Barthes asserts that, like a Haiku, a photograph is “undevelopable: everything is given, without provoking the desire for or even the possibility of a rhetorical expansion.” (p. 49) This is true in the literal sense – with only a photograph as reference, there is no way of knowing the details of what lies outside of the photograph. But this interpretation diminishes the importance of subjective experience. Especially with a family photograph, objectivity when looking at photography is virtually impossible.
Barthes’ experience with the Hine’s picture, “Idiot Children in an Institution,” is itself contradictory. Barthes claims, “I am a primitive, a child, a maniac; I dismiss all knowledge, all culture…” (p. 51) However, his very description of the photograph reveals much cultural subjectivity. The fact that he knows the small boy has a “huge Danton collar” and that the girl has a finger bandage comes from his own experiences in life – these are not instinctual observations. Barthes understands that the white thing on the girl’s finger is a bandage that signifies the girl’s finger has been hurt because he is familiar with western society. His assumptions about what the photograph represents will not be “pure” no matter how hard he tries to clear his mind of previous knowledge.
In his own experience with a family photograph, Barthes goes against his supposed desire or ability to see a photograph objectively. He relishes in the subjectivity in which he sees it. He goes so far as to conceal from the reader the photograph of his mother because his subjective reading of the photograph cannot be translated. The problem is that Barthes does not acknowledge that all photographs are seen subjectively and not just those where the viewer has a personal relationship with the subject in the photo.
Barthes worries that his interpretation of the photograph of his mother is not interpreted “truthfully” because it was taken before his birth. Historical photographs tempt us to see the photo as a form of time travel. However, one can never truly see the lens in the same way that the operator (photographer) did when it was taken. “The life of someone whose existence has somewhat preceded our own encloses in its particularity the very tension of History, its division.” (p. 65) This division Barthes refers to is the change brought about by time. Time has affected the context of the photograph. The context in which it was taken years ago cannot possibly be recreated. When seeing a photograph, one will unintentionally filter it through a personal lens that has been produced through a variety of factors, including the place and time of the viewing. Thus, like Barthes viewing his mother “caught in a History,” I realize that I do not see my family photograph, which, according to my grandmother, was taken just outside of Warsaw in the late 1920s or early 1930s, in the way that the photographer saw it.
Much like Barthes, I cannot experience my family photograph, or any photograph, objectively. With every photograph comes a subjective experience – everyone has a context in which they see the world. In some cases, the context is broad – I may see a photograph from the point of view of an American or a female – things many people identify with. But looking at a family photograph is different because they are incredibly specific in the context with which I look at them. I look at this photograph as the granddaughter of the little girl on right, as the great-granddaughter of the man in uniform, and the great-niece of the girl on the left. Only one other person (my sister) can experience this photograph from that point of view, and even then, we are different people with different relationships to those in the photo. It is the personal relationship I have with the people in the photograph that makes it special, and literally no one else can see it exactly as I do.