Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. September 2004

8.4. L'éducation multiculturelle ou Est-il possible de créer un espace culturel commun?
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Mirela Moldoveanu (Université d'Ottawa, Canada)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Magazine Photos: A Cultural Semiotic Perspective

Marius Velica (University of Galati, Romania)


"The entire universe is perfused with signs
if it is not composed entirely of signs."

Charles S. Peirce


A newspaper or a magazine is a sign in itself which comprises a multitude of signs. There are many elements in a newspaper or magazine that may have semiotic relevance: the masthead, the front-page, the photographs, the headlines, the ads, the colours, the fonts, the title of the magazine, the layout, the texture of paper, the language adopted, the content of the articles, the tagline of a magazine, the motto of the newspaper or magazine and so on. Among these, photographs are some of the most suggestive and powerful ones. Out of the total number of photographs in a magazine, the front cover photo is usually the 'leading' sign of that particular issue. Such a photograph makes use of certain codes (size and position on the page, focus, shot size and use of lenses, camera angle, lightening etc.) to trigger a certain reaction of the reader. The reader, on his/her turn makes use of a similar set of codes to decode the visual sign. The paper analyses the combination of such codes that make up the end product called photograph.



In an age obsessed with communication, the visual stimuli have become a permanent overwhelming presence impossible to be ignored. Daniela Roventa-Frumusani states in one of her books(1) that "[...] we have to admit that our contemporary world is situated to a considerable extent under the sign of image (which dominates various social practices such as advertising, propaganda, and mass-media in general)." We live in a world in which news discourse has acquired a new status, radically different from what it used to be. From a mere source of daily information, it has almost become a form of entertainment; hence, the new term coined to refer to this new 'reality': infotainment(2). Especially for the past two years or so, since September 11, many people have come to live their lives between two news bulletins. The effectiveness of this choice as well as the passive attitude towards news have been extensively dealt with and analysed by many voices in the field of socio-linguistics and semiotics. For those who still have the taste of reading news instead of accepting it in a pre-digested form, there is always the alternative of buying a newspaper or a magazine. "Are these news transmitting vehicles free of subjectivity and partisanship?" one might rightfully ask. The answer to this question can be only one: "Of course not!" The written media are by no means a more secure and reliable way of getting informed, but the reader has a chance to go back and revisit a particular item of information, he/she can stop and filter whatever that article offers as news. In other words, provided the readers possess an inventory of recognizing and decoding 'tools', they might read between and behind the lines of a news report in an attempt to form a personal opinion about a certain event. The newspaper is a form of news communication that presents a display of codes which should provide the receiver with information of the world. The medium itself produces signs that readers can interpret at their leisure without a time constraint, unlike television or radio. This means that the reader can take time to interpret the codes and therefore give the information closer scrutiny.

There are many elements in a newspaper or magazine that may bear semiotic relevance: the masthead, the front-page, the photographs (those on the front page as well as those inside), the headlines, the ads, the colours, the fonts, the title of the magazine, the layout, the texture of paper, the language adopted, the content of the articles, the tagline of a magazine, any possible motto of the newspaper or magazine and so on. We have decided to place photographs under the scrutiny of a semiotic analysis due to the fact that by resembling and/or imitating something, on the one hand, a photograph is iconic and by the fact that it is directly linked to the signified, on the other hand, a photograph is also indexical. This double nature of a photograph makes it a powerful media tool since the observer tends to rank this medium of recording reality higher on a scale of objectivity. But, as Roland Barthes said about the newspaper photograph, this is 'an object that has been worked on, chosen, composed, constructed, treated according to professional, aesthetic or ideological norms which are so many factors of connotation.'(3). The photographer and the editor have to operate on an entire series of choices from the paradigm of photographic signifiers such as focusing, lighting, angle, shot size, composition, lenses and so on. The result of these careful choices is a final signifier that serves less the interest of the reader and more the interest of the magazine policy.


This paper analyses the use of photograph on the front cover of Newsweek magazine, No. 10, March 10, 2003 as well as the two-page photograph used at the beginning of the cover story (pp. 14-15). The front cover of this issue of Newsweek presents George W. Bush delivering a speech. He is holding a microphone in his right hand while his left arm is raised up to the level of his eyes pointing upwards. Since the photograph is a close up we can see nobody else in it except for the right shoulder of a man somewhere down in the right corner of the picture. Behind president Bush there is a huge cross and the title of the cover story, which reads "Bush & God" is superimposed on the president's torso, this linguistic message having an 'anchorage function'(4).

The second photograph is spread over almost two pages and it is in fact an eye-level front shot of president Bush's semi-profile seen from the left. The photograph is accompanied on the left by a wide strip which posts the title of the article, the same as on the front cover but with bigger letters and in different colours. The presidential head is surrounded by a yellow halo which makes him look like a saint, to say the least. The significance of all these elements will be further analysed in the paper.


We have chosen these particular photographs because president Bush is undoubtedly the man of the hour and, consequently, the message attached to the article and the photos will have a greater impact than usual since the readership is probably more numerous these crucial days which may be very important for the future of society as we know it now. Photographs are this efficient in this respect due to their capacity of presenting information in an economic, synthetic and easy to 'read' manner. This ability is the result of an iconic encoding which is used to solve the problem of exponential growth of information. Images are an excellent vehicle since they make use of an 'integrative global discourse'(5) which requires a spatial reading, a sweeping of the page from left to right and from top to bottom. Two other reasons which influenced our decision of analysing photographs were mentioned by Daniela Roventa-Frumusani in the book already referred to: a) "the latest research in biogenetics define the eye as the outpost of the brain" and b) "the society evolves from the Gutenberg galaxy to the Marconi galaxy"(6).


Size and position on the page

The size of the photograph as well as its position on the page are of paramount importance since the first impression of that particular issue of the magazine depends heavily on them. The size of the front cover photograph is essential in the selling of the magazine and together with the position on the page signifies the importance of the cover story. Both the body posture on the cover and the front shot of the presidential head surrounded by a halo are very impressive with obvious religious allusions. A very important role in the economy of the photograph is played by the cross which make us think of the 'burden' that the president is carrying on his shoulders, i.e. the war against 'evil', to use the term that he himself seems to prefer when referring to the campaign against global terrorism. In addition, the overwhelming size of the cross comes to give justification to George W. Bush's acts by the simple positioning behind the president as if backing up his political discourse. At a closer look we can notice that the edges of the cross bear the colours of the American flag: blue, red and white. Mere coincidence?! An entire fabric of mysticism is woven around the figure of the US president: the minister-like preaching posture, the cross, the saint-like yellow halo around his head and, not less importantly, the striking association of words in the title "Bush & God" where the two proper names are printed in white ink while the '&' is printed in yellow. The effect of this different colouring of the letters in the title is that at a quick glance the eye catches only the words "Bush" and "God" placing them on an equal footing for the obvious benefit of Mr. President. A different but nevertheless interesting visual effect is obtained in the case of the title of the article itself by the same technique of painting the words in different colours. This time the two proper names are painted in red and positioned one directly under the other while the conjunction (clearly written this time) "and" is painted in the same golden yellow. A possible interpretation would be that the president has, besides other attributes, that of God also. Of course, this is our interpretation and we do not sustain the idea that every reader would decode the photo exactly as we do. This is not the idea suggested by the paper. A semiotic analysis does not claim to offer a universal key of interpretation of signs. It only tries to identify the codes and the manner in which these are employed so as to convey a certain message in the reader's mind.



In both photographs the focus is selective, i.e. only parts of the photograph are in focus and not the entire photo. This is more evident in the case of the second photo where only the head and a thin line of his shoulders are visible. By adjusting the visual depth to this degree the photographer manages to focus the reader / viewer's attention to particular details. Thus, in the first photo it is subtly 'suggested' to us that George W. Bush should be perceived as a preacher enjoying all the credibility of a minister. The second photo insinuates the idea of sanctity both iconically and indexically since there is no doubt what the halo is standing for.


Shot size and use of lenses

As far as the shot size is concerned, this is one of the most obvious code characteristic in an image. The feeling of intimacy between the readers and the object of the photo is directly proportional to the distance: the closer the camera gets to the object, the more subjective the view. In the case of these two photos, the photographer uses a close-up technique, especially in the second photo. If in the front cover photo there is a combination of close up and standard lens, which leads to a balanced image, connoting "everydayness and normality"(7), in the case of the second photo, the close up is even more evident and the telephoto lens permits the readers to become more intimate with the object in the photo. There is a feeling of sharing a presence here, a 'Let's make things together!' spirit which, by gaining the reader's sympathy, adds legitimacy to the presidential enterprise.


Camera angle

This aspect is extremely important as it gives the reader a sense of position in observing the scene. The lower the angle of the camera towards the object of the photo, the weaker and more powerless the reader should feel. The stature of George W. Bush on the cover is very imposing as seen from a low angle denoting a submissive attitude towards him and his decisions. It is worth reminding ourselves here that, according to the analysis that Lakoff and Johnson(8) made of 'orientational metaphors', what is placed up in a structure is necessarily (by convention) good and should not be questioned. In the second photo the angle tends to be on the eye level, which connotes a status of equality between the reader and the object of the photo, i.e. the reader is given the illusion that the president is 'one of us', a fellow who fights to represent our common interests.



The role of light is also important. Its intensity is a key factor in connoting the tone of the photograph. If it is bright, the photo will connote happiness. If it is dark, the connotation will be that of sombreness. A contrasting combination of black and white would lead to a feeling of theatrical and dramatic, while a low contrast would connote realism(9). Our first photograph benefits from an equilibrium of light and colours which makes it realistic, while the second photo, although clear in the centre where the presidential face is, it becomes somehow blurred the further it goes towards the margins creating thus a mysterious effect around the figure of President Bush. Thus, the degree of happiness and serenity grows the closer you get to the centre of the image. Since the centre of the image is, in fact the face of George W. Bush, the encoded message is that The President = comfort.



A photograph is a complex web of signs. This construction of signs produces meaning only as a result of their interaction with the receivers, as the Peircean triangular model suggests. The interpretation, the 'reading' of this collection of signs that we call photograph may take place only as a direct result of the contact and interaction of the reader with the photo. The process of discovering meanings is based on negotiation and, as Fiske(10) stated, "negotiation takes place as the reader utilises aspects of his/her own cultural experience to understand the codes and signs". Therefore, a multitude of readers means a multitude of interpretations. Nevertheless, as long as the readers belong to the same cultural and linguistic community they would use approximately the same decoding mechanism based on years of cultural conditioning and would react in a similar manner to certain culturally bound symbols. The media specialists know this fact and they are constantly enlisting this principle in an attempt to make the reader sympathize with their views upon the significance of reality.

The interpretation equation changes when the recipients - those who interpret the photo - no longer belong to the same cultural and linguistic community. They might very well have a good command of the language the article is written in (English in our case), but they bring into the process of interpretation their own cultural heritage, with potentially different expectations and they cannot escape the influence of their personal non-mediated experience as far as certain symbols - either present in the photo, or triggered by it - are concerned. In order to see how (im)possible it is to create a common cultural space, we presented the photos to a number of persons belonging to different age, academic training, social and professional groups. Some of the results were surprising. Those who were more than 30-35 years old manifested a certain feeling of rejection towards the manner in which President Bush is presented by the photos motivating their reaction as a response to the years of exposure to the exacerbated personality cult which marked Romania for the last decade or so before the 1989 Revolution. To them, the photos were nothing more than an 'indecent' attempt to promote a saint-like image of the president by the well-known means of 'good, old, reliable propaganda'. Some of our students (18-22 years old), who were not exposed to any personality cult, displayed no reflex negative reactions on seeing the photos. Instead, they had quite a different reaction to them. While a part of them shared our point of view, others felt that there was nothing wrong or premeditated about the way President Bush was presented. They interpreted the photos in the same manner they would have done it if the object of analysis had been some photos from a youth magazine dealing with movie stars, sportsmen or singers: 'anybody famous deserves such a glamorous presentation' they said.

Most of our fellow academics (both of French and Anglo-Saxon orientation) joined us and our way of interpreting these two photos with a few exceptions who stated that they had never thought of this from this angle and, consequently, they did not have any strong opinion about this issue. One of the most interesting and, at the same time, intriguing interpretation came from a fellow academic from Eastern Europe belonging to a philosophical academic background. In his opinion, the photos are ironical trying to picture President Bush in a somehow derogatory manner. According to him, the photos are doing no favour to Bush's image; moreover, he maintains that by presenting the president in this God-like position the authors of the article manage not only to mock him, but also to belittle his 'image'.

What our East-European colleague misses is the article that accompanies these photos. We are confident that once one reads it through, one has no doubts that the authors of the article, the photographers that took the photos and the specialists that did their best to make them look as they do in the magazine conjugated their expertise and efforts to build this twofold (photos and written text) sign; a sign whose power and semiotic richness is unquestionable and needs no more emphasis.

In conclusion, let us remind ourselves of the fact that our analysis has been done keeping in mind the way in which the average American reader would react to these photos (an approach which justifies our results). Nevertheless, the relative diversity of 'readings' of various categories of 'recipients' projects the theme of our article into the larger province of intercultural education and of the shared cultural space. Such an education might be both the key to a better mutual understanding and a 'weapon' against media manipulations of all kinds.

© Marius Velica (University, of Galati, Romania)


(1) Roventa-Frumusani, D., Semiotica discursului stiintific (The Semiotics of the Scientific Discourse), Bucuresti, Editura Stiintifica, 1995, p. 39

(2) Marcheteau, M. et al., Engleza pentru economie. Business and Economics. Metoda LAROUSSE, Translation by Daniela Nicolescu, Bucuresti, TEORA, 2000, p. 75

(3) Barthes, R. apud Bignell, J., Media Semiotics: An Introduction, Manchester, Manchester Press, 1997, p. 98

(4) Cff Roventa-Frumusani, D., op. cit., p. 51

(5) Roventa-Frumusani, D., op. cit., p. 40

(6) Roventa-Frumusani, D., op. cit., p. 52

(7) Carter, P., A Semiotic Analysis of Newspaper Front-Page Photographs,, 2000, p. 3

(8) Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M., Metaphors We Live By, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1980, Chap. 4,

(9) Cff Carter, P., op. cit.

(10) Fiske, J., Introduction to Communication Studies, London and New York, Routledge, 1990, p. 3


Barthes, R. apud Bignell, J., Media Semiotics: An Introduction, Manchester: Manchester Press, 1997

Carter, P., A Semiotic Analysis of Newspaper Front-Page Photographs, http:/, 2000

Fiske, J., Introduction to Communication Studies. London and New York, Routledge, 1990

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M., Metaphors We Live By, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1980

Marcheteau, M. et al., Engleza pentru economie. Business and Economics. Metoda LAROUSSE, Translation by Daniela Nicolescu, Bucuresti, TEORA Publishing House, 2000

Roventa-Frumusani, D., Semiotica discursului stiintific (The Semiotics of the Scientific Discourse), Bucuresti, Editura Stiintifica, 1995

8.4. L'éducation multiculturelle ou Est-il possible de créer un espace culturel commun?

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