A Punctum Transferred

I find the discrepancy between writing and photography one of the most fascinating realities that Barthes indulged us with in Camera Lucida. That, unlike words, Photography simply cannot lie is, to me at least, the wounding beauty (and purity) of Photography. (Quite) personally, I see this as the strongest of Barthes definitions of the photographic essence. While we, as photographers, can tweak the image (blur it, edit it, create stories for it, title it), we cannot deny the “that-has-been” (77). It is this indisputable core of photography—that no matter what meaning we link to it through language, it maintains a pure authentication “indifferent to all intermediaries” (87)—that so haunts me.”

The above paragraph is an excerpt from one of my previous blog posts. While this repetition seems curious, it is crucial to note my past commentary because, as I delve into a deeper relationship with Barthes, these old ideas require new clarification. In Chapter 36, Barthes highlights the discontinuity between language and photography. To Barthes, language and photography stand as individuals, with language being, “by nature, fictional” and photography representing “authentication in itself” (87). However, through further exploration of these two forms of communication (language as written communication and photography as visual communication) and in looking at posts from hhmorgan, manirek, and alexlouisealonso, I have come to discover that in order for a photograph to contain a punctum, it is necessary to consider the language that is linked to a particular photograph.

Context, that which “animates” a photograph, is inherently related to language (59). Words give us the title, description, setting, etc. of a photograph—all of which are considered context. In Chapter 15, Barthes includes an Avedon print entitled, William Casby, Born a Slave (35). Here is a wonderful example of words giving meaning to a photograph. Without the words included in the title, we would not be able to be sure of Casby’s former victimization. Granted, we would be confident in the reality of this man’s existence due to the photograph’s undeniable “certificat[ion] of presence,” and we could possibly assume that the man was once a slave due to his age and race, however, without the title and date, we could not be certain.

In Four Generation…, hhmorgan presents a remarkable news photograph showing four generations of her family. Here, not only does the title give way to meaning, but her commentary, her words, create the punctum of this photograph. In her essay, she identifies the figures, speaks of their history, and celebrates the “certain life that transcends time, age, and death through photography.” Lacking her words, we could only but assume these men’s relations, and thus, there would be no punctum. Or rather, without the language she attributes to the photograph, while she possibly would be able to feel the effects of the punctum (due to an innate ability to recognize her family members), outsiders, such as myself, would not be able to—the punctum would not be universal.

I think this is another area where I differ from Barthes. It seems that Barthes considers the punctum as something solely personal. While there is truth in the subjectivity of a punctum (in the fact that everyone experiences it differently), I think that language can allow outside viewers to understand, and possible even feel, the punctum of an individual. I call this transference the “universal punctum.” It is this discovery that forces me to alter the last sentence of the first paragraph of this essay—in order to create a “universal” (not individual) punctum, it is necessary to consider the language that is linked to a particular photograph.

In Producing Death Through Preserving Life, manirek presents another example of language (context) bestowing significance (the transcending punctum) to a photograph. At first glance, the photo manirek included appears to be a mere snapshot, possessing no “prick” beyond the ordinary (27). However, it is only after reading her essay and knowing through her words that Mike, the boy who has his back towards us, is now gone forever, that this seemingly simple photograph becomes a “laceration so intense” (94). Through her words, I am able to understand her pain in viewing this image—I comprehend the wound. In Camera Lucida, Barthes does seem to realize that outside context allows individuals to feel the effects of a punctum. However, as we see in Producing Death Through Preserving Life, it is through language that others, people who maybe are not associated with the photograph (like myself in regards to manirek’s photo), are able to feel the same effects of the punctum. What Barthes ultimately fails to attest to is the fact that individual punctums can be transferred and shared through the use of language.

In her essay, Mystery to me, alexlouisealonso discusses not only Barthes’ idea of the “punctum”, but also his idea of the “studium,” the “figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions” (26). Here, due to the importance of the historical, political, and cultural context of her family photograph, alexlouisealonso suggests that the “punctum and studium pair [is] a necessity for all those who view photography.” I could not agree with her more. Because the studium is so closely linked to context, it is thus related to language. Therefore, I feel obliged to further my claim (that we must pair language with photographs in order to create a more universal punctum) by adding that we also should not demean the studium of the photograph because it is crucial in creating the punctum.

As an English student, I cannot allow Barthes to belittle language. By condemning it as fictional by nature, Barthes reveals a great distrust in humanity. While it is true that we cannot be certain of language—there is always the possibility that it is a fabrication—at a certain point, we must give ourselves up to these words and trust them. While I still find beauty in the reality that, as the “[literal] emanation of the referent,” a photograph simply cannot lie, I find a new sense of beauty in the idea that individual, photographic punctums can be transferred and shared through language (80).

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