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Symbols versus photographs

We were recently involved in a discussion about the merits of symbols versus photographs to support communication, a topic which we have spent some time considering over the past few years.

We have also found an excellent small book titled ‘Too late to drive’ by Helen J Bate and published by Pictures to Share C.I.C. In it Helen discusses the meaning of pictures and visual perception in relation to dementia. There are some excellent quotes such as ‘Recognition is not the same as relevance, and relevance is what is important to us when we have dementia’ and ‘The images that really talk to people are produced with a skill and an understanding of the visual image as a method of unspoken communication’..

Our gut feeling is that for many people who use Talking Mats (who we refer to as ‘thinkers’), symbols may be more helpful than photographs and, although we have not carried out any academic research, we have lots of anecdotal evidence from a number of practitioners about some of the pitfalls of using photos. Here are a few:

  • The ‘thinker’ tends to get caught up in the detail of a photo e.g. Australian colleagues told us about using photos of different rooms in a day centre but the ‘service users’ got caught up with seeing specific details in the photos rather than considering the over place
  • Sometimes a photo can be too specific e.g. we were told of a person with dementia who was shown a photo of cornflakes to represent breakfast but could only focus on the cornflakes
  • The ‘thinker’ may be distracted by a photo of a real object e.g a person with learning disability fixed on the make of a particular car instead of considering transport
  • We are always wary of using photos of real people as it may be too sensitive for the ‘thinker’symbols appear to reduce the emotion impact of the image and be easier for people to comment on
  • If the person in the photo has changed, for example their hairstyle or glasses, this can confuse the ‘thinker’
  • If the ‘thinker’ has been involved in the place or event in the photo this can affect their views whereas a symbol is more neutral
  • Sometimes the clarity and quality of home taken photos can be poor.
  • Commercial photos like Photosymbols are good quality but we are aware that  they tend to be used repeatedly, sometimes for quite different meanings

Here is a link to a previous blog which gives some additional information about the development of the Talking Mats symbols.

Academic research evidence on visual images and communication is limited and Helen suggests that that ‘If the academic world wants to explore or challenge anything [in these pages] then at least the conversation has begun’. We would welcome any further information, references or comments.

Please send them to