The Real and the Reel

The Day of My Brother's Birth

Upon looking at a family photograph from the day of my brother’s birth, I find myself disconnected from the reality of that event. This photograph and the other photos that my mother has shown me exist in a vacuum where I see only the “blank, black leader” of my memory[1]. I must remind myself that the photographs I remember are, in fact, photographs, not my memories but objects in a family album kept in a dark and dusty cabinet. Roland Barthes argues in Camera Lucida that photographs disrupt one’s relationship to memory, to reality, and to oneself. I hope to connect, analyze, and make sense of his insights about the photograph configuring the self as other and the photograph’s relationship to memory and reality.

Barthes views the photograph as something that disrupts identity and one’s sense of his or her “real” self. Barthes says, “the Photograph is the advent of myself as other: a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity,” (12). By producing the self as an “object,” as something that is other, the photograph splits and calls into question the authenticity of a person, of reality itself (13). In my family photograph, I find myself not only split and objectified once but also three more times in the background of the picture. Three framed portraits of me as a child hover in the background of this photograph. Within this one family photograph, I see myself as a representation surrounded by specters, souvenirs, a “copy of a copy”—which is the real (102)? Barthes asserts, “no one is ever anything but the copy of a copy,” when explicating the idea of “likeness” that people expect to see in photographs of themselves (102- 103). “Resemblances is a conformity, but to what? to an identity. Now this identity is imprecise, even imaginary, to the point where I can continue to speak of ‘likeness’ without ever having seen the model,” (100 – 101). Barthes acknowledges the problem of expecting a photographic representation to capture a person’s essence. He suggests the elusiveness and “imaginary” nature of this essence because it does not appear in every photograph of a person—there is something people look for beyond one’s physical likeness, a sense of the true self (or a manifestation of their imagined identities) to shine through the masks of physical likeness, like the essence he found only in the Winter Gardens photograph (100). Simultaneously, however, he negates the possibility of authenticity by saying that every individual only stands in for his or her own myriad representations: “All I look like is other photographs of myself, and this to infinity” (102).

This disruption of identity that Barthes recognizes in the experience of viewing a photograph underlies his discussion of the disruption of personal memory, and therefore, one’s relationship to reality that the photograph often unravels. To have a moment frozen that conflicts with one’s memory or to see a representation of oneself in a moment that does not exist in one’s memory jars one’s sense of self and relationship to time and the world. This photograph of my family, for example, records a moment that I do not remember. Strangely enough, I remember having memories of my brother’s birth. Looking back now, however I believe that those memories came from photographs that my mother showed me as a child. Nonetheless, those fabricated memories still reside in my mind, casting shadows on my sense of the real and my notions of self. This phenomenon—that one can manufacture memories through photographs and even confuse them with real memories—speaks very much to Barthes’ fear of memory loss. “Not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory… but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory,” (91).  I disagree with Barthes that photos act as counter-memory; I assert, rather, that photographs supplement and confuse memory. Certainly photos can contradict memory, but instead of countering, I find that they complicate memory. Barthes describes an experience of looking through photos of his childhood, then realizing he had no more memories left from that time because the photographs had obscured all of his own mental images (91). This experience reminds me of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (and also the simple fact of film-memories—how are my memories of films and photographs different from memories of my own life—of the real? This ambiguity between personal memories and mediated memories furthers Barthes’ assertion that the self splits and becomes Other through photographs. Whether the photographs represent oneself or strangers, photographs work to displace and confuse the self in its sense of relation to others, to reality, to the world.)[2]. In that specific movie, however, characters undergo a medical procedure that erases memories. The film provokes questions of to what degree one’s memories matter. If one no longer remembers an event, did it still happen, and if it did, does it matter? When one person’s memory contradicts another’s, what recourse exists for establishing a shared sense of reality and history?  All of these questions relate to Barthes’ fear that photographs have become a stand-in for real memory and real experience.

Through my own disruption of self and reality through experiencing photographs of myself and of non-memories, I empathize with Barthes’ concern over losing the certainty and seeming simplicity of unmediated experience and memory. However, I embrace the infinite though troubling existence of images, in all their contradiction, on the “endless ribbon” of cinema, photographs and memory (Frampton, 111).


[1] Frampton, Hollis. “For A Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses.” p.111. Eaton, New York. 1971.

[2] Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Dir. Michel Gondry. Perf. Jim Carrey, Kate Winslett. Focus Features, 2004.

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3 thoughts on “The Real and the Reel

  1. Pingback: Memory is in the Eye of the Beholder | Picture It: Literature, Photography, and Memory

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

  3. Pingback: The Punctum: allowing us to remember what really was | Picture It: Literature, Photography, and Memory

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