Ah, the world of symbolism. How I adore thee.
Symbolism is like poetry – visual poetry. Instead of words, in visual storytelling, you can use symbols to deepen the meaning, give a better insight into your intentions and help create feelings.
Poets are ever so good at expressing emotions that are so difficult to describe otherwise. With the use of symbols, you can do the same for your conceptual self-portrait photographs, or any visual artwork for that matter.
Here we’ll explore together the power of symbolism to help you start using its rich language.
The Power of Symbolism
Symbolism is a language used in literature and art that uses symbols to represent ideas and emotions.
In your case, you’d use objects, but also employ the help of composition, lighting and colours to allow yourself to delve into the realms of self-expression.
Conceptual self-portraiture especially lends itself to it, where you can convey abstract ideas, themes or messages in a subtle and imaginative way.
- Read more: How to Create a Self-Portrait Series
I love it because it makes your viewers work a little harder by making them have to decipher your original meaning. Don’t give away what your art is about too easily!
The longer you have your audience’s attention and the more questions you make them ask, the better.
I also love it because it has a unique ability to transcend language and cultural barriers allowing for understanding and connection with a wider audience.
According to psychologist Carl Jung, there’s a collective unconscious shared by humans that contains archetypes and universal symbols.
These symbols tap into our experiences and emotions, making them recognisable across cultures. For example, the symbol of a heart represents love.
Of course, breaking these barriers won’t always be so easy.
Some linguistic elements, such as wordplay (if you’re using text) or puns, might get lost in translation.
Equally, where the thumbs-up gesture means approval in many Western countries, it’s considered offensive in some countries in the Middle East and West Africa.
It certainly helps to know who your audience is, but generally speaking, the collective universal experience of being human will play to your advantage.
Symbolism doesn’t have to be rigid either. While some symbols may have universally accepted meanings, others can be open to individual interpretation.
The richness lies in evoking multiple layers of meaning and, like I said before, engaging your audience in deeper contemplation and analysis.
Basically, get your viewer to ask themselves, “What is the artist/photographer trying to say here?”
Some of the Greats
Studying how significant artists have used symbolism in their work is a great idea!
Salvador Dalí: A Surrealist painter, who incorporated symbolism heavily in his works. His paintings often featured dreamlike landscapes and objects with symbolic meanings, challenging the viewers’ perception of reality.
Frida Kahlo: My personal favourite artist of all time. She was a Mexican artist, who, besides painting others, also produced a lot of self-portraits. Her paintings contained symbolic references to Mexican culture, mythology, and her personal experiences of life.
Kirsty Mitchell: I don’t know of many other photographers who single-handedly create such elaborate sets and costumes. Her narratives are rich in symbolism, exploring themes of memory, identity and transformation.
Miss Aniela (Natalie Dybisz): It was Miss Aniela who introduced me to the world of conceptual self-portrait photography, and I’ll always be grateful. Her early work incorporated symbolism and metaphors exploring the relationships between herself and her environment.
Maggie Taylor: A world of imagination and storytelling enriched with symbolism to create dreamy images.
Examples of Symbolism in Self-Portraiture
Masks can be representations of concealment, vulnerability and the hidden aspects of one’s personality.
They can be used to show the many faces an individual chooses to wear in social settings, or their struggle to reveal their authentic selves.
The fully bandaged head can symbolise the loss of individual identity, or perhaps signify the unknown.
The colour red can be associated with blood and, in turn, a powerful life force.
I use the word “can” because, as I mentioned earlier, these ideas to layer your photography are up for interpretation by your viewers.
You never know. They might even surprise you with meanings you never thought of yourself!
Living vines are known for their ability to grow and renew. They represent life and, through the power of nature, the power of self.
A bunch of dead flowers can carry the meaning of mortality, the passage of time and ultimately death.
The colour white can be connected to healing, rebirth and innocence. A fresh start to transform one’s life from despair to hope.
Wings signify freedom. Barren wings without feathers can lead the viewer to sense the beginning of a journey, where conscientious growth will be required.
A birdcage is generally seen as confinement, a loss or lack of freedom.
The symbol of scissors can represent cutting ties, whether it’s physical or emotional ties. It can also be associated with power and authority: making decisive choices for one’s self, or taking control.
Rope can mean connection and strength, but in this instance, it symbolised binding and restraint.
A beam of light usually gets interpreted as hope.
It’s important to consider the specific context in which symbols are portrayed to fully understand their intended meaning.
Your own personal experiences and that of your audience will also shape individual interpretations of the stories that you’ll create, and that’s a good thing!
A thought-provoking image will have many interpretations because the creator would have spent sufficient time and effort to layer its meaning via techniques available, such as symbolism.
The more layers, the more possible connections with your audience!
Books on Symbolism
I’m a sucker for books. I have a whole room dedicated to them with floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall shelves.
Then there are more books piled around my bed and on my chest of drawers in the bedroom and even more in my studio. Those are the ones I like to use to help me create artwork.
Amongst these are books on symbolism, which I find enormously helpful, as I certainly wasn’t born knowing all these meanings!
These are the three I tend to reach for when researching for an image:
Ideas for Self-Portraits Using Symbolism
Breaking free: Use chains or ropes to represent constraint and personal limitations. Capture your self-portrait in which you break free from these restraints, symbolising your personal growth and freedom.
Identity exploration: Create a series of self-portraits using different masks to represent the many identities we wear depending on who or what we’re surrounded by. Explore how you’re influenced and how your self-perception is impacted.
Shadows: Experiment with shadows to represent your inner struggles or fears. Play with beams of light penetrating the darkness.
Water: Utilise water to represent the constant flow of life’s experiences and change of your emotions.
Birds: Include birds in flight to symbolise freedom or the longing for a different perspective or life.
Broken but mended objects: Incorporate mended objects to represent resilience, healing, or the process of overcoming challenges.
Animals: Integrate animals with symbolic meanings into your self-portraits, such as butterflies for transformation, or a hare for rebirth and ever-lasting renewal.
Colours: Choose a colour palette that complements your intended symbolism. Warm tones can evoke passion or intensity, while cool tones can convey calm.
In Symbols We Trust!
Conceptual self-portrait photography holds a unique place in the realm of artistic expression.
It allows you, the photographer or artist, to explore your inner self, while sparking contemplation and dialogue amongst your viewers.
To amplify this, you can trust that symbolism will provide you with a powerful visual language, where you’ll be able to convey even more complex ideas and emotions.
Employ those symbols, use those colours appropriately, create those visual metaphors!
By doing so, you’ll breathe life into your images and transform your self-portraits into thought-provoking reflections on the human experience. And surely that’s one thing that connects us all.
Veronika Lavey is a multi-cultural artist specialising in conceptual self-portraiture. She is recognised for her dark, thought-provoking fine art photography.
When Veronika doesn’t have a camera or a paint brush in her hands, she’s most likely walking her giant fluffy dog, Sonic in the woods, or hanging out with her family.