How does one make clear who is the subject of a photograph and who is the photographer? For instance, for these sentences

The photo is taken of the cat by the dog.

The photo is taken of the dog by the cat.

Google Translate gives yields

Das Foto wurde vom Hund von der Katze aufgenommen.

Das Foto wurde von der Katze vom Hund aufgenommen.

But I do not see how the German sentences make it entirely clear which is the subject and which the photographer. While it may be possible to correct this problem in some contexts by formulating the sentence in an active, rather than a passive, way, this question arose from attempting to translate a sentence from I Asimov's, I, Robot:

I suppose you found that out when your puppy dog’s Penet-radiation photograph, the other day, turned out to be overexposed.

and I did not see a way to make the distinction clear. The photo was made by a "puppy dog", that made a "Penet-radiation" photo. It isn't a photo of a "puppy dog's Penet-radiation". How would one express the distinction in German?

  • 3
    Your English sentence is already wrong. It would read "The photo of the dog is taken by the cat" and vice versa. So it's a case of garbage in, garbage out Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 20:55
  • 3
    "Puppy dog's" is just a possessive, is that unambiguous in English? I may be wrong but without more context, I would indeed have understood Asimov's sentence to mean that it's a Penet-radiation photo (whatever that means) that shows the puppy dog.
    – HalvarF
    Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 21:06
  • The English does require context to disambiguate. Is that also true of German?
    – user44591
    Commented Jul 19, 2023 at 21:19

4 Answers 4


How does one make clear who is the subject of a photograph and who is the photographer?

But I do not see how the German sentences make it entirely clear which is the subject and which the photographer.

The short answer is: you can't, or, rather, you can do that only by providing context. In your case common sense and experience would suggest that dogs do not take photographs and therefore can only be the motif of the picture, not the photographer themselves. On the other hand:

Ich lasse Fotos vom Photographen machen.

You can't tell from the sentence alone if the mentioned photographer is the motif of the pictures or the one doing the shooting.

The underlying problem is that German uses the Dativ here because it has no (longer an) Instrumentalis, like e.g. most slavic languages have. That was a special case expressing that something is done with a or by a thing. For instance:

On byl ubit drugom.
He was killed by a friend.

  • Or the sentence is changed a bit more "Ich lasse den Fotographen Fotos machen". Of course this is not always possible, and sometimes the cases look the same..
    – Chieron
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 14:24
  • @Chieron: You are right, you can change the sentence in a way so that the ambiguity disappears. My point was rather, that a language device like the "Instrumentalis" case - which was still there in Old High German, at least in remainders and ist still there in most slavic languages - is missing in German today. In e.g. Latin there is also an Instrumentalis, although mixed into the Ablativus. It is one of the cases of the (reconstructed) original Indo-European language, which - over time - tend to lose cases and replace them with prepositions.
    – bakunin
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 14:32
  • @Chieron: German is rather old-fashioned there, with its still 4 cases, whereas English, Spanish, Italian, etc.. have only one case retained. And even German tends to lose the Genitiv ("Das Auto von Willy" instead of "Willys Auto") and the Akkusativ (to be replaced by Dativ). It might end (in a far future) with a situation similar to most iranian languages, which have two cases (Casus Rectus or "subject case" and Casus Obliquus or "object case"). The original Indo-european language had 8 or 9 cases.
    – bakunin
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 14:43
  • 1
    sure, like English as well. A more rigid sentence structure might follow as well. And prepositions and auxiliary verbs, which take over from the cases. Until the pendulum swings back and the prepositions get reanalyzed as cases. Language development is weird.
    – Chieron
    Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 16:19

You would say:

"Das Photo vom Hund wurde von der Katze aufgenommen."

Here "Photo vom Hund" is one noun phrase, "der Katze" the other.


As Arno already said, your example sounds more plausible if you make "Foto vom Hund" a unit (meaning: a photo that shows the dog). But in principle, there can be sentences that are ambiguous due to the different functions of "von":

  • "Alle erwarten das von ihm" (Everybody expects this from him)
  • "Das wird von allen von ihm erwartet" (= It is expected from him by everybody)

I think the German passive clause here will basically be ambiguous and so it could also correspond to "Er erwartet es von allen". Or... does this interpretation sound more far-fetched with the given ordering? I am not entirely sure. -- If the grammar doesn't distinguish the meanings in terms of word order (or the difference becomes too subtle to be of use for foreign learners), then it is simply a matter of good style to put it differently and prevent such ambiguities from happening...

  • Note that "Foto vom Hund" has already double meaning: it could - grammatically, context notwithstanding - be the picture of a dog or a picture taken by the dog. e.g. "Ich lasse Fotos vom Photographen machen."
    – bakunin
    Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 8:31
  • 2
    "Das wird von allen von ihm erwartet" is absolutely ambiguous. Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 9:28

Some strategies to reduce ambiguities:

  1. avoid passive voice, which needs to add a von on its own.
  2. Avoid von as preposition for the subject of the photo. A simple genitive would do.


Der Hund nahm ein Foto der Katze auf.
Die Aufnahme der Penet-Strahlung deines Schoßhunds war überbelichtet.

  • …although the genitive may also denote ownership, introducing a third level of ambiguity.
    – Bergi
    Commented Jul 20, 2023 at 19:41

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.