Category Archives: Reading photographs (part 4)

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) and Deconstruction

Here are a few of my musings on Derrida, deconstruction, translation and interpretation.

These are very difficult concepts but I am determined to get a grasp of them. The terms are not entirely new to me as they formed part of my learning for my literature degree, but they were difficult concepts then and ten years have passed so it is time to refresh my memory.


Deconstruct: reduce something to its constituent parts; dismantle; dissect.

In order to understand how something has been created, it has to be taken apart before it can be put back together. I understand this to say that if you can examine the myriad small parts that make up an image and have opinions on why they have been used, then you can start to form individual ideas of meaning behind the image. Deconstruction looks at the relationship between an image and its meaning.

Translation and Interpretation  

Because words can be ambiguous we can never know exactly what an author/photographer intended. We can only interpret his or her text/image in keeping with our own experience and viewpoint.

Derrida was concerned with the interpretation of images and not translation. If I think of something being translated I think of a direct translation like ‘It is a nice day’ becomes ‘C’est une belle journée’ in French or ‘es un buen día’ in Spanish. If I were to interpret it though I could consider if it related to the weather and it was ‘nice’ because it was sunny or is it ‘nice’ because it is my birthday, or because I am on holiday? Derrida was concerned with interpretation.


Going back (again, sorry,) to my literature days

In writing, because words can be a little ambiguous, we cannot always interpret a text exactly as the author intended.

The last sentence of Great Expectations is, ‘I saw no shadow of another parting from her’ (Dickens, 2002). Does this mean that Pip and Estella live happily ever after never to be parted? or does it mean that she won’t leave him (and hurt him) again as all they will ever be are friends? It could be a traditional happy ending with marriage on the horizon or it could be an acceptance of being ‘friends apart’ (ibid). As Sharon Boothroyd says in the course notes ‘it takes as much effort to read a book as it does to write it’ and this is an example of where the reader has to work hard to interpret the novel. Being a romantic I favour the happy ending but as this ending means something to me, it may well mean something different to the next person.

Derrida expressed ‘the slipperiness and unreliability of language’ (Johnson, 2005) and above is an example of how language is not always black and white in its meaning. Likewise, photographs are also open to interpretation  and essentially, like the author and reader, the photographer and viewer have equal status when assigning meaning to a text or image.

Speaking v writing

When someone speaks and is listened to, there is a reliability and truth behind the communication. The speaker is present at the time the words are heard by the listener so the message is likely to be honest and reliable. However, when someone writes and the writing is read at a later date the writer is not likely to be present at the time of reading. This can lead to differing interpretations to what the author intended.  There is a sense of being removed from the work, because the originator is not present when the work is being interpreted.


Overall, the message that I take from this school of though is that images are open to interpretation; they cannot be read as an exact ‘science’ and the photographer and viewer both have an equally valid part to play in the interpretation of the image.



Boothroyd, S. (2014) Context and Narrative. Open College of the Arts.

Dickens, C. (2002). Great expectations. London, England: Penguin.

Johnson, D. (2005). The popular & the canonical. London: Routledge.


Photographs not used as a means of communication

Can you think of any photographs that are not used as a means of expression or communication?

My first thoughts were of  X-rays and passport photographs which are taken to represent something extremely accurately. However what is an X-ray if not a photograph taken to communicate something to a medical professional about the state of someone’s health? and what is a passport if not a photograph taken to communicate a likeness of an individual?

Advertisement images clearly mean to communicate how good a product is. Documentary photography may intend to communicate a social concern, photo essays tell a story, newspaper images tend to persuade, school photographs aim to record family history, family snapshots communicate happy moments in time and provide mementoes of holidays and weddings. Photographs in text books aim to teach, photographs in frames on the mantelpiece aim to initiate nostalgia and a crime scene image is taken to record vital information.

Photography is a visual language with its own grammar and usually has the aim of communicating or expressing something. There is usually a ‘point’ in taking an image.  I am struggling to think of any photographs that are not used as a means of expression or communication. Like any form of written communication has something to say, I feel that all images communicate something to someone.