John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Symbolism: What Does It Mean?

symbolism of a fan

Not all images are necessarily symbolic. We can appreciate them as beautiful without any particular interpretation offered or required. Nevertheless, symbolism certainly makes them interesting, especially to us humans who love to find meaning in things.

A symbol points to something else

Simply defined, a symbol is something that represents, stands for, or points to something else. We are familiar with the idea of dreams containing symbols. We are familiar with the idea of "interpreting" dreams. Actually, dreams are a type of image. Any image may be symbolic and is open to interpretation. We might even think of some images as dreams.

Symbols we all understand

Some symbols are quite universal. Many people from various cultures across history would find similar meanings in a particular image. Water suggests birth, purification, and rejuvenation. The house represents the self. A circle indicates unity and eternity. Carl Jung, the famous psychological theorist, called these images "archetypes." They represent universal patterns of human thought that reside in our collective unconscious. Instinctively, we react to these images, even though we may not always be conscious of that reaction or the underlying meaning. Some of these symbols date back to pagan beliefs about nature. Others may have evolved from the most basic elements of human psychology, culture, and spirituality.

When you incorporate some of these basic symbols into your photography, there's a good chance that many people will respond to that universal meaning. Intuitively, they'll be able to relate to that image and each other's reaction to it. Happy people splashing in water are being replenished. An untended, dilapidated house suggests a person in a state of decay. People in a tight circle are strongly united.

Cultural and personal symbolism

Interpretations of symbols also can be unique. People from different cultures and backgrounds may find different meanings. For example, colors, which can be highly symbolic, vary in meaning from one culture to another. In one culture black may be the color associated with death; in another, it may be white. People also can have their own highly personal symbols based on their unique personality and history. If you saw a baby bird die next to a rose bush, you might associate roses with death.

That's how symbols work - by that very basic type of thought process known as "association." We associate this with that. This reminds me of that. The lines of association generated by a symbol may radiate in many directions.

One way to discover the possible meanings of a symbol is to free associate. When you see a particular element of an image, what does it remind you of? What different things do you associate with it? There may be many possibilities, some of them leading to more interesting memories, ideas, and feelings than others.


When symbols gather together

Things get a lot more complex, and a lot more interesting, when an image contains a variety of possible symbols. Then you have symbols interacting with symbols, meanings interacting with meanings. And it's not just the elements of the image interacting with each other, but also the tones, colors, and composition that add to the symbolism and meaning.

How does it all fit together? Again, there may be a whole variety of ways to answer that question, and they will vary from person to person. That's why we're fascinated with great works of art. They are replete with all sorts of meanings. Well, the image above isn't a great work of art, but let's use it to keep things simple. What are the different things it could symbolize? There's no right or wrong answer. Play with the possibilities. Free association as a way to unravel the possible meanings of a symbol works best that way - when we use it to play with an image.

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Related articles in Photographic Psychology:

The Big Picture of Composition
Creating Titles for Images
Conceptual Photography

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche