Photography and the Field of Communication Studies

There are three sectional position in our life : right, left, and middle section. While there are also three  kind of basic paradigms in social political economy views : socialism, liberalism, and the moderate thought. Right is identical with liberalism, left is socialism, and middle is moderate. That was the way I constructed that photograph above to communicate to you about that meaning by those men’s heads direction shown in the photograph in a seminar or an open discussion about media journalism. But how I constructed that photograph can be differently received or interpreted by you as the audience or viewer. Some of you might interpret that as a ‘zero interaction’. Some of you would see that funny. Or maybe you feel that photograph is ‘silent’. Why? Because photography is a matter of communication.  Let’s we learn together what matters are involved in photography and communication field.

Photography, as the art of fixing shadows (Maynard in Davies, Higgins, Hopkins, Stecker, dan Cooper, 2009 : 98), visually communicates something. So photography is a form of visual communication, which is a visual art that exhibited on any form of media by portraying a visual image (Jamieson, 2007 : 10).  In my opinion, photography is a form of visual art to express our imagination or to represent a reality. In communication/media studies, a photograph is a visualization of a construction or a creativity as well as a symbolic message that gives a meaning to anyone whom view it. So it can be consecutively categorized as :

  • How is the photograph constructed?
  • What does the photograph tell?
  • How is the photograph seen and understood?

Let’s see the illustration below to examine photography in communication/media studies in simple and basic way :

Taking picture is not merely just clicking the release-button of the camera. There are reasons, background, or even philosophy embedded in a photographer. There is constructionism, which is reality, knowledge, or phenomena are understood, constructed, and projected through the way we experience (Littlejohn, 2002 : 27).

How a photographer constructs photographs relies on his/her psychological, social, cultural, technical, and even political background. Denis Dake in his ‘image-maker theory’ says that an image production is a phenomenological process of an intimate relationship between a creator and his/her object (Dake in Smith, Moriarty, Barbatsis, Kenney, 2005 : 6). A person who was familiarly growing in poverty and psychologically down-to-earth, would be very good to capture sorrow, social low-end reality on the camera. While a photographer who previously well in studying advertising, creative and graphic design, could probably better in producing a commercial photography. By creative concept and techniques, a photographer can turn a simple woman to be a glamour one.

Photographers need a media to show his/her photography outputs. They can display their photographs in an exhibition or they can upload and share those in their own social media. But in another circumstance, a photographer is dependent on the institutional system where he/she works to publish the photographs. A journalist photographer through the editor’s approval and selection needs a print media or a news website to publish. A photographer who works as a PR officer relies on the organization to publish its company profile and its press releases. This can be a bureaucratic and systematic process to go through for the photo publication. Institution and corporate greatly influence the media content for their ideological interest (Lull, 1995 : 14). Photograph is the media as well as the content to distribute that purpose. The editors, creative directors, managers and executives are the posts usually intervene the decision of photographs selection to publish.

When a photograph is published and shown in any media, it becomes a message for being a visual/pictorial representation. In objectivism perspective, Roger Scruton said that a photograph is a representation of object that shows a relation between x and y   (Scruton in Walden, 2008 : 140). A photograph is a representation of the object itself, a set of techniques, or the content of a theme. On the other hand, the subjectivism perspective says that a photograph is a symbolic message which has a certain meaning. Roland Barthes said that a photograph structurally has a denotative status as well as an unconscious connotative meaning (Barthes, 1977 : 18) and that connotative meaning is related to a mythology or ideology (Laughey, 2007 : 58). It can be simply said that a photograph has an obvious meaning as well as the unseen symbolic meanings.

Let’s see the picture of Magdhalisa above as a case study for exploring a photograph as a message here. The objectivist will view it as a fashion photography. The technique is using mid key lighting and balanced composition. Mid key lighting is purposed for a normal lighting and normal colour display on her skin and her fashion. Balanced composition is purposed to place the model to be right in the middle of the frame and to connect with her straight eye-direction to the camera. While the subjectivist of critical-feminist point-of-view would see it as a commercialization of a woman beauty/aesthetic. Griselda Pollock in her concept ‘vision and difference’ criticized that women in visual art were constructed as an integral part of men’s decision making in business and leisure industry ( Chaplin, 2003 : 94 ). We can see this photograph shows a woman wearing a red shirt and a black skirt and hanging a leather bag for a formal or official fashion (denotation). But it actually symbolizes an ideology of women commodification where a beautiful woman is used as an object for a visual trigger of a fashion industry to promote a fashion style. The over-the-knee skirt signifies how a woman gender is actually treated unfairly as a visual pleasure for males in the office.

The purpose of the photographs publication or exhibition is to be viewed by the people as the audience. The probable viewer opinion  written on the opening paragraph explains the audience’s response and interpretation to a photograph.

In behaviorist paradigm, it is a degree of perceptual response of an image (Kenney in Smith, Moriarty, Barbatsis, Kenney, 2005 : 101). Are we aware of the photograph? Do we understand the photograph? What emotion that photograph influence us? Those are the question of cognitive to affective response when we see a display of a photograph. Whereas in phenomenologist paradigm, we would give a deep interpretation that reflect our philosophy, historical mental construction, and our imagination to a photograph (Kenney in Smith, Moriarty, Barbatsis, Kenney, 2005 : 110). This can be assumed to a question “how do we view the photograph?” then “why do we say that according to the photograph?”.

If we are an active and responsive viewer of the photograph we see, we probably would give any comment either to the photographer or the organization publishing the photograph. We might praise or complaint the photograph to the “readers’ letter” to the media. We could write a comment on the comment box or send a direct message in the photographer’s social media. We could click the “report as abuse” and the ‘Like’ button. Those actions are what we call as ‘feedback’.

So, we can comprehend that photography is a communication science, can’t we?

References :

Barthes, Roland, 1977, Image Music Text, London, Fontana Press.

Chaplin, Elizhabeth, 2003, Sociology and Visual Representation, London and New York, Routledge.

Davies, Stephen, Kathleen Marie Higgins, Robert Hopkins, Robert Stecker, David E. Cooper, 2009, A Companion to Aesthetics, West Sussex, Wiley-Blackwell.

Jamieson, Harry, 2007, Visual Communication More: Than Meets the Eye, Bristol – Chicago, Intellect.

Laughey, Dan, 2007, Key Themes in Media Theory, Berkshire and New York, Open University Press McGraw-Hill.

Littlejohn, Stephen W., 2002, Theories of Human Communication, 7th ed, Belmont, Wadsworth – Thomson Learning.

Lull, James, 1995, Media Communication, Culture – A Global Approach, New York, Columbia University Press.

Smith, Ken, Sandra Moriarty, Gretchen Barbatsis, Keith Kenney, 2005, Handbook Of Visual Communication Research : Theory, Methods, and Media, New Jersey London, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Walden, Scott, 2008, Photography and Philosophy, Oxford, Blackwell.


2 thoughts on “Photography and the Field of Communication Studies

  1. I just like the helpful info you provide for your articles.
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    • Thank you very much, Liosbal. It’d be my honour even though frankfully I still need to improve my photography skill and learn more about it. Best regards 🙂

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