Objects can evoke a wide range of emotions and ideas. While a crown can symbolize power and victory, a pen can represent diplomacy and stability. “I like to use weapons as symbols. Sometimes swords or arrows can have double meanings. They’re objects of destruction, but they can also reference Cupid’s arrow and love,” adds Stoddard.
Geometric shapes and their orientation to one another can express another type of symbolism. In traditional Australian Aboriginal art, the use of shapes and symbols was a way to record culturally significant stories and teachings about the land. Meanwhile, in Western cultures, straight lines often represent order, while circles often symbolize unity.
Religion and legends
Beyond cultural differences, symbols can evoke religious and mythological ideas as well. “There’s the Christian interpretation of the snake, but the snake can also be a symbol for healing,” says Johnson. While technically the same subject matter, the snake in the Garden of Eden and the snake wrapped around the staff in the medical caduceus convey vastly different meanings and tell unique stories.
If you want to use these symbolic images in your photos, be sure to research myths and religions before you start. You might find more unique symbols with dual meanings. Explore the world of conceptual photography for more inspiration as well.
How to plan the perfect symbolic photo.
Start with an idea.
“It’s all about observation and identifying the different elements of your own life that continually pop up,” says Johnson. While you can always choose a classic, well-known symbol as the focus of your photo, you can also identify symbols that are uniquely important to you.
“And a lot of times, you’ll go out and you won’t quite know what you want to create. It just sort of happens naturally with what you’re feeling. A lot of it is serendipitous,” Johnson adds. Whether you start with a crystal-clear idea or you come across an object, such as a lost child’s toy, and decide to include it in your photo, don’t hesitate to let your idea evolve as you work.
Prepare for the photoshoot.
“When I have an idea, it becomes a matter of gathering together all of the elements that I want to include in that photo — like costumes and props,” says Stoddard. “Most of my photos are self-portraits, so it’s always convenient that I have myself on hand as a model when inspiration strikes.”