Thursday, 28 January 2010


I am always intrigued by people looking out of windows. They look out, but most of the times they don’t see; they look outside but most of the times they actually look inside themselves… They are seeking something that they don’t even know... I planned to do this ‘Looking Out’ project with my family (I am not confident in portraiture with strangers.) via formulated portraiture using medium format, so I borrowed a Bronica ETRS and shot a roll Ilford HP5 ISO 100. I was so disappointed to find that half of the frames were exposed nothing. Equipment manager told me that it might have something to do with the camera’s battery. O’ Bronica. I will have to re-do this project.

I always found Photo Shop complicated so I had one session of Photo Shop 2 weeks ago. Again, I just found it is probably not my thing. I had another session of Light Room and it was amazing – intuitive, creative and straight forward. I have to use both of them to retouch and photomontage pictures this term. Bit worried as I am not technique fluent.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010


(Courtesy: Lise Sarfati, ‘Canteen, Serbsky Psychiatric Institution, Moscow', 1995)

W.J.T. Mitchell (1994) introduced the phrase ‘pictorial turn’ (p. 11-35). It means that image oriented communication is getting more and more important in the language dominated world. Developed in early 1910s as a branch of structural linguistics, semiotics became widely applied in images from 1960s. This essay will apply semiotics tools, especially by the use of the connotation and denotation concept, to analyse an image by Lise Sarfati. It was originally published as the cover of Sarfati’s book Acta Est in 2005. The essay will firstly lay out the theory frame work, then discuss the image in terms of its denoted and connoted message and interpret the cultural meanings and ideologies embodied in the connoted message.

Before discussing the concept of denotation and connotation, it is first necessary to describe the nature of signs so that a semiotic theory structure is provided on which the analysis is based. Language and image are made up of ‘signs’ through which we make meanings.

F.Saussure defines sign as being composed of a signifier – the form which the sign takes and the signified – the concept it represents (cited in Chandler, 2004). The two elements are related by ‘signification’.

CS Pierce categorises sign into three types:

Index: a mode in which the signifier is not arbitrary but is directly connected in some way (physically or causally) to the signified.
Icon: a mode in which the signifier is perceived as resembling the signified.
Symbol: a mode in which the signifier does not resemble the signified but which is fundamentally arbitrary.

(cited in Chandler, 2004, p. 36).

Utilising these semiotics theories and devices, R. Barthes develops theories by structuring signs into two levels. He introduces denotation, connotation and myth. Denotation refers to ‘the literal meaning of a sign’ (Burgin, 1982, p. 128) and connotation refers to ‘meanings which lie beyond denotation but are dependent on it’. (Burgin, 1982, p. 128). After a sign is formed by signification as the denotation procedure, the meaning acts as a signifier of the second level – connotation. As the second level somehow directs ideology and culture meaning in the society, Bathes call this second level ‘myth’.

1. Signifier 2. Signified
3. Sign

(Barthes, 1977b, p. 115)

While the first level is most of the times clear and literal, the second level will have a polysemic nature because of the arbitrary interpretation from different angles and context. Dyer (1986) raised the issue ‘concept of codes’ (p. 131). As codes are derived from social, culture and ideology knowledge, people in different context made meaning in the second level differently.

In the example of Sarfati’s image, verisimilitude of colour and abundance of detail instantly signifies to our minds that it is a photo. Index characteristic of sign is demonstrated by the causal relationship of the light reflected from the actual situation to the film or digital sensor of the camera. Our perception of the fact that this image is a photo rather than a painting instantly and naturally enable us to identify that all things depicted in the image are real at the time of the shooting.

After this instant signification, our eyes are firstly drawn to the dominant silver birch wood poster on a dull green wall. This poster occupies almost half of the image. In the poster, there are two birch boles with lots of branches. We see more branches and smaller boles around them with most leaves in vivid yellow colour some with light green hue. We know that the poster depicts a birch wood in a sunny day. However, the edges of the poster, especially the bottom edge, are sliced off irregularly and it presents a messy and irregular serrate margin. Other edges are somehow folded in a not neat way. It might be on the wall for a long time and people sliced off pieces many times when the edges curled up. Our eyes are then drawn to two people sitting on the left side shoulder by shoulder and facing out of the frame. They have very short hair and are dressed in dark blue uniform. One face is little blocked by the other’s head, but we can see both have deadpan complexions. It seems that they are gazing something although the image gives us no clue what they are gazing at. Our eyes next move to a table behind them with colourful table cloth on the top. We recognised that colourful repeated pattern are of red tomatoes, yellow flowers, green leaves etc. We see another table with same cloth albeit it was cropped by the right edge of the image. There are some banknotes, black rye breads, and some white plastic bags on the table. We then noticed that big part of the wall are peeled off with appearance of white calcareous colour and even grey concrete colour.

Our common sense formed in our daily life and culture context tells us instantly that this is probably a scene in a canteen from the denoted sign of the table cloth. We can also infer that there are several more similar tables in the space from the cropped table on the right side. We also know that this might be an institution canteen because the two men leaning the table are dressed in uniform with same hair cut, though we are not sure if it is a prison or other institute. The peeled wall and torn poster inform us that this facility is not well managed. The extent of the peeling indicates that it has been run down for quite some time. The two people’s deadpan complexions seem neutral.

This denotation is the ‘mechanical analogue of reality’ (Barthes, 1977a, p. 18) which then acts as a signifier and pushes us to the next level - connotation.

Whenever we think of prison or other institution, we know people’s freedom is somehow bereaved. The dull tone of the overall image, the run down wall and torn poster with the deadpan faces somehow persuade us that the two young men are disappointed, depressed and numbly sad. Yes, if the canteen is run down to this level, other facility in the institution should be similarly dilapidated. Lack of comfort will fuel the deprivation of the freedom and will make people even more disappointed and depressed.

After we looked at the image, we then noticed the title of the image: ‘Canteen, Serbsky Psychiatric Institution, Moscow 1995’. This ‘anchoring’ function of the text verified our surmise of the location and further reacts to our signification, which is the ‘relaying’ function of the text. We have been all influenced by our media around us. Most media claimed that Russia is a country of poor social system, severe social problem, and fragile economic situation. We all know that this is especially the case in 90’s just after the dismantling of the communist regime. The title signifies our stereotyped prejudice of Russia, which in turn strengthens our connotation that those people living in the institution are miserably deprived of everything by the social system. We see the kitschy colourful poster and table cloth; this contrasts the overall dull tone and the ‘melancholy’ deadpan complexion and therefore endorses our sensation further. We noticed the black rye bread and the banknotes on the table against which the two young men are leaning. It seems that they are not interested in them. They are looking out forward steadily with faces lit up by some light projected from out of the frame right in front of them. Our sentimental development reacted by the image and relayed by the text. We might easily consider the bank notes and rye bread as the signifier of the material world and the light projected from outside of image to the deadpan faces as the signifier of freedom and hope. The two young men turn back to the material world; yet they look forward to freedom, hope and future. This in turn develops the silver birch poster as a signifier to another level. Birch wood always has a romantic touch in culture meaning (eg., birch wood love scene in Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood). We might consider the birch wood as the symbolic sign of their arcadia, which they can not get into at that time but hopefully will be reached someday. As we gaze on the image further, the young men now are signified as young Russian generation. It is then connoted that young Russian generation look forward to their dreams, despite the currently dull, difficult and depressed surroundings.

This image is the cover for a photographic book named Acta Est which is a Latin phrase meaning the game is over. It signifies now as a pun with several layers of meanings. It could mean that the two young men’s game is over ending up in such a under-developed institution. It could mean that USSR is dismantled and the communism game is over. It could even mean that the young men see their arcadia, soon they will get there and the current institution game is over. As we browse the pages, we see all the dull and run down factories, facilities and some deadpan faces in the book. These photos combin and form a stronger sign as a whole. We now perceive a both absence and presence of past, present and future.

Connotation is making meaning via a set of codes that are ‘forms of social knowledge which are derived from social practices and beliefs’ (Dyer, 1982, p. 135). If I had not been exposed to western media daily in the last decade, I would not have analysed in the above way. I am a Chinese and had been living in China for decades before I came to England. I had been to Russia many times and I understand the situation well. From my life experience, social knowledge in China and Russia (China and Russia shares similarities because of communism background.), communism cultural and ideology background, the signs would not be the same as the above.

First of all, the peeled wall and torn poster are not be the signifiers of a run down social system. At that time in the 90’s, most public facility was not well maintained due to the overall poor economic standard. Even normal home might have cracked walls etc. Therefore it is not a signified message that the institution is neglected by society. Secondly, since we were educated that people sent to the prison or psychiatric institutions before prison for assessment are usually someone who committed crimes. Therefore, the two young men as a sign of normal Russian young generation will not be valid. We will consider them as the symbols of delinquent young Russians. Under such circumstances, the deadpan complexion is interpreted as a sign that they are regretful of what they committed. The light and birch wood are then signified and symbolised as Russian society. Accordingly, a new meaning is formed: they need to work hard in the institution to correct their mind and start clean before getting back to the sun shining and colourful society.

Sarfati as the photographer of the image claimed that ‘the pictures I make are not snapshots…my pictures aren’t about reality’ (cited in Boot, 2004, p. 410). She takes her own position before shooting and constructs mise-en-scène to make her own version of the world. From the introduction Acta Est (Sarfati, 2005), we know that actually Sarfati likes and knows the young men in the photo well but due to some murder incident, the young men were sent to psychiatric institution for assessment before being sent to institution for young offenders. Sarfati probably codified her sentiment of sympathy into her work. Despite of this fact, mass media make these images popular; the signifiers within the image are connoted to construct different meanings to different viewers from different cultural and ideology background. This in turn directs ideology and culture meaning in our society. Popular myth is created accordingly in our times.

(Word Count: 1988)

Barthes, Roland, (1977). Image-Music-Text translated by Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang.
Barthes, Roland, (1977). Mythologies translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang.
Boot, Chris, (2004). Magnum Stories. London: Phaidon.
Chandler, Daniel (2004). Semiotics: The Basics 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.
Dyer, Gillian, (1982). Advertising as Communication Method. London: Routledge.
Sarfati, Lise (2005). Acta Est. London: Phaidon.
Burgin, Victor (1982). Thinking Photography. London: Macmillan.
Mitchell, W.J.T. (1994). Picture Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago.