The year 2013 was filled with powerful images – some inspiring, others difficult. As the year drew to a close, we saw many articles and lists with titles such as “The 45 Most Powerful Images of 2013”. It is clear that photojournalism has a central role to play in today’s media. One example of this power is an image of a throng of people in front of the Vatican as the newly elected Pope Francis makes his first address (see the attached photo and caption). The now cliché phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ shines clearly through this image. Issues of faith, religion, technology, hope for shaping communities – they all are relevant to this one image. The specifics of the image will be discussed in detail later, but for now a brief discussion of precisely how one goes about analyzing such an image is relevant. To come up with these themes, symbols, and myths, one must use semiotic analysis.
Semiotics refers to the process of studying content in such a way as to separate images or words from the psychological idea to which they relate. The essential concept is that every image holds meaning behind its depiction. Through this process, an analyst moves through three levels of signification: primary, secondary, and third signification. Primary signification allows the viewer to recognize the signified image – in other words, the viewer is able to comprehend what is depicted. The signifiers in this case are the colors, objects, shapes, and composition of the image. Simply put, primary signification means the viewer recognizes an image of a tree as a tree. This is what is called the “denotative image” in semiotic analysis.
Secondary signification, in turn, uses this denotative image to relay the connotative symbol. In the language of semiotics, an image is an assemblage of signifiers that can still go on to function as a signifier for something else at the level of secondary signification. The connotative symbol is a social, cultural, and historical meaning that is added to an image’s or sign’s literal meaning. For example, if the denotative image is of an individual waving their arms, symbiotic analysis leads to the connotative symbol of pretending to fly.
Finally, third signification leads the viewer from connotative symbols to the ideology and myth behind the image. Both second and third signification involves the analysis of signs in the image. A sign is the relationship between a vehicle of meaning, such as a word, image, or object, and its specific meaning in a particular context. This is the relationship between the signifier and signified. For example, a smiling face and a red heart are almost universally understood signs. More specifically, there are iconic, indexical, and symbolic signs. Iconic signs are the resemblance between the signifier and the signified (i.e. a stick figure). Indexical signs are physical causal connections between the signifier and the thing signified (i.e. smoke to fire). A symbolic sign means that there is no real connection between the signifier and the thing signified except that which is imposed by convention (i.e. language, logos, and colors).
Given that this method is a process, semiotics can be applied to many types of images and media. Advertising, art, and documentation – each has a “hidden agenda” behind it, so to speak. This includes journalistic images – more specifically, it includes our image of the new Pope’s speech from the Vatican. Journalistic images are a double-edged sword. On one hand, these kinds of images convey the story in a much more “real” way than a descriptive story could. They give the reader (viewer) a scene to look into, often with a short caption that describes the context of the image. In this way, journalistic photography can often serve as an effective and powerful form of journalism. On the other hand, however, each and every photo is taken from a specific angle, within a specific frame. In other words, the photographer has a specific story to tell – sometimes at the price of leaving out other aspects of the narrative. This is where semiotic analysis comes into play.
The image that this paper is concerned with is from Pope Francis’ election and first public appearance at St. Peter’s basilica in Rome in 2013. It depicts hundreds and thousands of people capturing the Pope’s appearance on their phones, tablets, and cameras. While some spectators merely look on, it is clear that the vast majority of the crowd has some sort of recording device up and out. Front and center in the image is someone holding up a large tablet, on which is the only depiction of the church (and, by effect, the pope) that the viewer has. Instead, it seems that the tablet itself is the subject of the photograph. There are several connotative symbols and, more importantly, myths (that is, the overarching ideological beliefs) that can be taken out of this photograph.
First, it is clear that the “story” that this image is concerned with is, first and foremost, technology. This is clearly contrasted with the enormity of the event that the photograph is dealing with – after all, a Pope is not elected every four years. Instead of telling the story of the newly elected Pope, the photographer is telling the story of the Catholics – and their technology – that came out to see him. This is made even clearer by the fact that the podium and church leaders are completely out of focus and almost removed from the frame altogether. The reason this serves as a connotative symbol rather than simply primary signification is the familiarity of the scene for the viewer. Almost anyone who sees this image can recognize (perhaps with irony) that they themselves have been in the same shoes at an event, gathering, concert, etc. In this way, the photograph tells the story of technology on a wider scale than the event that it captures.
Secondly, the denotative image calls to the mind’s eye a scene of a candlelight vigil. All of the hundreds of out of focus screens bear an uncanny resemblance to candles used at a church service or other faith-based or community event. The image of hundreds of twinkling lights will call this to mind for almost anyone who is familiar with faith and religious settings. However, the image is not of candlelight. The holy image is instead littered with hundreds of screens. The irony of this image is clear.
Third, the image is completely devoid of a human face, warmth, recognition, anything. Instead, the entire image is anonymous. The people in the photograph could be anybody or everybody. They are all faced away from the photographer – not, as it would seem at first, towards the Pope, but towards their recording devices. Not towards the important and historic event itself, but towards their method of capturing, sharing, and gaining recognition for the great event. They are viewing it through a screen rather than through their own eyes.
The myth that this photo captures, then, is that society has an unhealthy occupation (if not obsession) with technology – and social media, more specifically. The photographer very artfully captured this preoccupation by focusing on the crowd of would-be citizen journalists rather than on the even that he or she was to cover. In this way, the photograph translates into the ideological conception that technology is not necessarily bad, but overused. The signs for this are clear, through the iconic, indexical and symbolic signs discussed above. While there may be other interpretations, a thorough semiotic analysis of this image leads to this conclusion.