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Every symbol tells a story: photographers can suggest meaning--and enable viewers to form their own interpretation--by using symbolism in their images.

In expressive photography, we rely on symbols to represent abstract ideas. Symbols represent larger meanings and are often metaphorical. The most memorable photographs endure largely because of their symbolism. Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother represented the Great Depression of the 1930s. Joe Rosenthal's iconic photograph of the American flag being raised during the battle of Iwo Jima is a definitive symbol of World War II.

Here are four examples of how I've used symbolism in my own work. In the first (right), the splintered top of a weathered wooden post along Oregon's Columbia River symbolizes the industry that gives this area so much of its character. The starburst could represent hardship and renewal. The circular form and diverging slits can symbolize a clock--another marker of time. And the glimpse of grass, ranging from green to brown, symbolizes the cycle of life. With my lens set for macro focusing, I can move to within a few inches of the old post to stress the texture of the wood and the detail of the rings recording the life span of this once-living tree. The final ring fragments symbolize the point of transition from tree to post.

The second example (below) recalls the World War II atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. A huge photomural in Hiroshima's Peace Museum features an image of a wristwatch stilled forever by the blast. The actual watch rests in the case at right. I waited and watched as a steady flow of people moved somberly past the watch and the mural. I made this image when two of them stopped to contemplate the enormity of the bombing, while a third moved past in a blur. The watch has become a symbol that makes an event such as this more personal and real. The words within the mural add context that enhances this symbolism. The mural itself is symbolic, enlarging the wristwatch to monumental size, thereby magnifying its significance. The blurred person passing by the mural may symbolize to some the ghosts of those who died here. Others may see the blur as symbolic of vitality--and perhaps vulnerability as well. And still others can view the blurred figure as evidence that life goes on, in spite of such terrible events as this.

In the third example (above), I've abstracted a huge barge in a Belgian canal, honing it down to a symbolic set of glowing mirror images in steel representing the nature of its function and operation. By isolating the double anchors, I symbolically suggest that two are better than one. Either the huge barge needs twice as much stability when it rides at anchor, or else its owners and crew must feel it's important to have an extra one on hand, just in case! Not only do the anchors mirror each other, but the name of the barge is repeated as well. We see it twice, because someone wants to be sure that it can be seen from either side of the canal. Redundancy represents the ability to omit things without loss of function. It also represents things that may not always be needed but are nice to have around in case something goes wrong. This image offers an ideal symbol for such a concept.

My final example (below), shot in Marrakesh, Morocco, features a mass of painting ladders stacked in a dark storeroom. These ladders symbolize value--there are many of them and they obviously have been well used. They may not be pretty to look at, but they perfectly represent the concept of utility--the state of being useful.

Symbolism plays a critical role in all three of the key principles of expressive photography. When we abstract photographic content, we often can make it rich in symbolic and metaphorical meaning. When we photograph incongruities, we can create symbolism through contrasts and juxtapositions. And when we attempt to convey human values in our images, which are at the very core of expressive photography, we have ready-made symbols on hand as well.

about the author

Philip N. Douglis, ABC, directs The Douglis Visual Workshops, now in its 36th year of training communicators in visual literacy. Douglis, an IABC Fellow, is the most widely known consultant on editorial photography for organizations. He offers his comprehensive six-person "Communicating with Pictures" workshops every May and October in Oak Creek Canyon, near Sedona, Arizona. For registration information, call +1 602.493.6709 or e-mail

You can view Douglis' multi-gallery cyberbook on expressive digital travel photography at
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Author:Douglis, Philip
Publication:Communication World
Date:May 1, 2007
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