Books · Colonisation · Gender · Performance & Arts · Whiteness & racism

divided gazes

Camera Lucida: Reflections on PhotographyCamera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d never thought much about Barthes method until I read Sara Ahmed’s book Queer Phenomenology in which she draws attention to the labour that enables Husserl to sit and think at his table; the work of childcare and table clearing performed, probably, by women. Ahmed has inspired me to ask what Barthes is doing here, and Barthes has helpfully told me; he is forthright; perhaps that is why I find his writing appealing; I am engaged by honesty and directness. He looks at photographs; he thinks about photographs, and he writes whatever occurs to him that seems worthy of sharing. Strange to think that this text, famous, influential as it is, has such a personal origin, that a single standpoint can be taken as universal. I was awake to this when I read Barthes’ reflections on being photographed ‘I play the social game… [preserve my] essence of individuality’. I felt the contrast with images of fashion models, who are anonymous matter, utile bodies. And female celebrities: their ‘essence of individuality’, for the public, is built through repetition, the ubiquity of their images eventually persuades us of their reality beyond the image. The more beautiful the woman is judged to be, I think, the less individual she is, the more anodyne her image, her expressionless face… He says, parenthetically, discontinuously ‘it is my political right to be a subject that I must protect’. I want to follow this thought – but he drops the trail, leaves it to others (feminists?) to pick up and consider the costs, the consequences…

Barthes considers what constitutes his interest in, his feelings about photographs, and distinguishes two classes of effect (or affect) they produce – a ‘slippery, irresponsible’ sort of general interest produced by the image’s relation to fields of knowledge, culture, experience, curiosity, which he calls studium, and a piercing, emotional jolt that he calls punctum, a kind of realisation that there is life beyond the frame, but more than this, maybe even ‘Pity’ because the photograph speaks always of death (but for other reasons, because Barthes chooses photographs like Richard Avedon’s devastating photo of William Casby ‘Born a Slave’, and one of a Black family whose trappings of ‘respectability’ induce ‘Pity’ in Barthes because he reads, reductively, a hopeless aspiration to Whiteness. Race thus becomes a painful emotion felt and mediated by the White viewer – Barthes describes it variously as wound, madness, ecstasy – he remembers Nietszche’s ‘pity’ for a horse.)

After reflecting at length on a photograph of his mother as a child, he reflects at length on photography’s defining feature, the ‘this-has-been’ it offers that is incontrovertible. He predicts that the astonishment at this will vanish, and I think he is right, but for more reasons than he anticipates, because hasn’t the cultural status or the location of the photograph changed with the advent of social media? In this context great numbers of people quite habitually make photographs, and while we perhaps still mainly look at photographs while alone, we do not do so in the same kind of privacy as Barthes speaks of, and we very often look at photographs that are not our own. Perhaps all this belongs to the sociological fluff that Barthes is not interested in (the assertion he makes that there are few books on photography is no longer true!), but it seems to me that updates are in order. The transition from private to public, the arrival of celebrity culture, that the photograph attended, have passed into new stages in the digital age. Nonetheless, I think Barthes makes an enduring point about the photograph as a document impinging on time, on the sense of time, as the photograph as measurement and memento mori. ‘Death must be somewhere in a society’, Barthes insists, and yes, I think it is still in our personal photographs, little piping voices telling us life is precious…

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