Are analogue images more indexical than digital images?

Since the beginning of the photographic evolution, the ability to record, document and share our images has revolutionised our communities, our perceptions of social and political systems and indeed, the world. Moreover, as we transitioned from the analogue to the digital imaging age, those processes have become easier and more convenient. However, do these digital conveniences and binary abilities within the digital era come at a price? In which these images are vulnerable to manipulation, edit and transformation at the detriment of its indexical integrity. Furthermore, how does the relationship between the object, the medium and the operator affect its indexicality in regards to C.S. Peirce’s sign theory trio - icon, symbol and index - and do these relationships suggest analogue images are more indexical? 

Index and C.S. Peirce

An essay by Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio, states that “signs and interpretants are also united by relations of a compulsory order, that is to say, by indexical relations as understood by Peirce” (Petrilli and Ponzio, 2010). These ‘indexical relations’ are a doctrine conveyed through Charles S. Peirce’s works on semiotics. As part of Peirce’s works he explains his philosophical triad; icon, index and symbol and he considers these three signs as a way of representation. Icon - a resemblance of the image, but not an exact replica. Symbol - a way of representing the image. Index - a direct physical connection with the image i.e. we observe a thermometer as having an indexical relationship to the temperature. These three signs intertwine heavily with photography and can be used to explain the relationship between the image, the camera and us.

“signs and interpretants are also united by relations of a compulsory order, that is to say, by indexical relations as understood by Peirce”
— Petrilli, S. and Ponzio, A. (2010) Iconic features of translation. University of Toronto Mississauga, Department of Language Studies.

In photographic terms, indexing isn't a forced decision. It’s a process natural to the camera and its bearer. In some senses, it is an unavoidable process in which we use photography to document the world around us. Geoffrey Batchen considers a photograph as “an indexical trace of the presence of its subject in space and time, a trace that both confirms the reality of our existence and remembers it” (Geoffrey Batchen, 2015:5), suggesting that a photograph does more than bind an event to a date and time, it stores the scenario for our own ontological verification and understanding of our past. Indexing through photography is weak however, and its integrity is vulnerable to numerous external factors. It is not solely open to the forces of digital and analogue editing methods, but the medium the image is being taken on. 

Vulnerabilities and advantages of digital

Digital camera technology has most certainly changed the way we interact with images. No longer are images so much a physical, palpable and tangible entity. They have a digital presence, locked away behind a screen. When a digital image is taken, its binary data is transferred to a memory card, to a computer and so on. Within this process, it is arguable that a physical connection is lost. Damian Sutton states that “Without this anchor to reality the semiotic relationship seemed over-balanced towards the iconic and the symbolic” (Sutton et al., 2007). In other words, removing that physical link between the object and the picture, tips the image to be one that represents/imitates the object. Specifically, an indexical relationship with the object and the image is no longer present and the feeling of trust in film - that the light has soaked into a medium and is permanent - has disappeared. In addition to this, a digital image is easily manipulated through computer editing software, thus it is no longer a pure index.

However, through digital’s convenient transmission, we are able to pass these images across the world and share them with more people than we would with a singular analogue image. Furthermore, digital photography extends to a broader social reach and can still be impactful. Corey Dzenko reiterates this in her article ‘Analog to Digital: The Indexical Function of Photographic Images’, saying that “Focusing only on the theoretical lack of indexicality in digital images ignores the social uses of analog photography that are now performed by digital images” (Dzenko, 2017). In that sense, digital could be considered just as indexical, because after all, indexical images rely on a connection with the viewer just as much as the medium. 

Vulnerabilities and advantages of analogue

C.S. Peirce states that “Photographs, especially instantaneous photographs, are very instructive, because we know that they are in certain respects exactly like the objects they represent” (Peirce et al., 1992). From writing this in 1894, this logic most certainly has stemmed throughout the timeline of analogue photography up until instantaneous digital photography. Analogue, as mentioned before, retains a material connection between the medium and the object. The light is refracted through the lens onto the physical substance and is recorded as an impression on the film or, in Peirce’s words, as “indications, or indices; which show something about things, on account of their being physically connected with them” (Peirce et al., 1992). The way in which the images are then stored and transmitted is completely physical. With digital, when the image is stored, it becomes stagnant data and all we observe is a file name that is representing the image, or in Peircean terms - it is symbolic. Whereas with film, light refracts through a lens in order to be absorbed by the film’s chemicals and the image is stored physically. It is then developed into negatives - by its own right indexical.

Secondly, analogue film is difficult to manipulate and isn't accessible to everyone. That isn't to say it cant be done, but the process can often be cumbersome, unlike those of today’s seamless digital editing tools. With a poor edit, it is natural for the viewer to reject any notions that the image is indexical.

However, when considering indexing in more literal, chronological terms, i.e recording, documenting and storing, analogue can be stumped even before the image is taken. As well as analogue’s other vulnerabilities, it is also entirely unprotected from the actions of what is in front of the camera. Prior to the capture of an image, we are able to manipulate a situation for camera, falsifying the events and telling a story divergent of the truth. Bringing to question; what is true? To look at it from a different angle, with indexing, you have to consider the three elements of the image; the object, the medium and the audience. When one of those elements is falsified, the image is no longer indexical of that event. 

Kent State Massacre

(© 1970 Valley News-Dispatch, 1970) 

I want to look at an image of socio-political importance, taken on analogue film, May 4th 1970. The image is of historic interest as it documents the Kent State Massacre - the killing of 4 students on campus in Ohio. The image, or rather images, straddle the border of morality and questions the role of editing and the direct effect it has on its indexicality.

The image shows a woman (Mary Ann Vecchio) at the body of a young man, who had just been shot by the National Guard. This image can be considered iconic, as the people in the photo look like the people being portrayed. More noticeably however, the image is indexical of the event because it shows exactly what happened and can be traced to an original negative. 

Tourist guy 

(Tourist of Death, 2013) 

This image perfectly illustrates the capabilities of digital cameras, the technology that surrounds it and its social effects. It shows a man on top of one of the World Trade Centre buildings in New York. The image was published on the internet soon after the 9/11 disaster. The image is of interest because of how it looks to be indexical, with its time stamps and convincing editing, even though it is completely fabricated. This suggests that an image relies considerably on the audience to perceive and deconstruct the image. In Corey Dzenko’s article she goes on to say “social applications of digital photography still rely on assumptions about the functions of analog photographs” (Dzenko, 2017). One of those assumptions being the belief that an analogue image is a direct representation of the event. It is also important to consider that we are viewing this image with our pre-conceived notions of what a real photograph is. We often think of a ‘real photograph’ as an analogue image - because of that physical link. In Philp Rosen’s discourse - ‘From Change Mummified’, he states “If I see a photograph on the computer screen, this means that the digital images has the ability to assume the exact compositional form of the conventional photograph. This is not only complicit in the digital camera, but also in the digital capacity to transform or fake photographs” (Rosen, 2009). The idea that “digital images has the ability to assume the exact compositional form” reinforces this idea of symbolism, that in comparison to the Kent State Massacre image, this image is symbolic of the actual event. 

Kent State Massacre - Image alteration 

(© 1970 Valley News-Dispatch, 1970) 

(© 1970 Valley News-Dispatch, 1970) 

In the original image shown previously, taken by John Paul Filo, we see a pole that is part of the fencing structure behind her. However, it is almost as if it is puncturing Mary’s head, and her reaction follows this perception. Roland Barthes considers this as the ‘punctum’: “A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (Barthes, 2000). In this case, our punctum is the pole on the woman’s head and it seems just as impactful as the dead body. This could easily cause confusion with those viewers who haven't taken time to properly analyse the image. 

Shortly after it was published, an anonymous technician took the image and made an alteration. He or she edited the image to cut out the pole from the image -  altering the dynamic of the image. Now the eye is drawn towards the reaction of the woman and the situation the people are in, changing the position of the original punctum. It is interesting to consider the impacts this has on the indexicality of the image, its broader social effect and documentary merit.

The first impact being the shift in meaning of the image. The new edit almost clears up and clarifies what is happening in the image, freeing it from any other interpretations. But on the other hand, the image is no longer indexical and is now resemblant of the original narrative of the image, tipping it towards being symbolic.

This then raises the question: about whether the new image is now iconic of the old image? In reality, nothing has changed and the point of the image still remains, but the image itself is different. It also raises the point that the image alteration on this photo is no different to the ‘Tourist guy’ image and that they have now both become iconic of the original, despite their differences in medium. This reinforces the idea that indexicality relies on the interpreter to perceive the image in conjunction with their own ideas and that the indexical integrity of an image is vulnerable even when taken on analogue film.


In Camera Lucida, Barthes states “The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only for certain what has been”. Written in 1980, the validity and value of this statement has considerably diminished. This idea that the image documents “what has been” arguably struggles to apply to digital photography as I conclude there are too many factors that can damage the indexicality of the digital image such as editing software, storage and corruption. Whereas in contrast, analogue has more of an indexical connection, but only to an extent. It is certainly more physical in its presence and its connection with the object and the viewer, but even analogue can be altered as we have seen with the Kent State Massacre image. I feel photography relies on the audience to decide on its indexical integrity.


Atkin, A. (2013) Peirce's Theory of Signs. 1st ed. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Barthes, R. (2000) Camera lucida. 1st ed. London: Vintage, p.27.

Batchen, G. (2015) ‘Origins without endIn Sheehan, T., Zervigón, A. (eds) Photography and its origins. 1st ed., New York: Routledge, pp.67-81.

Dzenko, C. (2017) 'Analog to Digital: The Indexical Function of Photographic Images'. In Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, (Vol. 37 No. 2).

On A New List of Categories. (n.d.) [Online] [Accessed on 21 April 2017]

Peirce, C. Houser, N. and Kloesel, C. (1992) The essential Peirce. 1st ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p.4.

Petrilli, S. and Ponzio, A. (2010) Iconic features of translation. University of Toronto Mississauga, Department of Language Studies.

Philip Rosen, ‘From Change Mummified’ in Film Theory And Criticism: Introductory Readings, 7th ed., ed. L Braudy & Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp.814-823.

Sutton, D., Brind, S. and McKenzie, R. (2007) The state of the real. 1st ed. London, England: I.B. Tauris, p.165.

Tourist of Death. (2013) [Online] [Accessed on 19 April 2017]

1970 Valley News-Dispatch, (1970) Kent State Massacre. [image].