In Camera Lucida, Barthes boldly claims that photographs are violent to our memories: “The Photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force, and because in it nothing can be refused or transformed” (Barthes, 91). He suggests that when we focus on one frozen moment in time, the image we see represses our memory of details that existed outside the borders of the image, which were at one moment in time framed and can now never be transformed. As if seeing such undeniable evidence from a moment we can no longer experience causes us to replace any recollections we may have of the experience with details only as irrefutable as those captured in the image. However, I have to disagree with Barthes.
While I do agree that images can forcefully fill our vision and perhaps impact or even implant memories of events from our past into our minds, I do not believe that viewing images mars our ability to recall memories beyond what has been photographically captured for us. While details within an image certainly cannot be transformed, I do not find the temporality of an image nearly as limiting as he suggests. Instead, I find that viewing old photographs evokes an overwhelmingly great sense of nostalgia to overcome me and, on some occasions, causes me to reminisce about each detail contained within the photograph in question to the point of remembering more than I ever would have recalled on my own accord prior to viewing the image. For me, the act of rediscovering and examining a photograph is a catalyst for a flood of memories surrounding the edges of a photo’s frame. Many times in my life I have come across old photographs and thought to myself that I had all but forgotten about the moment captured in time before viewing the image in its frozen form. In my experience, seeing images provokes memory upon memory to form inside my brain just like any random event during the course of a regular day can suddenly elicit hundreds of details from a dream you had the previous night, yet had not remembered when you had awoken that day.
This is exactly the experience that I had upon discovering the above picture of my oldest sister and I under a pile of papers on my old desk. Similar to an experience Barthes recalls in Camera Lucida, I do not actually recall the moment in which this photograph was taken, yet Barthes acknowledges the perplexity of this moment by recalling a similar situation: “One day I received from a photographer a picture of myself which I could not remember being taken, for all my efforts; I inspected the tie, the sweater, to discover in what circumstances I had worn them; to no avail. And yet, because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there” (Barthes, 85). Yet, because I too do not recall the precise moment in which this photograph was taken, I disagree all the more strongly with Barthes’ argument that a photograph “actually blocks memory, [and] quickly becomes a counter-memory” (Barthes, 91). Surely, if I neither remembered the photograph being taken nor any of the details surrounding the moment in which the photograph had been taken, I would not have experienced such a rush of memories related to the details in the photo. Yet recovering this photo prompted just that.
When I was little (age nine in this photo), I wanted to be just like my older sister. I wanted to talk like her, walk like her, and even, as this photo indicates, dress like her. While my sister, seven years my senior, certainly may not have felt the same way about her kid sister mimicking her in habits of all kinds, she humored me and I loved her all the more for it. While I may not remember standing with her on this balcony in Destin, Florida, looking at this picture prompted me to remember, just like it was yesterday, the day I bought that yellow tank top purely because I thought it looked just like my sister’s. While many older siblings would have scoffed at their younger sister for trying to buy exactly the same clothes, my sister simply smiled and told me it did in fact match hers and even suggested we wear them together sometime. Upon hearing these words, the nine-year-old version of myself stood beaming back at her like she had promised me the world and in that moment, nothing else but her affirmation and love for me mattered. Nothing from this memory is to be found within the frame of this photograph, but without the image of the two of us posing in our matching attire to prompt me, I don’t think I would have remembered the moment in which I bought that yellow tank top. While Barthes, may disagree, to me, the memory of buying that yellow shirt is far more meaningful to me than any memory associated with the exact moment this photo was taken. Particularly, since I do not even remember this precise moment in time. Yet without this photograph, I likely would have never remembered that story, and accordingly, the overwhelming feelings of love I felt towards my sister in that moment.