Subjectivity Trumps Objectivity

When Barthes discovers The Winter Garden Photograph of his mother, he regards his experience of viewing this image as deeply personal, yet describes the emotions he feels as if they were indicative of a weakness. For the entirety of Barthes’ novel, up to the moment in which he encounters this image, Barthes speaks of the desire to view photographs objectively, devoid of personal and cultural experience that would influence or even potentially taint his ability to see an image as a detached viewer viewing a piece of art. The Winter Garden Photograph, however, speaks to him so powerfully that he feels compelled to obscure the image from the view of the reader for fear that he or she will never value the photograph to the degree of intensity that he does himself. He claims, “I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’” (73). While Barthes perceives this experience to be an exception to how he typically views photographs, I personally do not find this incident to be an anomaly, as he insinuates. In addition, after reading the postings of my fellow classmates, I discovered that this overwhelming desire to view images as more than merely objective to be a commonality. Not only do some of my fellow classmates disagree with Barthes’ general argument that viewing images is an objective experience, but they have no desire to make viewing photographs an objective experience. It is in fact this subjective, personal experience that makes viewing old photographs an experience worth having at all.

According to my classmate, randriaj, in her post Subjective Interpretations, refusing to acknowledge the details of what lies outside the frame of an image diminishes the subjective experience.  She combats Barthes assertion that like a Haiku, a photograph is “undevelopable: everything is given, without provoking the desire for or even the possibility of a rhetorical expansion,” by pointing out that while this may be true in the most literal sense, thinking of photography in this way can minimize and in some ways devalue the significance of engaging memory and personal experience with photography (49). For randriaj, the significance of this photo lies in her unique vantage point of being, “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.” No one else, with the exception of her sister, shares this vantage point, and even with this one exception, she acknowledges that she and her sister each have individual relationships to all of the people in the photograph that separate their viewing experiences from being alike. Without this subjective interpretation of this photograph, I do not believe that randriaj would find this image nearly as stimulating. While I find it appealing on an aesthetic level in composition and coloring (or lack of coloring), I will certainly not claim to find this image as stirring as it is to randriaj, as she holds a personal connection to the photograph, just as I would assume no one would claim in regards to my own photograph. Therefore, I struggle to understand the objective perspective Barthes desires and at times even claims to possess, while still recognizing the significance of maintaining an individual perspective: “I dismiss all knowledge, all culture, I refuse to inherit anything from another eye than my own” (51). To me, inheriting something with only your own eyes requires an acknowledgement of personal experience and accordingly cultural knowledge tied to those experiences. How Barthes claims to separate these two perspectives is unfathomable to me, and the prospect of actually doing so extremely undesirable.

Another post by my classmate hannahflasco, My Winter Garden Photograph, furthers the topic of the value of subjectivity with a discussion of nostalgia. In the opening of her post, she concedes that the picture she includes captures neither the likeness of herself, nor of her stepfather, yet the value she finds in the image is found in her comment, “this particular photograph speaks to me in ways I did not know were possible.” Similar to my own post, I Want To Be Just Like You, about my sister and I dressed in matching yellow tank tops and shorts, hannahflasco refutes Barthes argument that photographs “actually block memory” and instead speaks to the powerful memories images can trigger (91). The truth concerning what the image represents and not the image itself is actually what makes hannahflasco claim that the image is “wholly unflattering to both of us, a horrible representation of our true selves,” yet significant enough to be her own version of The Winter Garden Photograph that Barthes holds so dearly. The importance of the photo is found in the nostalgia it provokes and the memories that lie outside of the frame. Without her inclusion of her post along with the image, I would have no knowledge of why such a photograph would carry so much meaning. Yet with this information, I understand her sentiments in a manner that makes me appreciate her subjective experience as it seems to evoke memories of strong, positive emotion, similar to those I associate with my own photograph (yet obviously for entirely different reasons). For me, it is the memory of buying the yellow shirt with my sister that tugs at my heart and brings a smile to my face, not necessarily the image itself. Since Barthes acknowledges his subjective view towards The Winter Garden Photograph in admitting, “For once, photography gave me sentiment as certain as remembrance” and values the image deeply, I do not understand why this experience does not impact his overall opinion in regards to an ideal way to look at photography – with unknowing eyes (70).

While many images we may view in our life contain no personal significance us, I think that Barthes has misplaced his emphasis on objective viewing in Camera Lucida. While much is certainly to be gained from locating the stadium or the punctum in an unfamiliar image, as Barthes discusses in the first half of the text, I believe the memories that flood back to our minds in association with certain images are more valuable and that Barthes should place greater credence in the experience of allowing memory, cultural knowledge, and personal experiences to influence our perceptions of images.

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