In Search of Semiotics

So, I understand that semiotics is defined as ‘everything that can be taken as a sign’ (Eco, 1976: 7) and I understand it has what sometimes appears to be a complex set of characteristics. But frankly, I am confused about what it actually is. Is it a discipline, is it an epistemology, is it a methodology, is it a collection of methods, is it a philosophy or is it some sort of cultural studies cult?

I accept this may be as a result of my own ignorance, I may not have read the right books or papers, it is certainly possible I have not read enough of them but trying to fathom this out is not proving easy. It seems to sit within a social constructionist and interpretative paradigm but while some authors surface this others do not. I think this is partly why I felt such frustration in reading Jobey’s account of ‘Young Brooklyn Family.’

I have been trying to find critiques of semiotics and a few have surfaced but they seem to be far from the norm. Given my personality type (as explored in assignment three) it is perhaps little surprise that I was becoming increasingly sceptical about the apparent lack of a counter-narrative to semiotics, or at least some debate of its shortcomings. Although some semiotic analysts do refer to interpretation and some also acknowledge wider contextual factors not all do as I found with Jobey. It is hard sometimes to distinguish interpretations from those presented as fact.

As someone who has been involved with ethnographic research I am familiar with positivistic arguments being made against interpretative methodologies as well as having to be clear about the criteria against which the research can be judged. I have seen very little of this in the texts I have read so far around semiotics. That is not to suggest they are not there, it may just be that I have not encountered them to date.

I was pleased to find one paper that does offer a critique in a way that is coherent, comprehensible and resonated with my experience. Chandler (2002) offers various criticisms, in summary:

  1. The boundaries of semiotics seem to be ever expanding and have become so fluid it can now encompass almost every academic discipline – what Chandler refers to as the ‘imperialism’ of semiotics
  2. Semioticians are not always explicit about the limitations of their techniques
  3. There is an absence of transparency in the analysis of signs, implying they are objective realities rather than subjective interpretations
  4. Some analyses appear to have a preoccupation with classification which has a tendency to ‘downplay the affective domain’ and in doing so moves away from the subjective creating the illusion of objectivity
  5. Structural semiotics is only concerned with textual structure and in doing so negates the wider cultural context in which the text sits. In not taking account of the cultural context the impact of power structures, hierarchies and wider social constructs are ignored. As Chandler (2002) notes ‘the relationships between signifiers and their signified may be ontologically arbitrary but they are not socially arbitrary.’
  6. There is a concern that much of semiotics has become associated with a simple process of ‘decoding’. For me this has an ontological implication in that it suggests there is a single reality or truth to be uncovered if you know how to read the signs correctly

Semioticians have recognised some of these shortcomings and Chandler (2002) goes on to describe the ‘turn’ to the social and post-structuralism, which has an equal concern with both structure and process.

I am pleased I took time to think about this further and it has helped reassure me that it is not necessarily something I am missing, this is in fact a complex and contested field. In terms of responding to my initial question of ‘what is semiotics’ it may be easier to think about what it is not and here I am inclined to agree with Chandler (2002) when he states:

Semiotics is not, never has been, and seems unlikely ever to be, an academic discipline in its own right. It is now widely regarded primarily as one mode of analysis amongst others rather than a ‘science’ of cultural forms.

References and citations:

CHANDLER, D. 2002. Semiotics for Beginners. Criticisms of Semiotic Analysis [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 16th May 2016].

ECO, U. 1976. A Theory of Semiotics, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press/London: Macmillan.


Assignment Four Reflections

Title: A picture is worth a thousand words

Having looked at a number of submissions for assignment four by other OCA students I have adopted slightly amended self-assessment criteria that provide more scope for reflecting on my essay.

Demonstration of subject based knowledge and understanding

This assignment has helped develop my subject knowledge around visual analysis and really exploring some of the basics of semiotics in particular. My understanding of semiotics has increased although with that has come a questioning of some of its underlying assumptions (see my entry In Search of Semiotics). In completing this essay I also acquired insights into the work of a single photographer and gained an experiential understanding of how I might apply the process I used to my own work and other photographers going forward.

My initial concern that the image might not have been regarded as having enough content has long since been dispelled. I still regard it as a powerful image that offers a depth of meaning (some of my fellow students have also had a similar response on seeing the photograph). Taking the work of an emerging photographer about whom there is not a large established body of knowledge also allowed me to develop my own responses without being unduly influenced by the reviews of others.

I think overall I have demonstrated a grasp of the review process and an understanding of the work of Dara Scully (although I know she would not write about her own work in this academic form).

Demonstration of research skills

I enjoyed the research activity for the essay, which took a number of forms:

  • Gaining more insight into Dara Scully’s photography, her background and her body of work
  • Other relevant photographers/photographs – either similar or different approaches to representing childhood and coming of age
  • Semiotics
  • Reading photographic images – other analysis approaches
  • Psychoanalysis and object relations
  • Theories around childhood and its meaning as a concept

This took longer than I had anticipated but its breadth provided a useful sensitising framework (Bruner, 1996) from which I could develop the depth of my own reading of The Cut. On initial reading of the image I thought I would be using concepts from psychoanalysis and objects relations such as the Mirror Stage (Lacan, 1949)   or Paranoid-Schizoid position (Klein, 1986) or possibly the plait as a transitional object  (Winnicott, 1951) but as my research progressed it was the interpretation of ‘childhood innocence’ that came to the fore.

The research took a process I am familiar with involving cycles of divergent and convergent thinking until my analysis was complete. It also followed a series of iterative stages: data collection, synthesising, analysis, and conclusions.

Demonstration of critical and evaluation skills

I think I have worked through a clear process of critical review and was open to the process taking me in a direction I might not have initially anticipated. I created a framework for the essay that was intended to highlight the interpretative nature of the exercise. The structure for the essay aimed to have a logical flow:

  • Personal reasons for selecting the image
  • Background to the photographer
  • Comparisons
  • Theoretical exploration of the childhood theme
  • Conclusions including a personal reflection

Feedback from other OCA students helped refine the structure and content, although I am not sure this intended structure was evident to all. It felt particularly important to draw out intertexuality as part of the evaluation by highlighting my personal responses to the image as well as considering where it might be placed within the wider field of representing childhood (both in visual and written texts). If I understand the concept correctly this has taken more of a social semiotic approach.

During the process I came across this quote from Chandler (2002):

Semiotic analysis often shows a tendency to downplay the affective domain – though the study of connotations ought to include the sensitive exploration of highly variable and subjective emotional nuances. (Chandler, 2002)

I found this to be an important distinction for me in evaluative terms as the affective domain (i.e. my emotional response) was the foundation for selecting the image in the first place and relates closely to this being an interpretative piece of research rather than an empirical natural science experiment.


Given the complexity of some of the concepts and the depth I could have gone into in relation to the photograph I did find the 1,000-word limit quite challenging. While I am satisfied with the result I know there was more I could have drawn out and explored. That said the word limit was a useful discipline in terms of tightening my language and trying to be clear about the structure. Sharing earlier drafts with some of my fellow students was a useful way of checking how some of the concepts were received by others, and inevitability there were elements I thought I was communicating well that were not clear to others. I am grateful to everyone who spent time to read the essay and comment.

My thanks to Steve Middlehurst for sharing his self-assessment criteria for the essay.

References & citations

BRUNER, E., M 1996. My Life in an Ashram. In: PATTON, M., Q. (ed.) Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods. 3 ed. London: Sage Publications.

CHANDLER, D. 2002. Semiotics for Beginners. Criticisms of Semiotic Analysis [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 16th May 2016].

KLEIN, M. 1986. Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms. In: DU GAY, P., EVANS, J. & REDMAN, P. (eds.) Identity: A Reader. London: Sage Publications.

LACAN, J. 1949. The Mirror Stage. In: DU GAY, P., EVANS, J. & REDMAN, P. (eds.) Identity: A Reader. London: Sage Publications.

WINNICOTT, D. W. 1951. Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena. In: WINNICOTT, D. (ed.) Collected Papers: Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis. London: Tavistock.


Assignment Four: A picture is worth a thousand words

Assignment Four: Write an essay of 1,000 words on an image of your choice. The image I have selected is The Cut by Dara Scully, 2015

A young girl looks to camera, she is holding scissors across her plait

The Cut, Dara Scully, 2015

On the wall to the left of my computer is a black and white photograph; a young girl stares back at me uncompromisingly. Having considered several photographs (see my learning log) this was the image I kept returning to. There were occasions I looked at ‘The Cut’ and I imagined seeing my younger self looking back. The signification that emerged for me is that of belligerence. I could almost hear my mother’s voice – ‘don’t you dare, don’t you cut that plait!’ At which point I would hear the clip of the blades and the braid would be limp in my hand. My parents would have described me as a wilful child. I have interpreted the gesture as an act of asserting identity and autonomy. Given the polysemous (Barthes, 1977) nature of photography this personal response sets the context for my interpretation and analysis of the photograph.

Dara Scully (b.1989) is a photographer and writer based in Spain. She studied Fine Arts at Salamanca University and has a wonderfully lyrical way of describing her practice. She accepts she is obsessed with childhood, ‘maybe it’s because everything is so pure in childhood, so raw…cruelty, tenderness, evil, kindness… they feel all those feelings and show us just as they are.’(Ashley, 2015b)

She has exhibited in Spain and internationally, and was ‘Commended’ this year in the Sony World Photography Awards (People Category). While she is attracting growing acclaim for her work she has also been subject to some critique for her explorations of childhood (not unlike Sally Mann) and death. This posed a question for me around accepted portrayals of children and childhood.

A while back I featured an image of Dara Scully’s on the Instagram feed and immediately it drew a lot of attention; a few were disgusted by her work while others defended it…I embrace the fact that some of the images make the viewer a bit uncomfortable.(Ashley, 2015a)

At first glance the image may appear to denote a candid moment of a child playing. A neatly dressed young girl (perhaps in school uniform) looks to camera, behind her the background foliage is out of focus, the shallow depth of field making her all the more pronounced. Her hair is a little tussled and the parting is crooked but the plait looks neatly braided. You then notice her gaze and the claw like fingers on the scissors that are poised across the plait. Her right hand (almost out of shot) is holding the hair firmly. The black and white nature of the image and the clothes she is wearing give the photograph an ambiguous position in time, it could be contemporary or it could be historical. The Cut’s connotations for me echo myths and fairy tales; those dark tales of childhood, often in woods or forests, where good battles evil.

The studium appears to speak of childhood and possibly coming of age, whereas, the punctum is the scissors and the nature of her gaze. These signs are ‘that accident which pricks me.’ (Barthes, 1981: 27) This is not a passive, acquiescent, childlike look. It has a darkness to it. She looks defiant with wisdom beyond her years. Almost daring the photographer to take a step closer (or maybe even to take the photograph?) and if she does she will sever the plait. There is something threatening in her stance and her gaze.

In exploring the intertextuality of ‘The Cut’ I am reminded of the iconic coming of age work of Szabo, particularly ‘Priscilla’, here the plait and scissors are replaced by the cigarette, but the defiance in the gaze is similar. There are also echoes in ‘Long Island Girl’ and Sally Mann’s ‘Candy Cigarette’.

Szabo’s images recognise the often hidden complexities of the journey into adulthood too.

The innocence of the students can really affect you…a number of [my] images express the inner life, the inner difficulties that teenagers have. (Philips, 2014)

Perhaps, more interesting than the similarities are the contrasts to those images of a more romanticised ‘innocent’ childhood like those of Julia Margaret Cameron, and commercial advertising, which appear to have gained such a dominant place in the collective psyche.

Scully’s work feels brave, honest and revealing against this backdrop and in an era when there is so much concern about the representations of children. We endure news coverage of out of focus children and hear of schools banning parents photographing events. There is no doubt that safeguarding issues are important and I confess I was mindful of researching this issue. The Cut surfaces an important dialogue about our social concerns for the loss of innocence.  It is suggested this is a largely adultcentric concern with the meanings of ‘childhood’ being largely determined and defined by adults for adults.(Robinson, 2008)

Thus, the defining boundary between adults and children, and the ultimate signifier of the child—childhood innocence—is a constructed social and moral concept. (Robinson, 2008: 115)

In this photograph I see Scully playing with this boundary and deliberately disrupting our conceptions of innocence and evil, childhood and adulthood. She does not do this lightly and the children she works with are active participants in her work, she recognises the delicate ground she is treading, ‘childhood and death are kind of taboo.’ (Ashley, 2015b) There is a perceived crisis in the apparent loss of an innocent childhood but it could be argued that this is actually more of a crisis of adulthood in a rapidly changing world.(Holland, 2004) In The Cut the gaze is confrontational a possible challenge to an established but diminishing power order. It opens a discourse that explores a more contested view of representations of childhood. The Cut, for me personally, recalls those periods of confusion, some darker days, in the twilight period of childhood and adulthood when the rules were unclear and I was grappling with being ‘me.’

Yet the bitter experience of being a child is very often a continuous struggle to escape from childhood, to leave behind precisely those qualities of simplicity, ignorance and innocence that are so highly valued. (Holland, 2004: 205)

Word count: 1,009

References and citations

ASHLEY. 2015a. Dara Scully on childhood unplugged. The Stork and the Beanstalk [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 18th March 2016 2016].

ASHLEY, J. 2015b. Childhood Unplugged features Dara Scully. Childhood Unplugged [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 4th March 2016 2016].

BARTHES, R. 1977. Rhetoric of the Image. In: HEATH, S. (ed.) Image Music Text. London: Harper Collins Publishers.

BARTHES, R. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard, New York, Hill and Wang.

HOLLAND, P. 2004. Picturing Childhood: The myth of the child in popular imagery, London, I.B.Taurus.

PHILIPS, A. 2014. In-between days: Joseph Szabo. Hunger TV [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 25th March 2016 2016].

ROBINSON, K., H 2008. In the name of ‘childhood innocence’: a discursive exploration of the moral panic associated with childhood and sexuality. Cultural studies Review, 14, 113-129.


Studio Playtime

After a week where I seemed glued to a keyboard and screen it was a real treat to pack my photography bags and head over to Wokingham and 10-Studio to meet some of my fellow OCA travellers. I haven’t spent very much time in a professional studio so it was a great opportunity just to be in the environment and see what happened. There is a lot to be said for serious play and plenty of evidence that adults need to do it as much as children.

The studio is in a small industrial park in a good size unit with plenty of space to work. When we were there it had two portrait studio type areas and two product areas. I met up with Holly, Richard, Sarah-Jane and Catherine and we had already had some conversations beforehand about what we might work on – I wanted to have another go at my veil portrait series, Richard wanted help throwing things into shot and Sarah-Jane decided to try something with movement.

It is surprising how much you can cram into two hours! We experimented with the lights, with the skylight blinds closed and open, with shutter speeds, apertures and angles. Sarah-Jane kindly agreed to be my veil wearer and I am pleased to now feel like I have completed that Gestalt. It was something I started as a possible self-portrait project for C&N Assignment three but never quite materialised and I got more interested in the composite work I eventually submitted. It has however niggled me ever since that I didn’t really finish the series so this was a prime opportunity.

Everyone graciously helped me set up and we all took some shots. We then moved on to the other projects, which allowed us all to take photographs we might not otherwise have taken and to hear more about what each of us was doing in terms of developing our photography as well as working on our course work. I tend not to do much work with movement so it was really helpful to see Richard and Sarah-Jane develop their shots and hear about what they were trying to achieve.

Apart from having the opportunity to pick up the camera again after what feels like a few fallow weeks given I am now working on C&N assignment four, the trip reminded me of the value of social learning. While we share a lot through the OCA Facebook groups there is nothing quite like being with other people and hearing different perspectives on photography. An important part of finding our photographic voice seems to me to be about putting our ideas and work out there to see how others respond – however scary that sometimes feels.

Thanks to 10-Studio for allowing us to use the space and to Sarah-Jane for organising the session. I really appreciated the opportunity to work with everyone and look forward to the next one!

Exercise – Project 3 Self-absented portraiture: Nigel Shafran “Washing Up”

Exercise: Review Shafran’s work and consider the following:
• Did it surprise you that Washing Up was taken by a man?
• In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?
• What does this series achieve by not including people?
• Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?

Nigel Shafran (1964-) lives and works in London and has been widely exhibited nationally and internationally. He trained in New York as a commercial photographer but his own projects are altogether more personal, particular and focused on the everyday. His subject matter draws on aspects of his life that are close to hand and familiar. Washing Up 2000 is an extensive series of 170 images taken in various domestic settings but mainly at his home. They were taken in available light using a medium format camera.

I imagine the thinking behind the question of the photographer’s gender is that the content of Washing Up 2000 is a very domestic subject and therefore more likely to be the product of a female photographer than a male. I can honestly say it was not something I thought about when I saw the images, I was intrigued by what was on the drainers and realised it has been a long time since I had done the washing up like that. In other words I went to what resonated rather than who the photographer was. I was also struck by the quality of the image and how beautiful the lighting was. I am inclined to agree with Phillips that there is little to be gained in trying to determine a particularly ‘female’ or ‘male’ photography.

“There certainly is a clichéd female style of photography. And there’s a clichéd tech dude who has 2,700 cameras and only talks about depth of field,” says Cara Phillips. “But within photography, there are so many people that fit and defy stereotypes, that going there doesn’t get you anywhere. Ultimately I really don’t think that it’s important.”  In Mitchell, 2009

That is not to say that there are not a combination of cultural, political and social influences on the nature of the images we take, but my sense is that gender is one part of a wider network of psychosocial elements. It is undoubtedly the case that gender may have an affect on access both to opportunities and subjects/contexts and the way others respond to us as ‘gendered’ photographers.

But pictures aren’t taken in a vacuum. The sex of the photographer matters because subjects react to men and women differently. This doesn’t have anything to do with how the photographer perceives the scene, but it can still have a huge effect on the resulting photograph.  Mitchell, 2009

The reaction of others can influence how and if a photographer can gain access and how they behave as subjects in front of the camera but I am not convinced that gender is the sole influence on what a photographer chooses to take, after all there are men and women working in all genres of photography.

In terms of Shafran’s Washing Up 2000 series I think the absence of people allows for a more open reading and potential connection. The inclusion of people in an image can lead to comparison, are these people like me and what do they have to tell me about my own life. This can mean a point of connection or disconnection dependent on your response. In using a still life approach I think the images become more phenomenological, that is they evoke something of the everyday experience that lends itself to interpretation. In conversation with Charlotte Cotton, I think Shafran is speaking of his work as dealing with the phenomena of lived experience and is mindful of not letting too much conscious thought get in the way.

It’s all around us. I think they can be expressions of everything that’s us: how we’ve been brought up, taught or learnt determines how we do things from cutting a load of bread to painting a wall. I think that might strength is in this and if I start questioning it or thinking too much about it, then it’s difficult for me to find my way back to what inspired me.
Nigel Shafran

I find myself remembering my grandparent’s sink and noticing how unlike my own washing up routine (thanks to a dishwasher) this is. I also find myself wondering about the people who have participated in the meals. This is left to my imagination and a phenomenological reading of everyday lived experience. This interpretation would have changed (I can’t say if this would have been and improvement or not because they would have been a different set of photographs) with the presence of people in the images.

An instant photograph can only acquire meaning insofar as the viewer can read into it a duration extending beyond itself. When we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future. Berger & Mohr, 1982: 89

As a result of the above ‘reading’ of the photographs I do find them interesting compositions. They give me a wide scope for interpretation and each time I look at them I see something different. There is something beautiful and almost sculptural in their ‘everydayness.’ This is not a subject matter I might have considered yet it is something recognisable and personal, exposing a small detail of everyday life that others seldom see. It sits clearly within a still life genre.

As in traditional still life painting, in which specific objects such as the hour-glass and human skulls were introduced to symbolise mortality and the brevity of life, here the recurrence and disappearance of certain motifs and changing atmospheric conditions within the series suggest the passage of time and the contingencies of daily life. Brett Rogers review of Washing Up 2000


Berger, J., & Mohr, J. (1982). Another way of telling. London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative Society.