In Camera Lucida, philosopher Roland Barthes describes the photograph as a superimposition of reality and the past. I found this statement particularly striking. When looking for photographs to use for this week, I kept this nagging question in my mind, seeing if any of my past photos triggered me to suddenly understand Barthes’ meaning. I wanted to find my personal equivalent to Barthes’ Winter Garden photo of his mother. Finally, I found this photo of a desolate fruit stand in Kruger, South Africa that I had taken last year and immediately I felt that I knew what Barthes meant.
A photograph is a description of “that-has-been”, or the intractable. The most important argument that I found in Camera Lucida was the distinction that the purpose of a photograph is “not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed” (p. 82) This distinction, I believe, expands upon this superimposition of reality and the past that Barthes mentions earlier in the book.
When I look at my photograph, I see all these arguments ring true. Just because I witnessed this empty stand in one tiny, fleeting, drive-by moment at dawn in South Africa, and just because I now have this souvenir or relic of the moment, does not mean that that stand ceases to exist now. I am almost positive that if I were ever to go back and somehow miraculously navigate myself back to that exact place, the stand would still be there.
In a broader sense, just because I am no longer there and recording the image, I am sure that the studium of poverty and loneliness that I recorded persists as well. However, I am all too aware that (and this is why this picture relates to Barthes’ Winter Garden picture in a way) I have no way of going back to that place or time. In this way, the photo has become precious to me, a piece of a moment that, while it may persist to be a part of one person or group of people’s everyday life, cannot ever persist to be a part of mine.
The absence of the shopkeeper in the photo is ironically a very present reminder of a way of life that provokes a strong emotion in me. In fact, I think more about the human behind this fruit stand than the fruit stand itself, so much that he or she becomes the punctum for me in this photo. I wonder where the stand owner is, and what he or she was doing at the moment of the photo. Furthermore, I am struck by the painful truth that although time has progressed, this shopkeeper will most likely never in his life change his social status, wealth, or occupation. This is a political implication that I personally have added to the photo through my knowledge of the context of where and when this person is living, but provoking that prior knowledge or context in the viewer, as we have discussed, is what makes a strong photo.