Mystery to me

El bautismo de Juan Carlos. Havana, Cuba. 1960.

What appears to be the most basic theme in Roland Barthes’ work, Camera Lucida, the punctum and the studium emerge as aspects of photography that as a reader I initially struggled to grasp.  He expresses the studium as the cultural aspects, “that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions” (26).  The political, historical, and cultural scenes surrounding an image are represented both deliberately and unintentionally within photography. The punctum, however, is the “element [that] will break (or punctuate) the studium…this wound, this prick, this mark…that accident which pricks me” (27).  The punctum holds all of the personal ties, emotional reactions, and feelings that the viewer has to the photograph.  Both the punctum and the studium are fundamental resources of viewing and interpreting photography. In this photograph from my father’s Baptism, it is impossible to look at this image without considering both of these concepts in relationship to the photo at hand, making the punctum and studium pair a necessity for all those who view photography.

Browsing through old photo albums is similar to discovering entirely new worlds; with the studium often relaying details to the reader when oftentimes linguistics in term of dates noted or captions made cannot suffice.  In regards to history, Barthes remarks on the ways photography can be a glance into historical eras.  Even with the personal photograph of his mother, he admits that, “there is a kind of stupefaction in seeing a familiar being dressed differently” (64).  For Barthes, seeing the image of his mother dressed and accessorizing with staples of her time are what struck him most as the studium of that particular image. When browsing through my parents’ youngest saved memories, the ones that struck me most were the photographs of my father during his childhood in Havana, Cuba.  The historical context surrounding the first few years my father spent born and raised in Havana has continued to be a mystery to me.  Looking blindly at this photograph, only knowing “El bautismo de Juan Carlos. Havana, Cuba. 1960,” I immediately related what I interpreted as my father’s baptism in Havana to the vague knowledge I have regarding Cuba during the time of this photograph. The seriousness of the photograph is in part due to the baptismal ceremony at hand, but also has me considering the context in which my father was living. I asked myself why my relatives all appear so serious and stiff in the image and why, who I assume to be my grandfather, is wearing sunglasses at his son’s Baptism. During his time in Cuba, under Fidel Castro’s control, my father and my family lived under a Communist regime, something completely foreign and mysterious to me.  Just as Barthes finds himself distracted by the accessories and dated objects within his personal picture of his mother, I find myself similarly distracted by considering the issues my family faced while living under these political conditions and analyzing their seriousness in this photo to the context of that time.

For many reasons, my father’s photographs went beyond the historical and intriguing background information to be truly moving for me. I am exceptionally close with my mother’s side of the family, as her photographs seemed to make sense in terms of her relationship with both of her sisters and my grandparents. However, lacking that connection to my father’s side, and thus my Cuban heritage, I found myself compelled to analyze each and every photo of my father’s, drawn to the foreign album and the Spanish captions labeling each image.  This mystery paired with my own absent connection with my ancestry is, in Barthes’ terms, the “wound” that I discovered.  Barthes speaks further in terms of images as evidence, of “what has been” (85).  Personally, his experience with the punctum is how I would interpret my own relationship to this photograph, as separated from that work but content that it “has been” as well. I find myself emotionally estranged from the people standing in this photograph, though drawn together through lineage.  Barthes comments, “The Photograph gives a little truth, on condition that it parcels out the body. But this truth is not that of the individual, who remains irreducible; it is the truth of lineage” (103).  Although the topic of lineage as seen in family portraits is only touched briefly by him, Barthes mentions the mystery that I had found myself attracted to with my image.  He expresses that the identity shown through these portraits “[bare] the mysterious difference of beings issuing from one and the same family” (105).  I feel that much of my curiosity stems from the fact that “what has been” in this photograph and moment in time is a small piece of who I am through lineage.  I am drawn to learn more of this ancestral history but am also wounded in not being able to clearly identify even my own grandparents in the image.  This personal quest and sting of hurt are what make the punctum so vivid within my father’s earliest photographs.  The mystery of photography for me lays in the decoding of the studium and punctum duo that is a necessity to consider in each and every image.


5 thoughts on “Mystery to me

  1. Pingback: A Punctum Transferred | Picture It: Literature, Photography, and Memory

  2. Pingback: Challenging Barthes’s Punctum | Picture It: Literature, Photography, and Memory

  3. Pingback: Barthes Two – What Evidence? | Picture It: Literature, Photography, and Memory

  4. Pingback: The Foreignness of Self | Picture It: Literature, Photography, and Memory

  5. Pingback: Absence-As-Presence: Photography of The Loved and Lost | Picture It: Literature, Photography, and Memory

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