Miraculous Photos and Beautiful Skin

Conativity, Indexicality, and the Art of the Profile Picture

  • Erika R Alpert Nazarbayev University


This paper explores the social and semiotic tensions created by editing digital photographs of faces for the purpose of helping matchmakers and clients find marriage partners. The data comes from the particular ethnographic case of profile pictures used by professional Japanese matchmakers and their clients. I argue that matchmakers and their clients must choose which functions of the profile picture to prioritize. In this context, the referential or representational veracity of the picture, which is based on the indexical (and therefore, presumably, iconic) nature of a photograph, early identified by semiotician Charles S. Peirce—the fact that a photograph is a faithful depiction, for a viewer, of the semblance of a real person who exists in the world—is at odds with the conative function of the picture. As Peirce pointed out, photographs are faithful likenesses (iconic) because of the way they are produced by the indexical relation of object to image: “they are in certain respects exactly like the objects they represent. But this resemblance is due to the photographs having been produced under such circumstances that they were physically forced to correspond point by point to nature†(Peirce 1894: §4.). The representational function of the photograph thus emphasizes the indexical (and secondarily, iconic) relation of faithfulness between photographic image and object, while the conative function, as described by Roman Jakobson, is the indexical function of any sign (here, a photographic image) that focuses on and affects the addressee. Here, I use conativity to speak to the ability of a profile picture to appeal to and provoke a reaction in the viewer, specifically, wanting to meet the person represented by the picture. I find that matchmakers’ discourse and practices consistently emphasize the conative function of pictures, even though profile pictures that “misrepresent†the client iconically have known disadvantages. Ultimately, however, the social power of conatively appealing pictures seems to outweigh faithful indexical-iconic representational linkages to faces. Consequently, “bad†or “deceptive†photographs still have meaning and value for matchmakers and clients because of what they can accomplish: helping singles meet each other.

An advertisement from a different Osaka-area photo studio distributed to NNK matchmakers at one of the organization’s monthly meetings
Sep 20, 2019
How to Cite
ALPERT, Erika R. Miraculous Photos and Beautiful Skin. Semiotic Review, [S.l.], v. 7, sep. 2019. Available at: <https://www.semioticreview.com/ojs/index.php/sr/article/view/37>. Date accessed: 23 july 2024.