Photographs are just epitaphs in pictures.
About few things is there absolute certainty, however both epitaphs and photographs express certainty about two things. One, that something happened; and two that the same something no longer exists. Photography confirms the existence and passing of an event while epitaphs confirm the existence and passing of a person. The similarities between the two methods of remembrance consume Barthes until he eventually can see no difference between remembering one who has died by photography and seeing a picture of anyone, as they too will be dead one day.
Barthes wrote his entire memoir, Camera Lucida, grappling with the death of his mother. He describes flipping through photographs one November, trying to summon memories of his mother, when suddenly he stumbles on a photograph of her that he feels represents “the truth of the face [he] had loved” (Barthes 67). This photograph is, in fact, a depiction of his mother that he had never actually seen (she is a child in the photograph), but he is so stricken by the photograph as a representation of his dead mother that he says, “In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die” (96). With this he realizes that every child in a photograph must eventually grow up and so he comes to the morbid conclusion that “whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe” (96). Every person faces the same fate as Barthes’s mother.
There is an interconnectedness between remembrance of the dead and photography. Invariably, one day everyone in the photograph will die, and if the photo still exists by that time, it will be merely a keepsake of the descendants so that they may see their ancestors. In that way epitaphs and photographs are very similar. What do epitaphs do but give brief insight to the life of a person, the things they loved to do, and the people they were loved by? Epitaphs are the bare minimum descriptions of actions a deceased person will be remembered for just as photographs are brief moments that someone thought were worthy of preserving to be remembered photographically.
These pictures might as well say: Here lies the Foley Girls. They lived, they loved, and they went to the beach.
Or so Barthes would say.
Only Barthes could look on this lovely picture of young girls and see not family, friendship, or fun memories at the beach (as I do), but perceive it just as he does at the Portrait of Lewis Payne by Alexander Gardner (95). In the photograph Lewis Payne is waiting to be hanged and will immediately die after the photograph is taken. But Barthes interprets this a step further thinking not only that “the photograph tells [him] of death in the future” but all photographs tell of death in the future (96). He assumes that what is true about his mother in the Winter Garden Photograph and Lewis Payne in his portrait must be the truth of photography for everyone.
I see things entirely differently.
The photographs above were taken in July of 2010 and 2011 respectively, but my cousins, my sister, and I have been taking this same picture since 1997, when there were only four of us that could stand long enough for the picture to be taken. I remember it specifically; each one of us wore a differently colored striped tank top and a matching bandana and we were more bothered by taking the photograph than anything else. Now, looking back, I cannot imagine how we would remember growing up without these pictures.
Each year before we take the new picture, we line up all of the old photographs and we can literally see how much we have changed. The pictures add together to the summation of what our lives have become. Over the years, the picture has evolved as all my cousins and I have gone through different stages. The four younger cousins enter the photographs one at a time, first being held by the eldest on her hip on the right side of the photograph before they get moved to their proper place on the left. I can see the younger girls grow into the matching outfits from comically oversized tee shirts to actually fitting clothes. By 2005 the second eldest far out grew the eldest and the shift in heights caused the eldest to start wearing heels to try to keep our usual formation, but our pictures would never be the same. Every year we establish a new normal and the pictures help us to see how we’ve grown and changed.
Barthes sees every picture as a count down, describing cameras as “clocks for seeing” describing the click of the camera lens as analogous to a ticking clock (15). He thinks that every picture that is taken is one more moment the person has already lived and will not live again. But I think that taking this photograph every year is not taking away from the life we have left to live, but is a great way of celebrating the life we have already lived. I feel that every year adds another photo to the number we have taken and the years we have lived. Photography is not subtraction but addition. it is not a countdown but a stopwatch. As I perceive it, photography is more and more pictures that can be taken and not less and less. These photographs with my cousins inspire me to believe that every year will bring another year, another photograph, and more change.
Here are the Foley Girls, they live, they love, and they will continue to come back to the beach.