Posts Tagged ‘Denotations & connotations’

It is funny with photos how they can forge so many different emotions in people. Sometimes I look back at my photos from earlier vacations, and those pictures can take me straight back to that place. That one picture can make me remember smells, sounds, feelings and bring back memories. But the strange thing is, that if I show the same photo to someone else that was there, the photo can make them think of totally different things! They remember music, people and conversations; they have different memories than I do.

Semiotics are the science of signs and the study of meaning. It might sound dull, but when you start looking into semiotics it is surprising what you might find out. I have been following the KONY 2012 issue these months, and semiotics is actually quite relevant in that matter.

Things that convey meaning, like a word, a picture or a symbol, is really just a sign.  By calling them signs, I mean that these things signify something to us. It is a signifier or a denotation. When I hear a word, a concept forms, or an image or an understanding takes form in my head. This is the signified or the connotation. What makes it interesting thought is that sometimes different people need different signs to achieve the same understanding. For example, look at this sign: “Appelsin”. For a Norwegian this sign conveys a meaning, but and English speaking person need the sign: “orange” to convey the same meaning and a Spanish speaking person would look for the “naranja” sign to picture it.

Words as signs are one thing, languages can complicate things, but at least we understand why. When an image is a sign, it can be harder to understand that it is interpreted differently by different persons. An image is a representation. The emotions/feelings/interpretations the image represents are based on individual judgement or preference. It all relies on “myths” and ideologies.

In the KONY2012 campaign we were introduces to images like these:

When I look at these photos I see a young black child with a weapon. White men with weapons with black soldiers in the background and I see several children in the background of one man.

Based on my knowledge of the situation in Africa, the connotations that I got were that they needed help, and that the Invisible Children wanted to help them. Citizens in Uganda interpreted it differently when they saw the KONY2012 video. They saw the same signs that I saw, but it meant different things to them. As I saw a caring group of people with the intentions to help in a terrible situation, they saw Americans victimizing their race. Other people saw egoism, that the Invisible Children played on emotions to commercialize themselves, and there were several more connotations to find.

I wrote earlier that connotations depend on “myths” and ideologies. The Oxford dictionary defines ideology as “the set of beliefs characteristic of a social group or individual”. We interpret images depending on our norms and experiences of the world. A message can be read in three different ways:

  • The dominant reading. This is the reaction preferred by the media, what they try to achieve. The first reaction that many people had to KONY2012 was this one, and it was what The Invisible Children were aiming for.
  • Negotiated reading. This is when people are not sure, they are sceptical. Persons who doubted the intentions of The Invisible Children belonged to this group.
  • Oppositional reading. They disagree with what is said. This was the reaction of many of the Ugandan citizens.

Mainstream media know this, and so did The Invisible Children. They knew that our understanding of what they produced “depended on shared knowledge, shared myths and shared ideologies” (Turnbull 2012), so they tried to tailor the message to satisfy our ideologies.


Turnbull, S 2012, BCM110 “Media Mythbusting: ‘The Image Cannot Lie”, lecture notes, accessed 4/5/2012, eLearning@UOW.