The study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation.
As developed by Semiologists Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Pierce, semiotics is the science of signs and how they construct meaning. Saussure and Pierce developed semiotic theory by focussing on how meaning is constructed by the viewer upon observing and decoding such texts. The way in which audiences interpret signs, is partly based upon their personal context, which accounts for their pre-conceived knowledge of the idea which the sign may be signifying. Semiotics therefore, doesn’t account for these such signs as autonomous objects with universally apparent meaning; but rather they are based on “shared codes and conventions” that are further developed by the viewer to construct meaning.
Signs can be considered quite arbitrary and conventional without meaning. However, with our understanding of semiotics, when both the signifier – the sound-image (encoded message) and the signified – the concept it represents are unified, significant ideas can be articulated and comprehended. This same idea can be expressed through denotation (the literal meaning) and connotation (the idea or feeling that is invoked); these systems allow for the represented to be interpreted, thus creating meaning.
Taking this image entitled ‘Candy Cigarette’ we can note the signifier to be the young girl in the white dress at the foreground of the photo. Upon first glance, the image could be interpreted as confronting as the young girl, a picture of innocence, holds a presumed cigarette. However, when further exploring the photograph, we learn the object is merely a ‘candy cigarette’ as it’s title suggests.
This photograph, along with many others, are a part of a collection from the photographer, Sally Mann‘s children entitled ‘Immediate Family’. Within this collection she intimately explored the highs and lows of childhood, whilst also confronting reality by placing and capturing her children in situations that would be normally considered as ‘adult only’ – and this image has become the most recognised of them all. Mann’s use of juxtaposition in the photograph, between a young girl and a ‘cigarette’, obscure’s her innocence as viewers are confronted by the idea of a child smoking.
This image illustrates the notion of children maturing too fast – the signified. The girl’s slouched posture and apathetic expression, in combination with the ‘cigarette’, makes comment on children being rebellious and growing up too fast. This idea of rebellion is reinforced as she faces in the opposite direction of the other two children in the image.
Overall, the image is a wonderful demonstration of semiotics; the cigarette – a universally recognised symbol of harm – in the hands of the girl – a symbol of innocence – was the root of much controversy and uproar upon the photographs release.
At the end of the day, it is up to the viewer and how they decode the denotations (signified) and understand it’s connotations (signifier/s) that create meaning.