Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. August 2006

1.2. Gesellschaftliche Reproduktion und kulturelle Innovation. Aus semiotischer Sicht
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Institut für Sozio-Semiotische Studien ISSS, Wien)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Visual Signs: Vectors of ‘Shaping’ Reality

Marius Velică ("Dunărea de Jos" University, Galaţi)


1. Preliminary remarks

We live in a fast changing world in which things happen at a frightening speed. It seems that sooner or later every event influences our lives. There are moments when some might feel overwhelmed by the avalanche of information that ‘harasses’ us on a daily basis. Nothing seems simple anymore. Somehow, everything is apparently connected to everything else. The days when one could have said ‘I know everything that is to be known in this world and then some more’ are long gone and we need to constantly refresh our knowledge about the world around us. However, due to the huge amount of information created every day, one cannot gather it directly any longer. If we are to make any sense of what is happening in our lives, we need to resort to intermediate channels and by doing this we accept someone else’s understanding of the facts. We no longer analyse the reality itself but an analysis of it which unavoidably bears the marks of the agent that had direct contact with reality. To put it differently, we try to understand one thing, i.e. the real world (too dynamic and too complex to be encompassed in its entirety by means of one person’s intellect only), by replacing it with another one, i.e. mass media instruments such as newspapers. Thus, if we are to make a comparison with physics, we make use of a model in order to understand the real phenomenon: it is like studying the structure of the hydrogen atom drawn in a textbook instead of the atom itself. This process of replacing one thing with another in order to understand or to make one think of the former is described by Charles Peirce in his definition of a sign: "a sign... is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity." (cited by Thomas A. Sebeok, 2002: 53). Since newspapers stand for what happens in the world, we could argue that a newspaper is a sign.

Any sign, no matter its nature, cannot mean anything by itself since meaning is a matter of negotiation. Meaning is not transmitted to us - we actively create it according to a complex interplay of codes or conventions of which we are normally unaware. On the other hand, those creating this complex sign that we call newspaper might be suspected of being highly aware of these inventories of codes and mental patterns that are at work in the mind of the common reader when coming into contact with the newspaper. Adding the intrinsic subjectivity of the journalist writing a piece of news to the fact that each newspaper, no matter how impartial they claim to be, has its own agenda, be it of political or economic nature, one can easily realize the profoundly artificial nature of news as compared to the event itself - which is neither subjective, nor objective: it just happens.


2. Analysis

2.1 Working hypothesis

If there were an intrinsic relationship between the event itself and the item of news regarding that particular event, all articles covering a certain event should necessarily be identical, i.e. there should be no difference in terms of their connotations between two articles covering the same event. Our paper tries to demonstrate not only that there is no intrinsic relationship between the event and the news item, but also that it is not the reported event that determines the shape, content, significance or ‘truth’ of a piece of news, but the news that determines the significance of the event.

2.2 Corpus

In order to demonstrate this hypothesis we chose two newspapers of comparably equal importance and circulation, published on the same day, August 30th, 2003, and analysed their main front page story in terms of the significance they attached to it and of the semiotic codes they employed so as to trigger a certain emotional reaction or attitude in the mind of their readers. The two newspapers are The Guardian and The Herald. The former is a well known British newspaper read mainly by the residents of London and Manchester while the latter is, as the publishers themselves claim, ‘Scotland’s best-selling quality national newspaper’ founded as the masthead itself lets the reader know in Glasgow more than 200 years ago.

2.3 Analysis.

2.3.1 Similarities. Both main stories concentrate on Mr Alastair Campbell’s resignation from his position as press secretary and spokesperson of the Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair. At a first glance the two newspapers seem not to differ from each other: the layout of front page is incredibly similar with the title spanning the whole width of the page, written in bold cursive style, immediately followed underneath by a generous colour photo in central position surrounded by the text of the article and dedicating the bottom of the page to some car advertisements separated from the body of the main story by a shorter piece of news on some other events not connected with the Campbell story.

The similitude goes even further when we turn to the next three pages where we discover a series of related articles grouped under the general headline ‘Campbell resigns’ shared by both newspapers. Of course, there are slight differences as far as the number of satellite articles revolving around the main story is concerned but the overall impression is that both newspapers dedicate the same amount of space and display an equal length of coverage. However, the similarities end here, at this superficial level, the headlines, the photos and the captions that accompany them being perfused with semiotic markers more or less obvious for the untrained eye of the common reader.

2.3.2 Dissimilarities. Several steps should be observed in this analysis of dissimilarities. The first such step refers to the headlines offered by the two journalists. In the case of The Guardian, four are headlines that refer directly to Mr Campbell and they read like this: "Goodbye to all that ... Campbell departs", "Tough guy with obsessive streak", "Marathon man and fist-fighter" and "Praise and blame for a master of the dark art". In The Herald we can read headlines such as "Campbell spins his last trick", "Is the myth of the devious manipulator a load of spin?", "£1m diary deal and expensive speeches will pay for an extremely good life" and the following subtitle "Blair’s trusted aide quits for his family and the chance to earn millions". There are a few interesting nuances to be emphasised here. First of all, while both journalists try to establish a climate of familiarity and informality by using the name Campbell without any other polite formula or official title, viz. Mr, press secretary or spokesperson, the headlines chosen by The Guardian’s journalists make use of a narrative code which provides a framework of interpretation that is not too favourable to Mr Campbell. On the other hand, the narrative code presented by The Herald’s journalists creates a subtle pro-Campbell framework of interpretation. The following table compares the two somehow opposed treatments administered to Mr Campbell by the newspapers in case:

The Herald

The Guardian





the myth of the devious manipulator


Tough guy with obsessive ...


Blair’s trusted aide






master of the dark art


As it can be noticed, phrases do not always say what they seem to at a first sight and they could rapidly switch from an apparent accusatory connotation to a more ‘user-friendly’ one as in the case of "devious manipulator" whose apparent negative connotation is altered by the presence of "myth" which due to its [-REAL] feature annihilates the original meaning of the phrase. The same mechanism is at work in the case of The Guardian’s labelling of Mr Campbell as a "tough guy" but with an opposite effect this time. What seems to be an appreciative expression gains a completely new meaning in combination with "obsessive" which cancels the potentially positive connotation of "tough" (since we are talking about a politician here who is supposed to be tough if necessary) and transforms it into an open criticism. The other two cases of picturing Mr Campbell as a bad guy are more obvious but not less effective in building an against-Campbell reaction in the mind of the reader.

This pro- and anti-Campbell attitude of the headlines is to be noticed throughout the texts of the articles demonstrating once again that carefully selected connotations of the linguistic signs could be effective weapons in this battle for meaning which journalism is sometimes. Nevertheless, nothing proves to be more efficient in twisting the significance of a certain event than a skilfully chosen photo.

The use of photos in journalism is never done at random. A good photo would give strength to the story or even save a bad article. Why are photos such powerful tools of suggestion? Daniel Chandler (1994) suggests that "unlike sequential syntagmatic relations, which are essentially about before and after, spatial syntagmatic relations include" other structural relationships which are basically complementary pairs such as up vs. down, left vs. right, above vs. below, east vs. west, north vs. south, left vs. right, in front vs. behind, close vs. distant or central vs. peripheral. The cognitive importance of orientational metaphors has been demonstrated beyond any doubt by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980, Chapter 4) and we shall employ their ideas in our analysis without insisting upon their classification. A second framework we shall use is Kress & van Leeuwen’s spatial map (1996, cited by Chandler, 1994) which helps decoding left-hand and right-hand elements of visual signs such as photos.

By resembling or/and 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 place this medium of recording reality on a higher position on a scale of objectivity. But, as Roland Barthes (cited by Bignell, 1997: 98) 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." The photographer and the editor have to operate 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 newspaper policy.

If we compare the front cover photographs of The Guardian and of The Herald, we notice there is a great difference between the messages the photos convey to the reader. Thus, the former presents Mr Campbell leaving Prime Minister’s building, the famous No.10 Downing Street (see fig. 1). Although centrally placed in the photo (which should add importance to his person), he is photographed with his eyes looking downward and with the left hand raised towards the photographers as if protecting or hiding from them. This posture might denote a possible feeling of guilt or shame doubled by an air of negligence suggested by the unbuttoned jacket and somehow messy hair. The fact that Mr Campbell is two steps behind Ms Fiona Miller - labelled throughout the article as "his partner" - could be also interpreted as a sign of his submission to her initiative and of recognising her superiority (think for example of traditional oriental cultures in which wives, and women in general, walk several steps behind their husbands/‘partners’). The general impression created by the way they are photographed is that of two perpetrators hastily leaving the crime scene.

The third page (see fig. 2) continues building an unfavourable image of Mr Campbell in a series of five photos presenting him in various moments, each of them adding a little something to the negative portrait that The Guardian is trying to create in the mind of the reader. We have assigned them numbers starting clockwise from top left so that it would be easier to follow the analysis. Thus, photo no. 1 shows only the middle section of Mr Campbell, i.e. the portion from elbows to knees, who is walking somewhere holding in his right hand an arch board file out of which there hang some shreds of paper in a disorderly manner. The general impression of this photo is that of negligence and lack of neatness. When we choose to present only a part instead of the whole, we suggest that that particular part contains the quintessence of the whole. In this case, the file is a synecdoche inducing the reader the idea that if the file is negligent and disorderly, so must be the bearer of it. In photo no. 2, we see a casual Mr Campbell, wearing a running suit, seconds after winning a race. "What’s wrong with this picture?" you might say. "It presents a happy ordinary fellow who looks just like us. He is human after all." Yes, happy but exhausted, with no energy left and this image is not a very good one for a politician who is supposed to be sharp and always energetic, in the heart of events. Photo no. 3 delivers us a blurred, black and white image of a young Campbell from his Cambridge years. This colourless fuzzy face belongs to a vulnerable slightly disoriented young man, neither adolescent, nor adult, who looks like anything but a determined, trustworthy politician. Perhaps the most interesting photo in this series is photo no. 4, right in the middle of the page (a spot which is difficult to miss even when skimming the page and not reading it), in which Mr Campbell is hardly seen in the background, behind the smiling shiny face of Mr Blair. I must confess, the first image that came into my mind when I saw this photo was that of medieval paintings showing various characters laughing, dancing and generally having a good time but who are watched from behind by a satisfied mischievously looking devil standing in the shadow. Of course, I would not go that far and compare Mr Campbell to the devil himself, but one has to admit that he does have the air of the dark eminence that exists behind any important ‘powerful’ person. The fifth and last photo does its share of damage to Mr Campbell’s image on two levels: (i) first of all, it is not exactly a photo but a drawing and this belongs to the same cognitive paradigm as caricature does, and when you say caricature, you say mockery and lack of deference; (ii) secondly, this drawing displays a striking resemblance to those drawings made in a court of law. In this manner, one might easily make a mental association between Mr Campbell’s representation and the image of a lawbreaker.

The Herald’s visual approach to Mr Campbell, on the other hand, is, I dare say, completely opposite. Everything about the front cover photo of Mr Alastair Campbell (see fig. 3): its position on the page, the shot size, the camera angle and the lightning, builds up his image. As far as the shot size is concerned, this is one of the most obvious codes characteristic to 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 this particular photo, it could not have gone more subjective than this). The angle of the camera is 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 Mr Campbell is ‘one of us’, a fellow who fights to represent our common interests. He displays a confident look while slightly smiling at the camera with a persuasive air of candidness. 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 (Carter, 2000: 3). This photo, although clear in the centre where Campbell’s face is, becomes somehow blurred the further it goes towards the margins creating thus a halo effect around his figure. Thus, there is a feeling of self-confidence and serenity which grows the closer you get to the centre of the image. Since the centre of the image is, in fact, his face, the encoded message is that Alastair Campbell = comfort and confidence.

The articles on the second and third pages (see fig. 4) are grouped around a large photograph that is spread on both pages presenting Mr Campbell on the plane with the prime minister flying back home from a foreign diplomatic visit to the Azores. There is a crossfire of signifiers at work in this photo with the sole purpose of placing Campbell in a good light in the eyes of the reader. Since we belong to a culture in which texts are approached from up-left to right-bottom, we tend to treat visual signs in the same manner. Thus, looking at this photo, the first thing that one sees is Mr Campbell’s head which occupies the up-left corner and, from a semiotic point of view, this means importance and priority in a sequence of signifiers. On the other hand, Mr Blair is positioned in the right-bottom corner of the photo which is usually the last place that the eye of the reader reaches when scrutinizing a ‘text’. If we add to this the fact that Campbell is standing, while Blair is sitting, it becomes obvious that the photographer is trying to place the former in a stronger position in his relationship with the latter. The line below the photo, "Campbell watches Tony Blair", translates into words the visual statement from above and further builds up the idea of ‘Campbell the supervisor’.

There are two more photos on pages 2 and 3 contributing to this process of creating a pro-Campbell attitude in the reader’s mind. One of them presents Mr Campbell after that race we mentioned when analysing photo no. 2 of The Guardian but this time we have a different Campbell: he is no longer depicted as exhausted but in a protective posture embracing Ms Miller, both of them generously smiling. The couple displays an attitude of satisfaction after a thing well done and this mental state is likely to be eventually shared by the reader which means another point scored in favour of Mr Campbell’s image. The last photo under discussion is very unsophisticated one but, nonetheless effective. There are two signs in this photo: Mr Campbell and a bagpipe. He is playing the bagpipe. In other words, he is controlling the instrument, making it work in the way he chooses. The bagpipe, however, is not a simple instrument in this context: it is a national Scottish symbol together with the kilt and the thistle flower. We have again a synecdoche at work: the bagpipe stands for Scotland; thus, by presenting Mr Campbell capable of controlling the instrument the photographer might be trying to make the reader accept - on an unconscious level of course - the idea that he is also a man capable of controlling Scotland.

After having analysed the way these newspapers try to create a certain image by means of both linguistic and visual sings, the conclusion is that they take opposite sides on this matter. "What is so spectacular and unexpected about this result?" you might ask. "It is not the first time and not at all unnatural that two newspapers chose to have different opinions on a subject matter". I could not agree more with you but we have to take into account two more factors before finally drawing the conclusion. First, these are not two ordinary newspapers; they themselves act synecdochically, standing for Scotland and England. Secondly and more importantly, Mr Alastair Campbell is Scottish himself. This new element, which has been intentionally kept out of the analysis so far, casts a new light upon the different approaches of The Herald and The Guardian. What seemed to be a natural and healthy difference of opinions between two newspapers, so specific to a much-praised impartial press, now becomes an obvious manifestation of two deeply divergent political agendas. Neither newspaper can be impartial on the subject of such an important political figure. Therefore, they have resorted to a complex web of signs in order to serve their own semiotic purpose, i.e. to send a certain message to the reader in such a way that he/she accepts it naturally as his/her own perception of reality. Some of this message is transmitted explicitly by the text of the articles, although the written sign itself may become a very useful tool of manipulation and twisting of the meaning, but much of the deceiving is accomplished by means of visual signs which, as it has already stated, are ‘guilty’ of being considered by the general public as the closest thing to reality, endowed with a higher degree of impartiality and fidelity than the written presentation of it.


3. Conclusions

One may say, and not without reason, that 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 speculating using this principle in an attempt to make the reader sympathize with their views upon the significance of reality. These specialists employ various codes in their making of a newspaper by means of which they are mapping the reality for us offering a substitute of reality that we are supposed to accept as being the real thing. Becoming aware of such codes is both inherently fascinating and intellectually empowering. We learn from semiotics that we live in a world of signs and we have no way of understanding anything except through signs and the codes into which they are organized.

Living in a world of increasing visual signs, we need to learn that even the most "realistic" signs are not what they appear to be. In defining realities, signs serve ideological functions. Deconstructing and contesting the realities of signs can reveal whose realities are privileged and whose are suppressed. The study of signs is the study of the construction and maintenance of reality. To decline such a study is to leave to others the control of the world of meanings that we inhabit.

© Marius Velică ("Dunărea de Jos" University, Galaţi)


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

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

WWW:, last visited 20 May, 2004

Chandler, D. 1994. Semiotics for Beginners, WWW:, last visited 20 May. 2004

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

Sebeok, T.A. 2002. Semnele: o introducere în semiotică, Mărculescu S. (trad.), Bucureşti: HUMANITAS

1.2. Gesellschaftliche Reproduktion und kulturelle Innovation. Aus semiotischer Sicht

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For quotation purposes:
Marius Velică ("Dunărea de Jos" University, Galaţi): Visual Signs: Vectors of ‘Shaping’ Reality. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005.

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