How to Analyse a photograph


A photograph is a representation of something real; at the same time, it is something created by the photographer. It is never a neutral representation. A photograph reflects the codes, values, beliefs and culture of the photographer, as well as time during which it was created. The meaning we find in a photograph is similarly influenced by our culture, values and beliefs. The viewer must take an active role in its interpretation. This is a decoding, rather than a passive act of looking.

Decoding the Photograph: Questions to Ask

To decode a photograph, it is useful to follow a process consisting of three stages: describing, analyzing and interpreting.

Describing: In describing the photograph, you must first make note of as much factual information as is available. Does the photograph have a title? Who is the photographer? When and where was the photograph taken? Look at the subject matter and describe it as clearly as you can. Are there people in the photograph? If so, what kind of clothes are they wearing? How old do the people appear to be? Is it a landscape? Does it show the country or the city? List as many facts as you can. Finally, look at the elements of design: colour, line, shape, value, form, space and texture. How are these used in the photograph?

Analyzing: The photographer makes certain decisions about how the photograph will be composed, and about when and where it will be taken. In analyzing the photograph, look at some of these decisions and consider why they were made. First, what can you learn from the clues in the photo? What draws your eye immediately? Also, look closely at other perhaps less significant, details. What information can they give you?

If there are people in the photograph, what do you think the relationships between the people are? What do facial expressions and body language suggest?

What is going on in the background? Do you see any writing in the photo (signs, or posters, for example)? Are there recognizable buildings or landmarks? What time of day does it seem to be? Think about overall mood or feeling. Finally, how do the various elements work together?

Interpreting: In interpreting the photograph, use the information that you have discovered through your description and analysis to draw conclusions about the photograph. Can you now say exactly what is happening in the photograph? What is the photographer trying to say; that is, what is the intent of the photographer? Why was the picture taken at this time? Why did the photographer select this angle?

Consider what is in the picture and what is left out. A photographer uses the boundaries of the photograph as a frame. There is always a conscious decision to focus on some things and leave other things out. How do these decisions affect the meaning?

At this point, you might need to look at outside information. Do some research in order to discover the historical context of the photograph. Was it staged or spontaneous? What was happening in the world at the time? Think about the time period when the photograph was taken. Does the meaning of the photograph change when we look at it now, compared to when it was created? Think critically; do not simply accept the image as a true representation of something that actually happened.

Evaluating: The final stage of your decoding is an evaluation. What do you think about the work? Make a judgment about the value, the significance and the importance of the photograph.