Symbolism and photography for self-expression

A symbol is not just an image, but is like a door into the inner world of the soul, through which we can access the energy and meaning that belongs to this sacred dimension of our self.– Ansel Adams

Symbolism in photography Janus God of beginnings gates

Non-linear thinking and symbolism

About a year ago I was accused of something called non-linear thinking. As if thinking in a non-analytical way is a crime. Yes, you read it right… I was “accused” of it. I’ve been called worse in the past, so this really didn’t shake me that much. I think my daughter calling my slowly appearing wrinkles under my eyes “scars” that had a bigger impact on my ego 😆

Until that day I always thought I’m just bad with words. I often don’t get to the point (or answer a question), until I circle around and around and around, and even after that’s done to people it feels like I still didn’t answer the question, although I’m convinced I did and they just didn’t get it. Oh, those linear thinkers, god damn it! 

If you are new to this term yourself, check out this article about non-linear thinking. 

And if you struggle with words, self-expression and analytical thinking this might shine some light on your problem.

So, why did I start with non-linear thinking?

As an artist, I like to use self-portraits to connect or communicate. As I said previously, I consider myself not so good with words, and often I feel like words are not even enough to describe what I feel. 

So I use symbols. I get inspired by songs or quotes. I use colors. I draw inspiration from many places at once. By discovering this method of communication my world for self-expression grew exponentially.  



The first methods of communication were symbols. Those primitive paintings in caves. The handprints. Hieroglyphics. Today the letters in the alphabet are symbols for certain sounds we make. Those sounds put together to create words. Words help us understand each other… or do they, really? 🤔 

Colors are symbols. Red means love or anger. Yellow means happy or mellow. Blue means calm. And so on…

People have used symbols since very early in our evolution. Despite the fact that today we have words that help us communicate more efficiently, people still use symbols. Universal symbols and symbols created by cultures. 

Symbols can help to communicate more directly than words. They can have a more powerful effect than words. They can evoke deeper emotions. They can be substituted for words in therapy where art is used. This method of therapy is becoming more popular as we are discovering how using words, or forcing people to use words, to communicate is often not enough because it doesn’t work for everybody.

In my case I would never say out loud:

– I’m depressed

– I hurt all the time

– I feel so shattered and broken and lonely, 

– I just want to disappear. 


But instead, I would create. 

Self portrait Ewa Samples Photography
The hands symbols of overpowering voices (as demons) in my head constantly trying to tear me apart, and me naked and vulnerable, in the fetal position, unable to fight back.
Self portraits as self-healing Ewa Samples
Me being swallowed by darkness. The black around me as the symbol of the darkness. Yet, I am not completely in it, still fighting my way out. Still being drawn to the light.
Self-portrait as self-healing Ewa Samples
Me being taken over by the vines. The vines as a symbol of the depression taking over me. Suffocating me in the end.

These are not masterpieces.

I didn’t create them for that purpose. 

These were shot and edited with a phone. I wanted it to be as simple as possible. I didn’t want to lose sight of how I wanted the images to feel by overly focusing on the technical aspects. 

Using symbols in photography as self-expression

Often symbols have a numinous quality that conveys their sacred energy, an energy which gives real meaning and nourishment to our surface lives

Today we are taught to think in an analytic, linear way, where we use words to explain our thoughts and feelings. We got to the point where thinking in a non-linear way can make people use it against you as the non-proper way of thinking… Like there was ever established which way is the right way in the first place. We, humans, are complicated creatures. Trying to contain all of humanity under one dome is simply impossible. 

Humans learn about the world through their senses first, not words. Symbolic thinking is more holistic. It uses different resources, rather than just the letter sounds put together. 

Art is a language on its own. No words necessary. No analyzing. Movement. Colors. Shapes. It’s been changing through the history but the concept stayed the same: Art is a powerful communication tool.

Photography is an art. 

I am a photographer and used photography for that purpose for years, therefore I know how powerful photography can be in self-expression, when words are just not enough, or when words become just a noise. 


Powerful examples of photography as self-expression

In my planning stage to write this post, I thought it would be great to ask about symbolism in photography another photographer who plays with it. 

And Liza from Juniper Spring Photography responded to my request. 

This was an image I created for a prompt in a “photography during quarantine” group I was in. The prompt was “faith”. I wouldn’t say I used just one symbol here – there were a lot. One of the obvious symbols is the planter box itself and me, masquerading as a tulip. I picker it in the part because, let’s face it, it was there and easily accessible during a lockdown. But also because growing flowers (or anything really) take both faith and intention. It’s a spiritual practice for me, and I wanted to demonstrate how much I desire to be like flowers – not only to grow them, but to be grown. 

How it felt to create it – it felt good to speak without words. Which is kind of why I do art in general and photography in particular.

Symbolism and photography for self-expression
Juniper Spring Photography

We so often get stuck when limited to words. We know we need to use the right words so people can understand us. Often we lack them because what we feel is deeper, and let’s face it, sometimes saying things is just hard. In those moments it is good to reach for symbols. 

Here is another example of symbolism. An image done by artist Kevin Carden. For me, this picture represents a lot of what’s going on in the world right now. And what a powerful use of symbols!!! 


Photographer Kevin Carden
Image by: Kevin Carden

Artistic self-expression towards self-healing

Art as self-expression has become a powerful tool in therapy practices. Art creating process helps with improving mental health (in general), it also helps in communication. 

For me it also brings relief. When things get bottled up. When stuff just sits on my mind and I can’t seem to find my way out, using photography, or painting is what brings peace. 

I kid you not, when expressing yourself gets tough… grab your phone and go for a photo walk or create a self-portrait. Self-portraits can be very powerful when people try to work things through. They are amazing for self-digging (aka self-discovery), for self-empowerment when working with body image, or self-healing when working with depression. 

Sometimes, one image can say things we are afraid to say out loud. One image can literally describe years of somebody’s life. Like this image below. It might not mean a lot to you, but a weird two-headed me. 

Symbolism in photography Janus God of beginnings gates
"Janus" - Symbolism in photography by Ewa Samples

Well, this is my way of dealing with a lot of changes that happened in my life in the last 15 months. I finished creating it in January but I’ve sat on this idea since early December. 

This is Janus. 

Janus was a God of Change. In ancient Roman religion, he was the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, and endings. He symbolized change and time because he could see into the past with one face and into the future with the other. He was considered to be the first of the gods. He was their father.

I have done quite a lot of self-healing, self-digging, self-improvement in the last year. My life has turned upside down and then sideways. 

This year has a lot in the store for me. After many months of feeling like ooey-gooey caterpillar I finally feel like a butterfly. It all does feel like new beginnings. It promises a lot of changes. New doorways are opening. Some things finally found their closure. 

I look at this image and it seems silly at first glance. But that doesn’t really matter. 

What matters is that thinking about this picture, then creating it helped me get out so many feelings, put together so many thoughts. I felt hundred pounds lighter after I created it. 

So, hey, when next time you feel like things are inside you and words are not enough to express them, how about you reach for your camera (whatever you have available) and shoot! 

You will thank me later! 😉

Interesting reads about symbolism in art

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