Writing on photography

Is there a Language of Photography?

In 1927 László Mohly-Nagy proclaimed that ‘the illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.’ Today people often speak of visual literacy, and of the ‘language of photography’. This is taken to be a visual code inherent to photography, which is able to transcend the usual limitations of other modes of written or spoken communication which must be laboriously learnt. By contrast it is often assumed that this language of photography is inherent and immutable, that it is understandable to anyone, anywhere. Two tendencies are evident with this claim, as with many clichés about photography. First that very few of the people who repeat it subject it to any serious scrutiny, and second that when it is investigated it starts to come apart.

Admittedly the definition of language is open to debate, but for the sake of this discussion I’m going to err on the side of caution and define it fairly broadly. Language is a complex system of communication, which is understood by those who use it to operate according to certain rules. It’s rules needn’t necessarily be formally described or codified, so long as two ‘speakers’ of the language understand an example of it’s use in basically the same way. Whether that language takes a visual, oral or other form is rather beside the point provided it meets these two simple definitions. Taking this as our definition and applying it to photography I think things rather unravel.

Photography admittedly meets the first of my two definitions, it’s a vastly complex system of communication, because it takes as it’s communicative components the visible world and complicates this already enormous vocabulary by viewing it in a wider range of ways than the naked human eye. However I think this complexity makes it difficult for it to meet the second definition, understanding. Even if there were some recognition that certain symbols in photography stood for certain things, the component building blocks of this language would still be far more numerous than any student of it could hope to learn. Logographic languages (those that use symbols to stand in for entire words, like Chinese characters or Egyptian hieroglyphics) are by nature extremely complex, but learning one of these would seem like child’s play next to any ‘language’ of photography, where the signs and characters, not to speak of their combinations, would be very great in number.

Another problem lies in the ambiguity of interpreting these signs and symbols. Even in a single culture, a sign can have multiple interpretations which are not necessarily understood on the same terms by everyone, or signposted by the context in which they are used. A photograph of a woman can be simply interpreted as a photograph of a woman, but getting beyond that there are many other interpretations which can made, sometimes defined by what is occurring in the photograph, sometimes by the baggage the viewer brings with them. In different cultures this becomes more complex still, an extreme example would be the differing responses to a photograph of a woman in a culture with a matriarchal tradition, as opposed to one inclined towards patriarchy.

In an interview last year with the RAW file blog Marvin Heiferman suggested instead that photography might be multiple languages, with the particular language of different photographic fields understood by corresponding groups of people. I think this view does a much better job of recognising the complexities of photography as a means of communication, and the fact that there are numerous tribes within the medium. We might learn to expertly read photographs from our particular specialty (be it contemporary photojournalism, historic portraiture or satellite reconnaissance photography) but in viewing photographs from another specialty we might find them mute.

However again I think these fields vary in how far they can be said to consistently understand and interprete the same photograph in the same way. A neuroscientist (one of Heiferman’s examples) might learn to expertly read CT scans as a pre-requisite of the job, but this is perhaps an extreme example, where the correct reading of photographs lies within relatively strict clinical parameters. By contrast other areas, for example art photography, are much less formalised, and the possible readings of photographs from these genres are consequently much wider, and the possibility for misunderstanding much greater (if indeed we can even call different interpretations of art photography misunderstandings).

For another viewpoint, writing about photography Ruth Berlau said that ‘it is, for the untrained, as hard to read…as any hieroglyphics’ an apt comparison although perhaps still one which doesn’t fully reflect the unique ambiguities of the medium. Hieroglyphics might be beyond comprehension and in need of translation for most of us, but the messages contained within are often still clear and realtively definitive to those who do understand them. Her point about ‘the untrained’ is also pertinent. Who exactly is trained? Very few professions involve any formal education in reading photographs, most of the time this ability (such as it is) is picked up informally.

For a final thought I rather like Thomas Struth’s comparison between photographs and riddles. He was speaking in a very different context, in terms of what he thought made an interesting art photograph, but I think his point can be co-opted for the sake of this argument. He described the photograph as a constructed series of clues, which if correctly interpreted might lead the viewer to understanding the photographer’s message. Still viewing photographs as riddles bothers me in that it again seems to imply there must be a single definitive answer or reading.  I think the thing that makes photographs most interesting, and which most fundamentally challenges any notion of a photographic language, is their total ambiguity. I can only speak for myself here but this is what keeps bringing me back to photography. If photographs were as explicit as words I would have lost interest in them long ago.

In short I think it’s difficult to speak of a language of photography, beyond on the one hand the most general readings of obvious symbols (which culturally speaking may still not be so obvious), and on the other, professional tribes who interpret and use photography in very specific and narrow ways, often with little crossover. There are elements of photography which undoubtedly echo actual language, particularly logographic scripts, but I think only in quite superficial ways. Rather than a universal language I think it might be more suitable to consider photography as a parallel to the biblical confusion of tongues, or the fragmentation of language by Hermes. An all-encompassing and inexplicable visual babble which, in all of its beautiful diversity confounds our search for definitive meaning.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.


  • This is a very interesting thought. Writers often write between the lines, but photographers write almost everything between the lines (if we dont talk about documentary photography or so). And yes, one of the most amazing things about photography is if you can read more questions than answers in the photos.

    • “one of the most amazing things about photography is if you can read more questions than answers in the photos”. excellent point Jiri!

      There are times we look at the “whys and hows” for an answer in an image.
      If an image leaves you with an emotional question then I feel the image questions something about the viewer. The answer comes from within.

  • I don’t understand Chinese, but I recognize that it is communicating. At the same time, I can understand a photograph thaken by a Chinese photographer. I think that we need to be careful about trying to qualify such a fluid environment.

    • Thanks for the comment Craig. I guess it depends on what level of understanding we’re talking about. I can understand a photograph taken by a Chinese photographer to some extent, but I can’t really pretend to know enough about Chinese history, culture, language (or even Chinese photography) to understand the photo to the same degree of complexity that that Chinese photographer might hope a viewer would. Obviously it varies from one photo to another and it’s tricky to generalise as much as I have in this piece.

  • Hello.

    Errol Morris said that ‘Photographs allow us to think we know more than we really do. We can imagine a context that isn’t really there’.
    This is something I have often mused over with photographs as well as cinematography.
    I often think that compared to photography, cinematography allows us to think less critically about images because placing images in a particular order and showing us a particular context is perhaps doing a lot of the visual decoding for us. Telling us how to think.

    • Interesting point Simon, I think there are similarities and differences. Often a narrative composed of photographs behaves in quite similar ways to a movie narrative, if you look at the way photographers use juxtaposition for example, just as director might to create meaning between two images without necessarily showing something which directly expresses that meaning. As I see it the main difference is you lose the control a film director has over timing, you can’t tell someone when to look away from a photograph and move on to the next one in the same way (unless you work with a format like photo-films that is) and you can’t always assume a viewer will look at the work in the order you expect.

  • I think that there is a ‘language’ to photographs, if not the specific symbols, and virtually everyone understands that language.
    How subjects are treated in placement, focus and brightness are considered subconsciously as the viewer tries to parse the content and decide whether the image is ‘liked’ or not.

    • Thanks for commenting Lewis. Personally I think the aesthetic judgements you’re talking about need to be treated seperately from the meaning judgements I’m writing about here. I actually think there is a better case to argue that there is an aesthetic language of photography, but I still think you might find global differences in understanding, perhaps reflecting the fact that photography is often understood in terms of traditions in art (which obviously can vary enormously from one place to another). A little more on this here: http://www.disphotic.lewisbush.com/2013/12/09/iconography-and-iconoclasm/

  • Good to read you taking on this ambiguous subject.

    For me at least, the language of photography is a language of aesthetics. My main concern is: is this a good photograph in terms of it giving visual please and is it a good photograph in terms of being interesting to look at (form, light, colour etc).

    I know it is simplistic but that’s all I care about really.

    I appreciate music in the same way and believe there is a close relationship between the two, especially as art forms which depend on improvisation.

Writing on photography