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Photography Ideology Society

and interested in the concept of ideology itself, as well as what ideologies have been or can be presented as using photography or visual representations. Both photography and ideology are strongly linked to sociological theories, philosophical theories and even psychological theories, but how is their relationship conceived?

What has been discovered about how ideologies are presented within a photograph? And are they inevitable?

Firstly when talking of the term photography, in disassembling it to its simplest form it is the process of recording pictures by capturing light on a light sensitive medium. This invention was believed to be extraordinary, as it was believed that there would be a bright future ahead of this invention based on the fact that moments could be captured in a single photograph. While photography goes far back to the 1820’s, the word ideology was created and introduced by count Antoine Destutt de Tracy in the late 18th century. De Tracy defined his concept of ideology by simply stating that it is a science of ideas, it can be seen as a way of looking at things in terms of common sense or ideology in everyday society, through a normative thought process. The philosopher Michael Foucault wrote:

Ideology is a way of life for society’

In simple terms to define the word and to state that ideology was all around life in everyday society.

Famous Sociologist and founder of Marxism, Karl Marx talked of ideology being an instrument of social reproduction in order for the elites to remain in control of masses, he states:

‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch of the ruling ideas which is ruling material force of society as at the same time is ruling intellectual forces’

Marx & Engel’s, (1845)

Marx and Engels states that the ideologies of society that are everywhere come from the ruling classes (which refers to those with power i.e. ‘the bourgeoisie’) that they believe submit ruling ideas from the ruling material force of society which also rules the main academic or intellectual force. This could be applied to photography and its relation to ideology, their theories suggest that Marx and Engels would argue that mainstream photography could be produced to represent ideological ideas in order to benefit the elites.

Another significant sociologist, Louis Althusser, (1969) looked at ideology and stated that there was an ideological state apparatus, he wrote:

‘Ideology, always exists in an apparatus and its practice and practices, this existence is material’

This may suggest that in terms of photography according to Althusser it can be seen as an ideological practice, as photography can also be seen as a practice and our our values, desires and preferences are all part of what he calls the idealogical state apparatus.

And in summary if a photographer is capturing our values, desires and preferences in photographs this must mean that what is being reflected are our idealogical values, desires and preferences.

It was not until photography began to be related to social exploration that photography became a form that could be discussed in a socially theoretical manner and could be related to concepts of ideology, when ideologies began to be identified in early photographs of war. In the beginning the story of photography began with just its technology. Writer Eugenia Parry Janis cited in ‘History of photography: the state of research’ wrote:

‘The story of photography would be the history of its technique’

This continued and it wasn’t until the 1930’s that photography became thought of as art.

The model of photographic history as the history of its technical refinement continued to the twentieth century, nationalist overtones were most obvious in the 20’s and 30’s, as French and then German historians rendered increasingly factorial and self-serving versions of photography’s first hundred years states R. Douglas Nickel, (2001).

Photography gradually became reflective of society, but in the 1980’s and 90’s photography associated with social history, cultural history and theory.

This evidently came after the work of Marx &Engel’s, Althusser or (Barthes specifically on the concepts of photography itself and its concern with ideology in particular.

Marx’s work was Based on the notion of ideology, specifically, the idea that photography is not a medium of mere class of imagery but a commodity subject to the invariable distortions and ‘False consciousness’ that Marxist theorists state characterise throughout the super structural products of bourgeoisie culture. Marx also states that ‘capitalism traffics’ in photography is taken as pure ideology, an empty vessel of conduct for transaction of power relations.

He states that picture photography is unconsciously ideological.

Photography and sociology in particular have always had a strong relation and one of the most profound theories around photography is its ideology or its visual culture. When talking of ideology in a photograph one is talking of its sociology or the sociological theory around it that sociologists and writers have followed and researched. Photography and sociology have approximately the same birth date, and are both considered similar in terms of their work exploring society writer Rosenblum cited in ‘Photography and sociology’ writes:

‘Different kinds of photographers work in different institutional settings and occupational communities, which effect their product as an essential setting in which sociologists work effects theirs’

Rosenblum, (1973)

In working in a particular place or community with particular surroundings, the community around sociologists affect the work they produce and it is the same aspect for photographers, in photographing a certain concept they are producing a photograph that is subject to its environment therefore it is unavoidable that ideologies would be projected.

Becker, (1974) elaborates on this aspect, he states that the constraints of settings in which photographers did their work affected how they went about it, their habits of seeing, the pictures they made and when looking at society what they saw, what they made of it and the way they presented their result.

Photography is somewhat seen as an exploration of society like said before, it can be used to find the reality of ways of life or hide them, and most importantly reflect ideologies within society like many writers argue.

However another use photographs can have is telling the News, this has become increasingly important over many years, as they are used as a social exploration through photographic news journalism. Marxists would argue that some pictures or drawings in the news would be used to submit ideologies one example of this is the famous war picture featured in news papers which was used to recruit soldiers and had a soldier on it stating ‘I want YOU for U.S army’.

This picture was used to persuade young men to join the army to form an ideological opposition to defend ones country.

Photographic journalism was around as far back as the civil war as Mathieu Brody and Horan (1955) photographed it, it was also largely utilised by the 1960’s during the civil rights movements.

Today photographic journalism can be used to form certain political ideas a simple example of this would be using the numerous pictures of leaders such as George Bush or Gordon Brown looking professional and dressed in a suit, this would provoke ideologies of civilised and democratic leaders whilst showing a leader such as many pictures of the late Yassire Arafat in an unprofessional looking position wearing his traditional head scarf would provoke ideas of a less professional man.

Another example of ideology used in photographic journalism today would be pictures of young and thin looking models on the front magazines such as ‘vogue’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ which expose the ideal way a young lady should look in today’s society.

It is argued that some photographs have been based on political ideologies, it is evident that photography has a strong relationship with the concept of ideology, since the sociology of photography was explored, writers such as Roland Barthes explored this specifically in his work on mythologies to be precise which I will later explore.

Writer Hadjincolau, (1978) cited in ‘the theory of ideology: bringing the mind back in’

Sates that a visual ideology is presented with both instances or exemplars of the system of representation in use (individual pictures) and with explicitly formulated rules of the system for example drawing manuals.

In talking of the way ideology effects society and its subjects or products, Roland Barthes, (1957) in mythologies wrote:

‘The whole of France is steeped in this anonymous ideology: our press, our cinema, our theatre, our popular literature, our ceremonies, our Justice, our diplomacy, our conversations, our remarks on the weather, the crimes we try, the wedding we are moved by, the cooking we dream of, the clothes we wear, everything, in our everyday life, contributes to the representation that the bourgeoisie makes for itself and for us of the relationships between man and the world.’

One obvious ideological photograph that Barthes writes about is one of French imperialism, it is one of a black bow wearing military garments and appearing to salute the French flag on the cover of a French magazine named ‘Paris Match’. It attempts to represent an ideological image that shows a French unity based on serving under the French flag and under France despite the ethnic origin or that fact that boy may be from a French colony.

Barthes writes about his interpretation of this image in particular he famously wrote:

‘I am at the barber’s, and a copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaningof the picture. But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors. I am therefore again faced with a greater semiological system: there is a signifier, itself already formed with a previous system (a black soldier is giving the French salute); there is a signified (it is here a purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness); finally, there is a presence of the signified through the signifier.’

This photographs critique is linked to the concept of realistic vs. idealistic when talking of its visual culture. Photographs such as this reflect the ideal that French powers would have ideally liked to reach ain the 1950’s, however even in contemporary France these issues are still evident and are reflected within visual culture. There is still a fairly clear divide between the French by origin and those from current or previous colonies.

Pictures like these are produced everyday even today and as Marx & Engel’s, Althusser, and Foucault would argue, those in power use the mechanism of photography as a way of fabricating ideology through visual art forms. However from time to time films such as Mathieu Kossivitz’ ‘La Haine’ (1995) reveals the reality rather then the ideal of societies such as the French society. La Haine produces some documentary like visuals and photographs that depicts the reality of French societies which disassembles the ideologies in dealing with contemporary issues such as integration, social exclusion, unemployment, or inequalities through visual imagery. This film was so successful and reflective of French society that French politicians and then president Jack Chirac organised a special viewing of the film within parliament.

In discussing this, these issues only confirm that what we see from a picture like the one on Paris Match is constructed of semiological systems that reveals signifieds that have already been framed, which shows a clear signified from a signifier according to Barthes.

Barthes mythologies also states that ideological pictures like the Paris Match cover were a signifying function created by a sum of signs that resulted in a myth.

Relative to the Paris Match photograph Stuart Hall (1997) cited in the article ‘Illustrate and critically discuss the way in which semioticains problematise the concepts of representation’ by Roderick Munday,Hall states that the minority groups, or what he describes as people who are different in any way from the norm are frequently exposed to what he calls “binary forms of representation”.

Examples of these are as he states them/us, black/white, good/bad, and ugly/attractive.

He also states that minority groups or people who are in any way different are also expected to be both contraries at the same time.

This is applicable to the Paris Match photograph as for example he is wearing uniform usually typically representative of white French boys yet he is black.

It can be seen as a continuation or reemphasis of the traditional sense of representation as symbolising an abstract idea.

An example of this is the representation of black people, and the possibility of them being viewed as the representation of white people’s ideas about them.

One example of this is cited in Roderick Munday’s essay and is a photograph of Linford Christie after winning gold at a major competition as an athlete in Barcelona 1992. As a result of this picture the British press could only focus on him wearing a tight athletic running suit and the apparent size of his genitals.

This was an influence of ideological ideas and perceptions that black men in particular had large genitals.

The ideology that black men had large genitals had been formed over a long period of time; Antonio Gramsci would argue has become a hegemonic belief, which means a popular belief amongst the majority or a hegemonic and ideological belief.

One may be subject to thinking that if ideological ideas can be made about a photograph such as this, it can be made about any other photograph.

When looking at this picture, like Althusser states a major ideological state apparatuses which is the media choose to ignore, they opt to sideline other representations within the photograph and focus of an a racial ideology. This suggests that as this is included in mainstream media many would have been familiar with this article and this could have influenced their views.

However postmodernist critics state that individuals are not extremely influenced and can identify their own views, they argue that individuals are not that dependant or taken advantage of.

Despite this argument in conclusion the British media chose to ignore the fact that he is holding a British flag and the representation of it, or the fact that his body language reflects his success his power and success or appreciation for the supporting crowd.

Other work done on this subject is that of writer kobena Mercer, Mercer studied photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe that revealed photographs of what appears to be genitals of black man and their particular emphasis on their large size.

Mercer wrote:

‘Mapplethorpe is serving a colonial fantasy, the sexual idealisation of the racial other’

Mercer, (2002)

One photograph that Mapplethorpe produced was one that revealed a black man in a workers suit, with emphasis to his genital area exposed, from this photograph one could assume that the ideal is that he has large genital before the fact that he is just a working man. Mercer’s critic of his photographs argues that rather then taking the black man as a person Mapplethorpe is feeding the racial ideal.

Amongst famous ideological photographs is photographer Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph of for American soldiers raising the American flag symbolising the ideology of American nationalism, American power, and American spirit.

One could analyse this image in the way that Roland Barthes does in a systematic way to uncover its meaning and ideology.

Roland Barthes ‘rhetoric of the image’ states that there are three messages we need to ‘skim off’.

The three messages include the linguistic code, the coded iconic message, and the non coded iconic message.

He looks at these three messages when analysing the ‘Panzani’ advert.

When looking at the flag raising picture the first message is not evident within the picture as the picture does not contain any text therefore we must continue to the second message, the coded iconic message, this message looks at coded aspects which enable us to immediately identify just the pure image or any unconscious messages that have iconic significance.

When looking at the ‘discontinuous signs’ as the coded iconic messages in Rosenthal’s image as Barthes calls them, the first instance the image represents is the notion of four soldiers who were currently engaged in a battle that ended in victory.

The euphoric values within this photograph are firstly the idea of fresh success in winning the battle and celebration that will occur prior to doing so.

The signifier for the signifier is the raising of the flag, one of the other signifiers the second signifier is the American flag itself representing ‘americanicity’ rather then ‘italianicity’ as Barthes describes in the Panzani advert.

Another signifier would be the uniforms of the soldiers which would signify the immediacy of being in a battle and the equality amongst the soldiers.

The third message, the non-coded message involves just looking at the objects in the image and the messages without codes or as Barthes describes this as ‘The literal Message’ or describing the simple structure of the image and the objects.

The obvious non-coded messages within this photograph would simply be the soldiers themselves raising the flag in unity, and the American flag it self.

The image has been one of the most famous iconic American images in history and has been reproduced countless times on, postcards, stamps, frames, and posters.

The image is the representation of an American ideal, and of the fighting spirit of its soldiers that American forces talk off often.

It also indicates the ideal of American power and how strong America is.

However one of the reasons why I chose this picture as many believe that Rosenthal must have posed the figures in the photograph stating that he had told the soldiers to re-enact the flag raising for a second time. Rosenthal stated that this was not the case as he had first missed the first flag raising by soldiers but then naturally captured the second raising of a larger flag.

Weather these allegations were correct or not, this may indicate a possibility that this ideological image used photography to submit certain ‘un-conscious’ American ideologies and ideas of patriotism weather done naturally or not.

We may conceive that photography is being used to accomplish certain ideologies from the relationship that photography has with ideology.

Discussing photography throughout its time and its strong connection with sociology in exploring society, it is clear that there have always been social ideologies and that photography has always been linked to them in one way or another, whether promoting them or challenging them, they are still used today.

In simple terms we may conceive that photography just reflects most of society’s ideas.

This therefore insinuates that we may conceive of the relationship between photography and ideology as inevitable, this is exemplified in Roland Barthes analysis of the photograph showing the Panzani advert in the ‘Rhetoric of the image’ whenHe states that the advert promotes ideals of what he describes is ‘italianicity’ or the perfectly balanced meal based on what Italians eat.

Therefore I ask weather it is possible to develop a photograph without some ideologies as Barthes states in his work on Mythologies, ideologies are all around us; in cinema, News papers, magazines and even the wedding’s we go to or the clothes we wear.

Certain ideologies within any given photograph may represent a different ideal. I argue that even the least typical ideological photograph is an ideal of the ‘un-ideological’ photograph, or the ideal of an image opposite to an image seen as ideological. Even a photograph of mountains of sand in the desert photographed by photographer by Ansel Adams provokes ideas of Arabian nights, an Arabic camel walking to the beat of its humps, or Arabic Saharan way of life. This may be because we un-consciously relate ideas that are already set out for us as such as media or education Althusser would argue. Therefore weather or not we choose to use typical of un-typical ideals within a photograph to benefit our society and teach our society in the right way is up to us.


1, Kobena Mercer ‘Reading racial Fetishiam: the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe in eds. Evans & Hall (1999) Visual culture: he reader London: Sage, open university

2, Becker, H. S. (1974) Photography and Sociology. Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication1, 3-26.

3, Paris Match French ideology, Google images accessed: 03/04/08

4, Lewis, W. (2005) ‘Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism’ Lexington books, 2005

5, Marx and Engels: The German Ideology Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook //

6, Robert Mapplethorpe, Google images accessed: 03/04/08

7, Joe Rosenthal: raising the flag, Google images accessed: 04/04/

8, Roland Barthes Rhetoric of the image in ed Wells, L (2003) The photography reader London, New York: Routledge

9, Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, London: Vintage, 2000

10, Trevor Pateman, ‘The Theory of Ideology: Bringing the Mind Back In’ // accessed:02/04/08

11, Linford Christie: Google image accessed: 04/04/08

12, Hall, Stuart (Editor) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London; Sage Publications, 1997

13, Roderick Munday ‘Illustrate and critically discuss the ways in which semioticians problematise the concept of ‘representation’.’ // accessed: 04/04/08

14, photography: // accessed: 03/04/08

15, Roland Barthes: // accessed: 03/04/08

16, Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, Hardmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1972

17, Roland Barthes, Panzani Advert: accessed: 02/04/08

18, Ansel Adams gallery, // accessed: 04/04/08

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