Semiotic Analysis: Malcolm X at a Window

This analysis of Don Charles’ photograph of Malcolm X, will consider the elements of the picture (it’s signs) and attempt to uncover its meaning through semiotic analysis.

Malcolm X, Don Charles, 1964

Malcolm X, Don Charles, 1964

One over riding connotation of the whole photograph is that it is an accurate and objective view of reality: Here is something that exists, this is what it looks like. This is the photograph viewed as an indexical sign (i.e. a record of light hitting the surface of chemically treated paper). This factual value is important when the image’s context is considered towards the end of the analysis.

It is reasonable to accept that the image’s key signifiers can be understood because of a code which informs us of the concept of rooms and the forms of which they consist. In this code light coloured walls and curtains suggest that the room is probably a residence. The presence of a door next to a window suggests that this room is at the front or back of the residence, leading out onto a street or garden (or backyard). Our code also allows us to identify the person as male (short hair, suit and tie) and the object as a gun. We are also able to understand that his positioning suggests that he is hiding, or at least attempting to obscure his form from the outside world.

The main signs within the photograph (door, window, man and gun) are all iconic, that is to say that they resemble things in the real world. Further analysis and consideration of these signs helps to uncover the innate meaning/message encoded in to the photograph.

The man can be viewed as a number of signs: he’s black, has short, natural hair and wears glasses. He is dressed in a suit and tie, the tie is held in place by a tie-pin. The style of clothes, the fact that the photo is black and white, the type of gun and shape of the glasses (signifiers) suggest that the image is not current; the authors visual code interprets this image as one belonging to the 1960’s, this further informs the reading of the connotations of the image.

Within our code, glasses as a signifier bring about a signified of intelligence, whilst the man’s clothing suggests a degree of affluence, perhaps he holds a position of status or importance. There is a dichotomy between the signifiers of the man and the connotations of the gun. This manifests as a tension within the image.

The signified of the gun is violence, whether through attack or defence. We understand that the upright position is less threatening (the gun is not aimed to fire), hence we read this as representing defence. Further connotations of the gun are of strength and power, but the man’s stance and position suggest wariness or fear, he stands back from sight - avoiding exposure to the outside world.

This man is situated in a residence, hiding from view but holding a powerful weapon. A connotation of this is that he is defending a home (his home?) from some external threat (a signified of his stance at the window). Furthermore his back is facing towards the wall as he stands by the window - a visual signifier of the idiom “back against the wall”.

This authors’ decoding of the image is informed by a general knowledge of the US Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s - as such there are further connotations of a black male holding a gun at this point in history. As stated, violence is a connotation of the gun therefore this man does not subscribe to an ethos of non-violence. It is likely that he has either a personal agenda, or that he is affiliated to a group which is prepared to use violence for some purpose or other. We cannot see any other people with the man, a signifier of solitude or isolation, further enforced by the posture of the man as discussed earlier.

In summary the signs within the image speak of a man evading the outside world who is prepared to use violence in defence of his home. Beyond the analysis of the pure image it is worth exploring the context within which the image was originally presented and who the likely readers of the original image were. In 1964 Ebony magazine published an article about Malcolm X, a prominent and outspoken figure in the Civil Rights Movement. X had recently left the controversial and influential Nation Of Islam - an Islamist anti-white organisation. The core purpose of the article was to reveal some of the mystery of the man (X) to Ebony’s target African-American audience. Towards the end of the article the photograph of interest to this analysis appears with a caption: “Vigilant about possible attacks by assassins, Harlem leader keeps automatic carbine with full double clip of ammunition ready for action in his home...” (Massaquoi, 1964).  This caption adds a linguistic message which anchors the image’s meaning and limits the degree of interpretation which is likely to take place. The text itself could be further analysed, using principles of semiotics, e.g. the choice of the word ‘assassins’ with its immediate connotations of bad / sneaky / commissioned by others to kill.

This photographic sign is both indexical and iconic however, so powerful is the imagery that once published the sign became symbolic, representing freedom and advancement of black civil rights. The image itself is often recaptioned with  “Freedom By Any Means Necessary”, a Malcolm X quote. The imagery has been used in lyrics as a signifier of defiance and also as the basis for album artwork, attaching the immediate connotations to the artist and starting the cycle once again as a connotative signifier for that body of work.


Massaquoi, H J, 1964. Mystery of Malcolm X. Ebony, 01 September. 37.