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A Semiotic Analysis of Newspaper Front Page Photographs

A Semiotic Analysis of Newspaper Front-Page Photographs Paul Carter The newspaper is a form of news communication that presents a display of codes that should provide the reader with information of the world. The medium itself produces signs that the reader 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 more scrutiny. News is expressed in a newspaper through linguistic, typographic and graphic codes which are defined by the medium itself.

This can be seen in the physical confines of a newspaper affecting the contents and therefore the codes and signifiers used to communicate the stories. As P. Rock explains in ‘News as Eternal Recurrence’, ‘Policies affecting the layout of a newspaper predetermine what can be reported about the world. ’(cited in Cohen and Young, 1981:p. 75) Therefore, the confines of the text as a whole influence the news being reported and the codes used in this communication. The selection of what news is relevant is central to the ‘news industry. This gathering and reporting produce codes of behaviour that are translated through the presentation of the news in the newspaper. Through a comparison of different papers these codes, related to the photographs and the paper as a whole, will become evident along with the ideology behind the news itself. To explore the use of front-page photographs in newspapers, and the subsequent interpretation of these images by readers, a semiotic analysis of examples would provide a useful insight. However, it is necessary to set the scene of the subject matter under scrutiny.

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First of all ‘what is a photograph? ’ A simple explanation of a photograph is a picture produced through the chemical action of light on light sensitive film. It is a medium of recording reality that is iconic as well as indexical. Although a photograph resembles or imitates something, making it iconic, it achieves this through the use of light from the subject, therefore making it less arbitrary and idexical. In other words the signifier is directly linked to the signified, be it physically or casually.

This indexical property of photographs leads observers to make a judgment that a photo is an objective medium of record as there is a smaller difference between the signifier and the signified. However, a photograph is a representation of a particular moment and situation in time. Barthes expressed his view that a newspaper photograph 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. ’(cited in Bagnell, 1977: p. 8) There are many decisions taken by the photographer such as; focusing, lighting, angle, that produce various representations, and readings, of the same moment creating different connotations. From the choices made from the paradigm sets of these signifiers, and the syntagmatic relationship between them, it is possible to decode and compare the front-page photographs from examples of newspapers. The newspapers that I have chosen to analyze the front-page photographs from are The Guardian, The Daily Mail and The Sun.

These papers are interesting to analyze as they represent three different approaches to news presentation, three different ideologies and therefore three different potential reader groups. The Guardian is a broadsheet which contains news stories and articles that are quite detailed. It belongs to a group of papers that are often referred to as the ‘quality press’ which are pitched to readers that want more in-depth news and serious reportage that should provide a more balanced view of events.

The Daily Mail is a tabloid newspaper that reports serious news but also takes a subjective angle. It is often associated with ‘middle England’ which refers to the reasonably affluent middle classes. The Sun is a tabloid that takes a judgemental angle on the news and purports to be ‘the people’s paper. ’ The examples of the front pages of The Guardian , The Daily Mail and The Sun were all published on Wednesday, April 19th, 2000. They show their preferred layout of their front-page and the position that the photograph takes, and also what each paper considers front-page news.

The Guardian and Daily Mail’s main front-page story concerns the death of a white farmer, Martin Olds, in Zimbabwe who was murdered by a mob of vigilantes in land disputes. It is one of many violent incidents against white farmers carried out by war veterans who are backed by the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. In direct contrast The Sun’s main story on the front page concerns the pregnancy of pop singer, Madonna. The ‘exclusive’ story is that the sex of her unborn baby is male.

Before, looking at the front pages and the photographs in more detail, it is already clear that the ideology behind the The Sun’s news decisions is very different to the other two papers choosing an entertainment story over serious news. In exploring how the reader interprets the images on the front-pages of the newspaper it is important to understand that I will be doing this using my ideological assumptions. Any reader will come to a paper with their own set of codes that they will use to decode the text, their interpretation therefore depends on their familiarity with the newspaper and the codes that they employ.

The different papers’ ideology should also become evident as their ‘pitch’ for their ideal readers is discovered through the coded discourse of the front-page photograph. The size of the photograph and the position it takes on the front page is an important code for the reader as it affects the attention given to the paper. The front page is often seen as the major selling point of the paper, it is what attracts the potential reader to buy the paper and to read further. The size and position is also an important signifier of the importance of the story and the image itself.

This can be seen on The Guardian’s front- page photograph attached to the story of the farmer’s murder. Although, it is the major story on the front page the photograph takes up half of the space given to the story, the other half is taken up by the written report. The photograph shows the semi-covered body of Martin Olds outside a house in a wide shot that includes two people standing in front of the body. It is hard to identify a body in the photograph as it is covered so much, although a limb can be seen protruding underneath some rags.

The headline above it, ‘Death at dawn: the agony of Zimbabwe’ has the largest typeface on the front-page, apart from the name of the paper. However, it is in lower case lettering and connotes an objective standpoint. This gives the story a balance and does not seek to shock the reader but instead empathize with the story as the photograph is from a distance and does not put the body in dominance in the shot. In contrast the Daily Mail has taken a different approach and have dedicated the entire front-page to the murder story.

The photograph takes up just under half of the space given to the story having been positioned underneath the large headline, ‘HAVE A HAPPY BIRTHDAY MR MUGABE’ The photograph’s position and size means that the reader’s attention is split between the headline and the picture. The eye tends to be drawn by the headline first, then the photograph. However, the headline, unlike The Guardian’s, does not refer directly to the photograph. Instead, the headline, as signifier to the photograph, has a casual link as it is sarcastically refers to Mugabe’s birthday with murder’s that he is supporting.

The reader is forced to look at the photograph to identify what the image is exactly. The image of Martin Olds’ dead body actually only shows an arm, as the rest of his body is covered by what appears to be scraps of carpet and cloth. The focus of the photograph is solely on the body restricting any peripheral image of the location, therefore determining the size of the photograph. The dominance of the body in the photograph brings the reader closer to the story and seeks to shock. The headline intrigues the reader into looking at the photograph and then the photograph intrigues the reader to read about the story further using the text below.

In complete contrast to both of these papers is The Sun’s photograph of Madonna which takes up most of the front-page and is situated under the headline, ‘MADONNA: IT’S A BOY. ’ The photograph of Madonna is placed to the middle of the front-page with the headline surrounding the picture. Her image is from her mid-torso upwards and is quite sexual. She is wearing a bra-esque top that reveals a lot of cleavage and makes her look glamorous with the distinct colors of the red lipstick and blonde shiny hair.

The image is cut out from a larger photograph and placed on the white background of the front-page. This draws the attention towards her image without any distraction of periphery visual information. Around the edge of the photo it is quite clear that it has been cut out and makes it look a bit cheap. This device is often used in tabloids but the lack of quality seems to be an aesthetic of tabloids, which is accepted by the readership as the norm. The photograph is blatantly using the sexual attractiveness of Madonna to sell the newspaper.

The male readers would be attracted to her image, and the female readers would be possibly critical of her image either positively or negatively. Therefore, each paper has used the signifiers of size and position of the photographs to try and communicate a desired response from the reader and attach meaning to the relating story. The Guardian’s objectiveness in the balance of space for the written report and visuals, The Daily Mail’s attempt to engage the reader into the story through the headline then use intrigue of association to bring the reader further into the story.

Finally, The Sun’s blatant use of titillation, attaching a deliberately sexually charged image to a story that does not require this sign, but uses her image to try and sell the paper to the readers that follow showbiz and to the those that find her attractive. The coded framework of the photos needs to be investigated in more detail in order to discover the signifiers at work, and the decisions taken from the paradigm sets that define the mode of address, and therefore the reception by the readers.

All of the photos can be discussed in terms of the paradigms of; setting(which has already been touched on), shot size, camera angle, composition, focus, lighting and the use of lenses and filmstock. All of these signifiers will connote meaning that can be related to each other and to the text as a whole producing a combination of signs; or a syntagm. The shot size used in a photograph is one of the most obvious codes inherent in the image. Basically, the size of the shot ranges from a close-up to an extreme long shot.

The closer the shot is to an object the more intimate the viewer/reader is to the object and the more subjective the view, from the close up to the long shot the move is also from private to public. This is the paradigm of shots, but it can be taken further when the type of lens used is taken into consideration. A standard lens gives a balanced image, connoting everydayness and normality, a telephoto lens allows us to get closer to an object and therefore become more intimate (it also has connotations with voyeurism). Finally the wide angle lens makes the image more dramatic as the distance between objects is exaggerated.

The angle of the shot enhances these two codes as it gives the viewer/reader a sense of position in observing the scene. The paradigms here are broadly; high, low and eye-level and connote respectively, power or authority, weakness or powerless, and equality. The combination of these signifiers; shot size, lens and angle, provide a basic appreciation of the photograph’s textual skeleton; and their connotations. The Guardian’s photograph of the murdered farmer, Martin Olds, is taken on a wide shot at eye-level, a reasonable distance from the body, and looks like it was probably shot with a standard lens.

This connotes objectiveness as we are not allowed close to the subject to become more intimate and subjective of the image of the dead body. However, we are on the eye level of the two people standing in-front of the body so we are placed as equals to the apparent observers of the aftermath. Therefore, there is an everyday feeling to the photograph as we view it in the public sphere with a degree of objectiveness. This is contrasted to the Daily mail’s photograph that shows the body in a medium close-up and appears to have been taken with a telephoto and has an angle that is low, on the level of the body.

The shot is also taken through a fence and some plant life that restricts the view of the body and separates it from the viewer/reader. This connotes a more intimate subjective view that places us in a position of weakness and as a voyeur. The same situation is therefore perceived differently through the varying of the signifiers to attach more emotional connotations to the image, and therefore the story. Again, in contrast to both of these photograph’s The Sun’s picture of Madonna has completely different connotations and coded framework.

This photograph has been taken in a close-up, at eye level and probably with a standard lens. So it connotes a sense of intimacy, equality and normality. However, the subject matter and the form of presentation, with a dressed-up Madonna looking happy and knowingly off to one-side, suggests that these connotations are that the photograph looks like it has caught a moment of the real glamour of Madonna. The device of cutting Madonna out of a larger photograph has the effect of attaching importance to her as she is the soul object of attention.

Therefore, these connotations can be seen as a presentation of Madonna as an intimate object for the readers to gaze upon, shifting her image from the public to the private sphere. To create a complete view of the photograph’s framework the signifiers of composition, focus, lighting and colour(film stock) need to be decoded. The composition of the photograph is taking the elements of shot size and angle further and combining their effects. The composition can be explained by the contrasted pairs of symmetrical and asymmetrical, and static and dynamic.

To explain broadly, a symmetrical composition is where the subject is in the middle of the frame, and either sides are similar or the same. This has the effect of making the photo appear posed and calm. In contrast, an asymmetrical composition is where the subject is to one side of the frame, and produces an everyday, natural feeling. Static and dynamic composition refers to the angles and perspective created by the placing of the camera. If the photograph is taken on a level where there are horizontal and vertical lines of vision then it is static, giving a restful sense to the lines and shapes and therefore the picture as a whole.

However, dynamic composition would have been achieved if the angle of the camera was unusual, distorting the viewer/reader and creating disturbance or disorientation. For instance, if the camera angle was on the floor looking up at a subject, the vision lines and angles would create a distorted view. Other technical signifiers complement this overall composition. The focus affects the visual depth of the photograph, either everything will be in focus(deep focus) or parts of the photograph will be (selective focus).

This depends on whether the photographer wants the reader/viewer’s attention to be directed towards any particular detail. Light affects the mood and atmosphere of the photograph, bright(high key) connotes happiness, but dark(low key) connotes sombreness, a high contrast of black and whites is theatrical and dramatic, but low contrast is realistic. The use of film stock can make a difference as well, grainy film connotes authenticity and documentary realism while smooth ‘fine’ grain connotes natural and everydayness.

Therefore, The Guardian photograph is an asymmetrical, slightly dynamic, composition as the body is to one side, and the two people are slightly to the other side of the body. It is slightly dynamic as the angle of the house is off the horizon and therefore disorientates the reader/viewer. Therefore, the composition gives the picture a natural, everyday sense while being slightly disorientating, as well as observational due to the distance and width of the shot. The reader should have a sense of reality of the situation in the photograph while sensing the disturbing quality to the picture.

This is reinforced by the low key light and contrast with the grainy quality connoting a sombre and realistic documentary feel to the photograph. In contrast, the Daily Mail photograph has a symmetrical and static composition, with the body being central and on a level. This connotes a calm and posed feeling as we view the body closer. The focus, lighting and film stock reinforce this connotation as the focusing is blurred around the edges of the frame as our view is concentrated on the body beyond the plant growth and fence producing a feeling of selection.

The light is low key and contrast and with a grainy feel, as The Guardian’s photograph did, portraying a realistic documentary feeling. However, the composition and focus again reinforce the staged, sentimental feeling to the photograph, that The Guardian’s photograph lacks. Therefore, although they have some similar technical signifiers the intention behind the use of the photographs is different. The Guardian’s seeks to be objective but the Daily Mail’s is offering a more subjective reaction to the situation. Again in complete contrast is The Sun’s hotograph, whose composition does not really exist within the picture as it has been taken out of the original shot. However, the fact that the picture of Madonna has been removed from the wider shot makes the composition symmetrical, in that she is central, static and at eye-level. Therefore, the connotations that can be drawn from this is that it is posed and calm. This maybe obvious, but the style of presentation reflects the depth and subtlety of the codes at work; this can also be seen in the focus, lighting and film stock used.

The photograph is in deep focus, or at least the area cut out is, and the lighting is in high key and contrast and there is a smooth feeling to the quality of the shot. Therefore, these signifiers connote a happy theatrical feeling and an image of glamour. The colours are bright with the lip-stick and blonde hair taking prominence highlighting her beauty and ‘star’ appeal. The similarities and differences in the interpretations of these photographs by different readers can be evaluated by applying a commutation test to the photographs.

This involves selecting a signifier from the sign and replacing it with a meaningful alternative from the same paradigm set, affecting the meaning of the sign. This has already been demonstrated by the comparison of The Guardian and the Daily Mail. The Guardian has shown that its interpretation of the farmer’s murder was striving to be objective by using, for instance, distance and space(wide shot, standard lens). If you replace these signifiers with a close-up and a telephoto lens you create a more intimate subjective picture, which has already been discovered earlier to be the decision made in the Daily Mail’s photograph.

Therefore, the replacing of codes such as these and others discussed earlier change the connotations implied by the photographs. Therefore, the ideology behind The Guardian seems to be to show a liberal objective view, constructed for readers that want to receive all the facts and then make their judgments on the information. The Daily Mail’s ideology appears to be more judgmental and conservative with a view deliberately posed to dramatize a situation. Therefore, the readership would want this viewpoint and most likely agree with it.

The ideology behind The Sun can be seen as populist and opinionated, it deems itself ‘the people’s paper’ and aims itself at the easiest gratifications, such as sensationalism, scandal and gossip. As it is the most popular paper in the UK, it must be assumed that it has a strong readership, and that the codes associated with these connotations are accepted. If the photograph of Madonna was taken on a wide shot using natural light the meaning of the photograph and her attractiveness would be changed to being bland and normal. This does not conform with the ideology attached to the paper and would not be well received by the readers.

Therefore, the ideal readers from one paper would not necessarily accept the codes and conventions associated with a different paper due to their acceptance of a different ideology. However, although a semiotic analysis can determine the meanings connoted by a photograph, and the codes that achieve this, it cannot determine the reader’s interpretation of the text in a social context. It can only serve as an insight to the conventions that different newspapers employ and the responses that are attached to the codes at work within them. References • Bignell, J (1997): Media Semiotics: An Introduction.

Manchester: Manchester Press • Chandler, Daniel (1994): Semiotics for Beginners. [WWW document] URL http://www. aber. ac. uk/media/Documents/S4B/ • Gambles, Helen (1998): A semiotic Analysis of a Newspaper Story. [WWW document] URL http://www. aber. ac. uk/media/Students/hlg9501. html • Rock, P (1981): ‘News as Eternal Recurrence’ in S. Cohen & J. Young (eds) (1981): The Manufacture of News: Social Problems, Deviance and the Mass Media. London: Constable. • Selby, Keith & Ron Cowdery (1995): How to Study Television. Macmillan Press April 2000


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