representation & interpretation.


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.


Stay curious,



Author: rubytoohey

curious. inquisitive. thinker. creator. student.

10 thoughts on “representation & interpretation.”

  1. This is such an honest and thought out blog post in relation to representation and interpretation, you clearly show your understanding for semiotics and the way it effects the audience. This piece for me enhanced my knowledge further and gave me a larger understanding of the concept. The visual used enhanced the fundamentals of this topic and portrayed excalty what i believe you were trying to provoke. I also noticed your interpretation of the visual, the part that stood out for me was when you stated “notion of children maturing too fast”, it drew on ideals and opened a new vision for me now looking at the picture again.
    Such a good post!


    1. Hi Ruby, I also thought this post was well thought out as giving a some background knowledge on semiotics and who first started to conceptualise the term is very helpful. Also the photography chosen to explain further is good to examine as its not only controversial but starts a conversation about smoking. Overall the ideas presented here are clear and again well thought out.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Ruby, I am quite intrigued with how well you studied this complex image and gave your perspective in relation towards it. It was very well done and I applaud you on that. The image you chose is controversial and thus is great to write about due to the many points in which one can actually speak about. If you did not state that the cigarette was “candy”, I would have just presumed it was real and felt disgusted. Drawing attention to key concepts is very important, especially in this media age so once again I applaud you. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Ruby!
    Absolutely adored this post and the way in which you presented your ideas with clarity, encompassing the notions around ‘Representation and Interpretation’, correspondingly with semiotics. To go further than simply explaining what semiotics is, you included the controversial “Candy Cigarette” photograph, which I thought was an excellent example to use, and differs from other examples which could have been incorporated i.e. advertisements, which sexualise women… You definitely took a more original approach, which nevertheless still draws the audience to your main point: “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.” Overall, your post was enjoyable and informative.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hey Ruby!
    This is a really well articulated analysis of both what is ‘signified’ and what the ‘signifier’ is in regards to the image you have decided to use. It is really clear that you understand what is being ‘denoted’ in the image, but more impressively you go into great depth about the connotations that this image may provoke. I can see from your analysis that you have both background knowledge on the image and also what you have personally perceived from the image. Overall you engage in a very in depth analysis and set an insightful foundation for the basics of semiotics.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s