Barthes Two – What Evidence?

In my previous Barthes post, I discussed Barthes use of the photograph as evidence and how the use of disguise by the referent of the photograph dilutes how effective this evidence can be. However, as the posts of hhmorgan and alexlouisealonso show, the referent does not need to be actively disguised to reduce its evidential value. In fact, these three photographs can be used to examine Barthes claim that a photograph can “lie as to the meaning…never as to its existence.” (Barthes 87), which appears to be an attempt to justify the role of the photograph as evidence. Even though there are contrasts between these photographs, their referents and the knowledge of the referent possessed by the author of their respective blog posts, all three have unclear meaning. These photographs may provide evidence, but it is unclear what it this evidence proves beyond a very vague knowledge of the referent’s existence.

In the post entitled “Four Generations”, reference is made to the author’s perception of that photograph’s punctum “a prick, an almost eerily haunting aspect that holds me. The man in the middle, holding the baby, holds your gaze with his deep brown eyes that transcend the lack of pigment in the image.” (hhmorgan). However, for me, I would not have noticed the shared eye colour, especially with the lack of colour in the image. If there is one detail that remains with me when I look away, it is the moustache of the man on the right, a detail not even mentioned in this blog post. Whilst Barthes acknowledges that the punctum is unique to each person, dependent on their “sensitive points” (Barthes 27) and therefore it is not surprising that my view of this photograph and hhmorgan’s view are different, this does raise the question of what can be proved with this photograph, or any photograph which two different people will view from completely different perspectives.

This becomes clearer later in hhmorgan’s blog post, as she describes the situation in which the photograph was taken. First she writes “I acknowledge that this photograph holds special meaning to me, and perhaps only I can truly appreciate it. I know its meaning” (hhmorgan). Would she be able to notice “the awkwardness of my great grandfathers hands as he holds the baby” (hhmorgan) if she did not know this photograph was taken shortly before that man abandoned his family? This photograph may be the only evidence of a time that did not last and the existence of these four men, but hhmorgan herself acknowledges that it is her personal knowledge that gives the photograph its power, for me it is a picture of four unknown men in an unknown time and place. The unnatural positioning of the four men does not provide me with any evidence of their lives or the context of this photograph other than what hhmorgan writes in her blog post, which relies on her personal knowledge.

A similar sentiment can be found in the blog post entitled “Mystery to Me” by alexlouisealonso, although this time in reverse. She lacks personal knowledge regarding the context of her photograph “The historical context surrounding the first few years my father spent born and raised in Havana has continued to be a mystery to me.” (alexlouisealonso) and therefore she does not know what this piece of evidence can tell her. “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.” (alexlouisealonso) but the vagueness of her pre-existing knowledge prevents her from knowing exactly what she could learn from this photograph, although her first instinct is to try and use the photograph as evidence. This is clearest with her discussion of the man  “I assume to be my grandfather” (alexlouisealonso). This is a direct contrast to Barthes, who sees a photograph of himself that he cannot remember being taken, but still knows was him, or his immediate recognition of his mother and uncle in the Winter Garden photograph despite her youth and unfamiliar clothes. alexlouisealonso must assume, she does not know, there is no definite evidence from this photograph, just the creation of more questions.

Therefore, whilst a photograph can provide evidence, it is evidence of only one moment in time: that there was a man dressed as the Mask but we do not know why, that there were four men of different ages posed together but we do not know their relationships, that there was a baptism but we cannot even identify all the people present. Without knowledge of the context surrounding that moment or at least a caption to label the moment’s intent, it is impossible to know what is the “essence” of the photograph as Barthes seemed to describe or what this “evidence” can be said to prove other than a basic existence.

Works Cited:

  • Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. 1980. Great Britain: Vintage, 2000. Print.

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