Essence of Photography: Personal Symbolism

What is your personal symbolism and how can you create photos that convey this? Lets look at how to add symbolism to your photography.

March 02, 2022

Consider that photography is a way to bring your inner world to your outer world. You can create photos which reflect your inner thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams, and by doing so, you help to connect with those things in a more concrete way.

Through the centuries, visual art (photography included) has served multiple purposes.

The most obvious is that visual art depicts a literal scene or moment that is shown in the creation. But another more subtle use of art is to convey hidden messages such as emotions, feelings, and even complex concepts that are communicated through the use of symbolism.

Emotions are a good example because we can relate to having similar feelings. When we look at a painting or a photo with a strong emotion, we can interpret what is going on and it may even make us feel a certain way just by looking at the image.

This is a type of hidden message or symbol. A smile might symbolize happiness and tears may symbolize sadness.

Have you ever texted someone to tell them you are happy? Did you write, "I am happy"? Or did you just text a smiley face?

These kind of emotional symbols are so universal, that we have a whole way of communicating with only images which are called emojis.

If you know how to use emojis to represent ideas or feelings, then you are already familiar with the concept of symbolism.

Some emojis may even have multiple meanings in different contexts. For example, think about the emoji for fire.

The literal meaning of "fire" could be interpreted, but it may also represent comfort, heat, or an impressive thing. It may even mean "cool" which seems contradictory but our association with being "lit" or even "on fire" might be slang to mean it is something intense or fun or really good.

So we can see how symbolism can start to move from the universal to the personal.

Universal symbolism is sometimes called an archetype and represents symbols that are common across many cultures and geographic places.

This photo challenge is about connecting to your own personal symbolism. Do you already associate certain things with certain ideas?

If you can't think of anything immediately, you might go back to more common universal symbols to get started.

For example, the photo at the top of the page features a flag. A flag might represent patriotism or pride in one's country. During international sporting events like the olympics or world cup, the flag becomes representative of your team.

If you have already done some experiments with animal symbolism, you may have some ideas for that type of photography.

For example, butterflies are often seen as a symbol for transformation because the lowly caterpillar transforms into a beautiful butterfly.

What are some other symbols you could work with?

Rainbows are a common symbol in many cultures to represent good luck, good fortune, and hope. Besides being beautiful to see, the rainbow often comes after powerful and dark stormy skies. It reminds us that even when things seem dark and turbulent, beauty can still follow.

We already looked at the double meaning of the fire emoji, but consider that fire has been a powerful symbol for humankind for thousands of years.

Like other powerful symbolism, the meaning is not always clear without other clues or context. Fire could bring warmth, safety and comfort, or it can be a force of destruction.

This is why symbols are often very personal to the person who uses them. You may have a specific idea in mind and you will create a photo which shows subtle aspects of the symbol that conveys your intended meaning to your viewer.

The Challenge

Looking for ideas on how to get more motivated and inspired in your photography? Try this challenge.

Think of a concept that is meaningful to you. Something that you value or associate with yourself. Next think of an image that represents that value or quality. Finally, go out and create a photo that depicts that visual imagery and you are on your way to connecting with your personal symbolism.




Essence of Photography is a series of tips, tutorials, and visual inspiration on a variety of photography skills and techniques.

You can practice these skills and more by purchasing a deck of Photo Cards from Zoom In Reach Out, a non-profit with a mission of teaching to see the world from a different perspective.

All photos in this article were posted to the Aminus3 Photography Community and are copyrighted by their respective photographers.

Click on any photo to see a larger version or to leave a comment for the photographer.

Want to share your own photography experiments with personal symbolism?

Why not Join Aminus3 Today and get started.

TOPICS: essence of photography

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