Challenging Barthes’s Punctum

What does it take to move someone through photography? Does one have to be emotionally connected to the object or person being captured, or does recognizing the story behind a photograph allow for the same haunting, jarring, or otherwise disturbed feeling one gets when being visually exposed to history? Barthes suggests that a certain emotional connection to a photograph, or the punctum, is the reaction one immediately experiences the first time they look at a photograph. This response lingers with the viewer like a wound. However, not all photographs can elicit the prick – Barthes maintains that one must have a personal connection to the moment in time – and any photograph cannot simply move you. The question that I struggle with when evaluating Barthes’s argument is: how emotionally involved must one be in a particular moment in history to find value in a photograph?

I. Connected to the photograph itself because of the story behind it

The photograph I posted of the four generations of men preceding my father undoubtedly pricks me. I admitted in the post that the story behind the photograph, the essential lie that the fake poses attempt to cover up, is what gives the photograph value to me personally. It represents the end of this family and the beginning of the new one, where the only remnant that remains is not event the family name, but instead the dark brown eyes that all of the men in my family have carried on. Similar to Barthe’s Winter Garden Photograph, my photograph, “at most [might] interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound,” (p. 73). Perhaps after knowing the story, however, an outside viewer could be moved enough to feel the prick of the similar brown eyes, or perhaps find their own punctum.

II. Interested in the mystery behind the photograph

            Another post similarly places value on a photograph she does not necessarily have an emotional connection to. However, instead of being moved by the story that explains it, she is moved by not having an explanation. Alexlouisealonso’s post, “Mystery to me,” defines the punctum according to Barthes almost identically, stating that, “the punctum holds all of the personal ties, emotional reactions, and feelings that the viewer hast to the photograph.” The author claims that the mystery of the Spanish captions telling her the time and place of the photograph, combined with her “own absent connection with [her] ancestry is, in Barthes’ terms, the ‘wound’ that [she] discovered.” She is not moved by the story of the photograph, nor the emotional connection she holds with a single person in the photograph, but with the mystery surrounding the moment in time.

III. Moved because of the relationship depicted in the photograph

            Similar to the aforementioned posts, hannahfiasco admits that, “to an outsider the image above is nothing.” While the story behind the image is what affects me, as an outsider, the author is moved – similar to Barthes – by the relationship she shares with the additional subject in the photograph. Unlike the two previously discussed posts, this image “represents what [the author] considers the most powerful device of photograph – its ability to actually trigger memory.” Thus, the punctum strikes her in a different way than the punctum of my photograph strikes me, which is different from the way Alexlouisealonso’s photograph strikes her. Photography for hannahfiasco is valuable because it triggers memories that she may have forgotten. The value in her photograph does not speak of death, as Barthes suggests his Winter Garden Photograph does, but instead allows her to reflect on the happier moments she shared with her stepfather, bringing true value to the art of photography as it helps her overcome her grief.

Through these three photographs, it is evident that photography can move anyone –even outsiders with no connection to the subjects – in remarkable ways. All images are valuable; they reflect a moment of time that was deliberately captured and preserved. Whether explanation, relationships, or even mystery is involved with finding the viewer’s personal punctum, every photograph has the potential to wound, for “reality itself is the wound,” (p. 49) and a photograph is a representation of, “not a memory, an imagination, a reconstitution… but reality in a past state: at once the past and the real,” (p. 82). To say a photograph does not have value is to say time does not have value, and reality does not have value. The punctum is an internal feeling toward a real moment in time that just so happened to be captured.


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