photography – and why I choose to shoot the things I do. Scarcely an intellectual or a philosophical pastime. Although I do bone up a bit on techo stuff, I do have a fair battery of firepower to do it with, and I do devote a fair amount of time and attention to studying light & colour – which of course are the bass of photography.
      There are heaps of others far better than me – but that doesn’t mean I’m “bad” at it – just not (and never will be!) as good as they are. No probs – we can’t all sit on the same chair!
      And you’re right – a lot of it is documenting or recording – a lot is simply stuff we enjoy looking at – and a lot is our attempts to capture something beautiful. I’ll have to put a twist on that one tho’ – living in a port city, “beauty” here is commonly industrial an rugged – not the stuff of the salon. Still, the principal is much the same.
      So yeah – the catalogue has only three volumes – with heaps of chapters in each.
      Anyone could argue about it – but I think you’re quite correct and that really covers the lot.
      Wedding photography, for instance – documenting or recording.
      Sport – ditto.
      Birding – ditto.
      Gosh – that volume’s filling fast!
      And so on.
      Of course we can over analyse, over rationalise. But I’d rather dedicate the time to planning, taking and processing my photos.

  • Michael Ulm says:

    ‘My mistake was to use meaning, rather than evocative power, in the product……Meaning isn’t a goal. Ambiguity, suggestion, inspiration, evocative power … are far more useful to elevate a shot from pretty picture to masterpiece.’

    You’ve done me in again. I’ll be thinking almost constantly about your thoughts above for several days….probably weeks while looking through the viewfinder. Thanks, yet again, for distilling difficult ideas and thoughts to a meaningful, actionable addition to my photographic arsenal.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Pooh followed slowly. He had something better to do than to find a new house for Owl; he had to make up a Pooh song about the old one. Because he had promised Piglet days and days ago that he would, and whenever he and Piglet had met since, Piglet didn’t actually say anything, but you knew at once why he didn’t; and if anybody mentioned Hums or Trees or String or Storms-in-the-Night, Piglet’s nose went all pink at the tip and he talked about something quite different in a hurried sort of way.

    “But it isn’t Easy,” said Pooh to himself, as he looked at what had once been Owl’s House. “Because Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”

    He waited hopefully….

    “Well,” said Pooh after a long wait, “I shall begin ‘Here lies a tree’ because it does, and then I’ll see what happens.”…

    – – * – –

    Bot of course one should also go about making and taking photos – with or without meaning – one gets better at catching those that get one.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Excellent analogy, Kristian 😉 Thank you.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        The other side of the photographic coin – the side of the audience.

        Or “The photographer’s dilemma.”

        With another quote, this time from
        “Mister God, this is Anna.” by Fynn.:

        ( Here Anna is 5 years old.)

        “Many and many an evening I would be sitting on the steps smoking a fag and watching her asking people to ‘write it down big’, enjoying her search for knowledge. One particular evening, after a row of refusals on the part of passersby, Anna began to sag.
        – – –
        She pointed to a broken-off stump of an iron railing. ‘I want somebody to write about that, but they don’t see it.’ … ‘They don’t know what I mean.’
        This last reply was uttered with a kind of deep and inward sadness;…
        – – –
        ‘Don’t be too disappointed, Tich.’
        ‘Not disappointed. Sad.’
        – – –
        At last she looked up and her eyes met mine.
        – – –
        She tried out a smile but it didn’t work too well, and with a sniff she continued, ‘I know what I see and I know what you see, but some people don’t see nuffink – and -.’…”

  • >