Fear is my home, the soul my playground; you - and you alone - fashion me, nurture without knowing my intent to drag your spirit. Feasting on man’s weakness, I will haunt you to the marrow; I am everything and everywhere, you cannot contain or rid of me. I shall ruin you and torture you, to satisfy and gratify myself.  

Who am I, you ask? 

You know of me. 

I am Penthos. I am Grief.

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Ambiguity of Meaning Within the Photographic Image

Within the specificity of photography personal interpretation and perceived significance of a photographic image is dependent upon several disparate methods of understanding. Structured semiotics, predominantly within advertising provides direct intentional meaning through linguistic, denotative and connotative signs, of which an individual’s intellect and cultural knowledge determines the level of interpretation acquired. However as Roland Barthes (1915-1980) identifies within his essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ (Barthes, 1977:32) the depicted message is merely the start, as coexisting within there can be found relational and personal meanings, which interact with both the conscious and unconscious mind.   

The photographic image undeniable as evidence to an event supplements its self with the consternation of discontinuity, a reality to the factual detail of what is seen and will never occur again, yet as a memento the image offers solace, a sense of proximity to the occasion. Meaning becomes powerfully emotional, our connection an indexical link joining both photograph and viewer of which Barthes calls ‘the umbilical cord of light’ (Barthes1981: 81) unable to detach itself from the residuum of a discontinued instant, the reminder and prophecy of death.  

Photography as a medium of remembrance acts as a form of reconnection, the attraction toward a particular image is often unexpected, never prepared for what connects or causes us to gaze longer than predicted the images allure continuing subsequent to the actual viewing. Attachments proceed to multiply, stimulating not only conscious thoughts but coax to the surface repressed memories not directly associated to the original image, reinvigorated memories superseding the initial signified. 

How then do photographs install a sense of meaning, what is the structural feature or enchantment, which serves to entice our interest and deliberation, provokes contemplation towards an association? What does the photograph show us, how should it be read, decoded and analysed? For it is realised images are not illusions, nor are the objects signified actually present, yet we all see, albeit individually, non-conformist to each other an element that personalises our experience, attracts and connects. 

Through a process of mediation on photography within ‘Camera Lucida’ (Barthes, 1981) Barthes explores the photographs of the family archives searching for an image of his mother, not so much as an act of remembrance but more so to reveal the mimetic power of the photograph. Painstakingly his futile examination of the many photographs fail to produce in totality a clear and concise representation, dismissing images that show a direct physical resemblance, simple recognition of the person he knew was not enough, what he sought was his mothers essence ‘Photography authenticates the existence of a certain being, I want to discover that being in the photograph completely’ (Barthes.1981: 107). Finally Barthes discovers his objective within the ‘Winter garden’ an image that precedes his own life, the physiognomy and characteristics of his mother as a child that revealed for him the ‘air’ an ‘exorbitant thing which induces from body to soul- [animula]’ (Barthes.1981: 107) 

Barthes had, for him, found his Mother, not just a representation but within an image that to him revealed her true being, a totality of all that makes the person, yet this image was never shared, never printed within ‘Camera Lucida’, Barthes declared that we as the viewer would feel no connection ‘for you it would nothing but an indifferent picture’ (Barthes.1981: 73). Subsequent images have been made available, images of his mother as a young woman of which Barthes appears ambivalent towards attachment yet the reason we are permitted to view some and not others is precisely that, his indifference of opinion, the ‘winter garden’ for him contains an aggregate of his mother, becomes cherished, crucial not only as a form of remembrance but as a way of reconnecting to the person he loved, her completeness within the image completes him, thus remains private, just for him.  

Although not directly similar there can be seen within the work of Japanese photographer Seiichi Furuya (b:1950) certain correlations between Barthes writings in ‘Camera Lucida’. Barthes motivation was to seek his mother through the mediation of photography whereas Furuya uses the medium as a form of remembrance and reconnection. From the moment of meeting his future wife in 1978 Furuya began taking photographs unremittingly in an almost fanatical manner up until her unfortunate suicide in 1985, not due to preconceptions in regards to her illness but more so that she became his focus, muse so to say.  Having no comprehension of what the future held in regards to her death the images have transpired into a major act of retrospection, a journey of discovery both emotional and investigative.

   In his book ‘Last Trip to Venice’ (Self Published: 2002) Furuya included a number of images (see fig.1) of which the film he used had apparently already been exposed. The resulting images became double exposures; two separate moments of time unified within an unbreakable discontinuity. The duality of scenes reveal very different messages their connection ambiguous, one of family intimacy the other a travellers snap yet it is this combination that allows the viewer access. The iconic denotative messages within an image Barthes suggests ‘naturalises’ the symbolic elements within bringing a form of innocence to the connotative thus allowing the primal meaning of the image signifiers to portray a sense of awareness, a natural representation of ‘having been there’ dis-intellectualising the scene as now it is recognised within the everyday. To summarise the connotations of death, are somewhat cushioned as we recognise associations within our own lives through the familiar signified objects for example ‘building, streets’.  

Through the amassed images Fuyura has published (see fig.2) we begin to see or sense a connection, the symbolic character familiar enough to allow assimilation into a narrative of remembering. Fuyura’s work reveals nakedness into his personal life and that of his wife; through his images we are witness to a developing illness at times within an uncomfortable intrusive proximity. The viewer is unknowing as to what they are seeking within the image, yet there is a level of expectation and curiosity in that the scene may reveal some personal intricacy from the artist’s life ‘a tiny spark of contingency’ providing some form of clue toward the unfortunate outcome.

Where as Barthes image produces totality for him within a single frame, Fuyura’s work presents his wife’s ‘essence’ through ‘relay’ a term Barthes presents within ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ (Barthes, 1977). Images vary from composed portraits to candid family snaps, technicality towards production not consistent yet within their abundance contained within the pages of a book seem to function as a form of metonymy, guiding the viewer toward a wider view of the subjects life.  It could be suggested however that to reiterate a subject continually dilutes to an extent the intended meaning soothing its impact toward our own interpretation, yet equally for Fuyura this process persists in maintaining a connection through an indexical relationship to the outside world by placing within the public eye. 

Focus within my own practice explores the process of grief and the human desire to seek a trace of continued existence outside of the intelligible. The composite image (see fig.3) presents us once again a duplicate of time and space, although albeit intentionality of the author is acknowledged due to its preciseness. In contrast to the Fuyura image the viewer is supplied with less information in regards to text as to actual meaning and relevance within the body of work, insufficient in ‘anchoring’ a specific interpretation thus rendering the image ambiguous. Predominantly the subject matter is again remembrance and searching, comparative to both Barthes and Fuyuras’s quest, the deceased as child is brought into the future fused into a state of anomalous conflict within an opposing time spatial. Separation of time specifics is evident within the frames, one being a faded ‘polaroid’ indicating a discontinuity between the two events pictured, causing an element of discourse.

The ‘air’ or ‘essence’ to which Barthes refers displays a similitude towards Walter Benjamin’s (1892-1940) notion of ‘aura’ of which he describes is an anomalous amalgamation of both time and space, not so much a continuity of the past but more a ‘ghostly apparition project[ing] into the present which wounds’ (Stevens DD). Fuyaru’s composition purely accidental, my own intentional and Barthes psychological yet within all three a search for an apparent apparition of character is evident. Within both Fuyara’s image and my own the key signifier separating the echelons of time is further accentuated through the images ordering, in that one appears to be behind the other. This illusion correlates to Benjamin’s notion of ‘aura’; the faded almost transparent image of the supposed past seems to seep into the future through the superficial image layered above, thus suggesting the apparition of character can be both a psychological experience whilst also visually identifiable. Although Benjamin argues that the aura consists of originality and authenticity, not to found within the photographic image due to the mechanical intervention removing these qualities, it could be suggested that within the ‘winter garden’ image the originality and authenticity was present, not through the medium but through Barthes imaginative investment.

An emotional attachment toward an image does not always rely on association towards an individual depicted. Images void of relations to a living subject may still serve to stimulate interconnection through inanimate objects, scenes or colour, the viewer reading the image by process of signifiers represented by the signified objects photographed, an analogical naturalist representation of a literal image. The constituent of this reading consists of external references, knowledge fettered to perception, ‘what it shows invokes what is not shown’ (Berger 1967:20), what defines this meaning is that the relationship between the signifier and signified are virtually one of the same, the image of an apple is by all accounts an apple non dependent on culture or experience yet beyond this literal object reliant on an individuals investment of memory correlations to experience can surface. 

Triggering towards this attachment is diametrically conditional to the viewer, polar to the generalised feeling of aesthetic appeal or inconsequential taste felt vis-à-vis an image, appearing through the unintentional content, of which the authors intended meaning may permeate.  Barthes begins to locate this detail within his essay ‘The Third Meaning’ (Barthes, 1977)) in which he examines a number of ‘Sergei Eisenstein’ (1898-1948) film stills (see fig.4).  As the title implies he professes that these images contain three elements of communication, the first two inherited from structured linguistics where as a further level of meaning described as ‘evident, erratic and obstinate’ (Barthes 1977:52), unable to be identified or named supplements his attachment. Barthes proposes to call this third meaning the ‘obtuse’, a detail protruding from the image, rising above the narrative, a ‘pejorative connotation’ (Barthes 1977:55) extending further than referential motif forcing an interrogative understanding. 

To explain further the profundity of Barthes suggestions, within ‘Camera Lucida’ we see an elucidation, distinguishing two factors in understanding a photograph, the ‘studium’ and ‘punctum ’. The first relates to the indifferent, an attraction essentially rudimentary in which the author’s intentions usually appear, the determining factor toward an individuals resolve of ‘like’ and ‘dislike’. However ‘punctum’ emerges through the ‘average effect’, similar to the‘obtuse’ in penetrating the gaze, an unexplainable detail subjective and private. If within the ‘winter garden’ image what Barthes sought was the ‘essence’ then ‘punctum’ was essentially the vehicle, allowing him to discover it.

In an attempt to identify that, which is seen only by the individual, we shall return again to the subject of loss. Remembrance within photography often presents itself to the viewer masked by an unbreakable façade of ambiguity; intentions emotionally placed by the author remain intimate and undisclosed, the viewer unable to interpret or discover the existential relationship or indexical trace. However at this juncture the reading of the image becomes purely individual, the viewer albeit unconsciously generates a connection, one of either general acceptance ‘studium’ or deeper implication ‘punctum’.  Paul Hill’s (b: 1941) body of work ‘Corridor of Uncertainty’ (Hill, 2010) created following the death of his wife, reveal personal visual references towards quietus, despair and pain, ambiguous metaphors undoubtedly significant to him yet possibly obscure to the viewer (fig.5). The mien of an image it is suggested embraces a prophetic quality its meaning extending further than the direct signified object, more gratuitous in offering an intelligible reading yet still insufficient as it remains dependable on the individuals want for answers, a prophet may communicate to the masses yet each takes their own interpretation away. 

What Hill’s image is essentially producing is a ‘coherence of signs ’ the viewer reading absorbs all of the signifiers depicted arranging connection, which instigates ideas towards new personal meaning. My (Fig.6) own image resonates a very emotional response unique only to me yet within its ambiguity the various signifiers work to produce as in Hill’s image assonances to each other of which remain individual to each reader. However the meaning one allocates to an image may not correlate an alliance to the actual photographic content, connection being triggered through subconscious thoughts and memories, which are only brought into consciousness through an images stimulus of connotations. Barthes identifies within a ‘James Van Der Zee’ (1886-1983) (see fig. 7) image a significant detail of which produces the ‘punctum’ appears for him located within a girls shoes, however once the image has been removed from sight he revisits from memory, professing to alter his opinion toward an alternative detail of a gold necklace of which triggered thoughts relating to one seen worn by a relation. Interestingly Barthes description was erroneous, the gold necklace in fact pearls baring no resemblance to the original image, Margret Olin (DD) argues the detail was in fact ‘transposed from one of his own family pictures’ (Olin.M. cited Hirsch 123), suggesting that the image had awoken the subconscious mind reconnecting memories of past.

The association toward an extraneous event containing no actual historical evidence of involvement has provoked a great deal of discourse within the studies of neuroscience and psychoanalysis. Research within these fields has identified instances where a subjects remembrance of actual and illusory experiences became entwined, leaving a memory trace of the imagined event now perceived as reality. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in his lecture regarding ‘latent dream thought’ comments;

The dream that is remembered is not the real one, but a distorted substitute, which is to help us approach the real dream by awakening other substitute formations and by making the unconscious in the dream conscious’ (Freud 1916:93)

Freud’s idea was that the ‘latent’ (symbolic) content of a dream would transpose into the ‘manifest’ (actual) content through a process of ‘dream-work’, bringing the unconscious into the conscious in a form of unity. 

Within photography an image showing dissociated events could therefore be argued stimulates memories tenuous in relation to the viewer, producing acts of remembrance towards non-empirical experiences. Is it possible that Barthes awareness of his mother within the “winter garden’ image was informed by memory not the unintelligible; as he writes ‘for once photography gave me a sentiment as certain as remembrance’ (Barthes 1981: 67). Annette Kuhn’s (DD) argues that the unconscious mind is not stimulated through systematic logic but visually, bringing to the conscious mind a sense of familiarity toward an un-witnessed event, suggesting that remembrance requires no actual presence or connection to the scene. (Kuhn: 128). Similarly within the area of ‘post memory’ later generations of survivors who experienced traumatic events during the “Holocaust” have been known to inherit memories through intergenerational testimony, appearing so vivid that at times the memories can replace their own.

Freud identified that disturbing or traumatic memories are unconsciously (repressed) and consciously (suppressed) placed into the subconscious as a means to forget. Within repression the individual does not know the source of the memory ‘there are mental things in a man which he knows without knowing that he knows’ (Freud 1935: 93) Simon Boag (2010,pp) argues that influenced with prompts the unconscious can be developed into the conscious mind, which implies that unrelated images to an individual could stimulate meaning and connection previously unknown.

David Bate (DD) posits a notable simile between notions of “voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ memory proposed by Marcel Proust (1871-1922) in his famed work ‘In Search of Lost Time’. Repression as we’ve already noted is an unconscious or in Proustian terms ‘involuntary’ reaction, whereas suppression is seen as conscious ‘voluntary’. In referring back to Barthes claim of what actually attracts his attention toward an image, ‘punctum’ is in fact ‘involuntary’ an unknown reaction whereas ‘studium’ is seen as ‘voluntary’ connection easily associated. Bate’s suggest that in following this path from image to memory we may succeed in stimulating awareness towards both suppressed and repressed memories, which further strengthens the idea that Barthes connection to the ‘winter garden’ was in fact one of supposed memory, suggesting a photographed scene doesn’t always necessarily reveal the literal content or meaning but effects us unconsciously triggering memories both suppressed and repressed creating a relational connection.

The lack of direct connection or frugality of content can also be seen within the area of ‘transcendental’ film. French Director Robert Bresson (1901-1999) in describing the sense of realism incorporated throughout his work suggests an act of ‘Privation’ a suppression of actual plot offering only the obvious. In this approach Bresson can to a degree manipulate the viewer towards investment of his or her own emotion within the film, as the diegesis is fully understood from the outset, placing the creation of drama into the mind. Photography can perform in a similar manner within images void of any actual plot or in cases where the topic is communicated to the viewer in its totality. Images that depict death or bereavement offer beyond the literal, access to a more prominent meaning albeit incidental to the individual.

Within my own work the emphasis is toward reducing content that may act to direct the viewer’s interpretation, leaving only the obvious and literal, a sense of ‘privation’ of what actually should be present. Within the image(see fig.8) death is the obvious meaning, yet within its context we are denied any further associations towards identity or family, the narrative is left entirely to the viewer to devise through their own personal experiences, which could allow repressed thoughts of a similar occasion personal to them to surface, placing them at the scene psychologically. The actual intended meaning is ambiguous, becoming unnecessary in that“The referent hides the true meaning of an image”(as cited in Bate 2009:17). Suggesting that the depicted object or scene is in fact a facade of an additional meaning, paradoxically the image has depth, only accessed through an individual’s own investment. 

John Berger (b: 1926) states that ‘when we find a photograph meaningful we are lending it a past and a future’ (Berger 1967:64), both past and future are as one within the image (see fig.8) yet only visible through imaginative investment, whereas similarly when the viewer is presented with an image that clearly defines these boundaries of time an equal amount of investiture toward the image is required in order to acquire meaning.

Richard Avedon’s (1923-2004) imagery although depicting an actual subject (see fig.9, fig.10) distinctly shows life and death, a literal meaning seen within the figure. Yet there remains a suppression of information joining the two images, although past and present are reflected in both images the viewer is unaware of the physical journey leading one to the other, this ‘privation’ works again unconsciously to entice investment towards the missing piece. Association toward an image it could then be suggested is predominantly achieved by what is missing as opposed to what is actually there.


Barthes states “in order to see a photograph well, it’s best to look away or close your eyes’ (Barthes, 1981: 53). Although we may be fully aware of the photographs status as a representation, an appearance of an object or person, the psychological and emotional effects experienced remain unexpected and profound. 

Within the familial confines the photographic image of a deceased family member offers solace, bringing a sense of reconnection thus allowing memories to remain active.  In these circumstances the photographic evidence of past events can offer a form of retrospection allowing an insight into the cause and effect assisting in the grieving process.

The image whether of a singular object or relational event can bring about as a consequence through its initial denotative meaning a flow of memories taking prominence over what is visually seen. Through investment the photograph possess the capacity to stimulate latent thoughts, memories brought to consciousness forming an association of meaning, personal yet often unrelated to what is actually seen. Even once the photograph has been removed, it seems the persuasive allure continues to occupy the conscious and unconscious mind, proceeding to develop attachment through past experiences and knowledge.

Although within many images the intention of meaning is pre-determined by the author, through the research explored it is of my opinion that within photography specifically the ambiguous and everyday family image, the depicted content is largely irrelevant. The individual can locate a connection dependent on their state of mind, drawing an association through past memories, the photograph acting as a blank page, allowing the viewer to fill the void with his or her own interpretation of meaning. Although impossible to gauge the personal response one feels towards an image or the level of meaning or association attached, it remains evident that when an emotional connection is created the attachment far exceeds the actual image itself.





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Figure 1. Fuyura. S (1985) Memoires.1984-1987. Graz/East Berlin 1985 [Analogue Photograph] At: (Accessed on 15.04.15)

Figure 2. Fuyura. S(1985) Memoires.1984-1987. [Analogue Photograph] At: (Accessed on 15.04.15)

Figure 3. Ferrier, S (2015) Greylag [Digital Photography] In possession of: Ferrier, S : Barnsley.

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Figure 5.Hill, P (2010) Corridors of Uncertainty [Digital Photography] In: Corridors of Uncertainty Plate No: 40.Dewi Lewis Publishing

Figure 6. Ferrier, S (2015) Greylag [Digital Photography] In possession of: Ferrier, S : Barnsley.

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Figure 8. Ferrier, S (2015) Greylag [Digital Photography] In possession of: Ferrier, S : Barnsley.

Figure 9, Avedon, R (1973) Jacob Israel Avedon [Negative Print] At: (Accessed 09.3.15). 

Figure 10, Avedon, R (1973) Jacob Israel Avedon [Negative Print] At: (Accessed 09.3.15).