Miraculous Photos and Beautiful Skin: Conativity, Indexicality, and the Art of the Profile Picture

Erika R. Alpert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper examines the tensions created when the indexical components of photographs are compromised by photo editing, in particular, by editing digital photographs of faces for aesthetic purposes. It looks at the particular ethnographic case of profile pictures used by professional Japanese matchmakers and their clients. In exploring the various functions that a profile picture is meant to serve, and the various technologies and professional services available to produce these photographs, I argue that matchmakers and their clients must choose which functions of the photograph to prioritize. In this context, the indexical function of a picture, identified by Peirce—its ability to represent a real person who exists in the world—is at odds with the conative functions of the picture. The conative function of language, as described by Roman Jakobson, is the function that focuses on and affects the addressee. Here, I use it 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 have known disadvantages for all participants in matchmaking. Ultimately, however, the social power of conatively appealing pictures seems to outweigh faithful indexical linkages to faces. Thus, “bad” or “deceptive” photographs still have meaning and value because of what they can accomplish: helping singles meet each other.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSemiotic Review
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • matchmaking
  • phaticity
  • visual semiotics
  • conativity
  • profile pictures


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