The Linguistics of Ambiguity

“The Photograph does not call up the past…The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed” (Barthes 82).

Upon reading through the posts, one instance that stood out for me was this quote from Barthes placed at the start of fbbillups’ post, “Defy and reconcile.”  The “that has been” has become a focal point that I find myself continuously returning to in my study of Barthes (77). Although Barthes argues that photographs are simply moments of time, through the study of my own family photography and extending into the family photography of my classmates, I found that ambiguity emerges as a major block in ones interpretation of these images.

I argued in my post “Mystery to me,” how a sense of ambiguity can hinder this definition of photography.  My photograph in particular is mysterious due to my lack of knowledge regarding my Cuban ancestry of my father’s family.  However, this sense of ambiguity can be seen in fbbillups’ photograph as well as in the photograph of cmtricoll’s post, “I want to be just like you.”  Although all of us have different relationships to these photographs, they are closely linked due to this universal sense of ambiguity.  Though they are statements of “that has been,” each of us struggle to relate and fully embrace our own photographs. Even cmtricoll’s photograph of her and her sister, though she can clearly identify the people in it, emerges as a photograph that is unidentifiable of time or place.  In a different light, fbbillups’ image is at first glance interpreted as a beautiful scene, lacking much meaning otherwise.  All three photographs during first glance lack the information required to experience the moments captured.

As fbbillups refutes the statement that a “photograph does not call up the past,” in thinking of my own image of my father, I must agree with hers.  After analyzing the photograph of my father’s Baptism and writing about it, I forwarded the image to my father and upon receiving it he immediately called me. Similar to the experience of fbbillups’ mother upon seeing her photograph hanging on fbbillups’ dorm room wall, my father had a strong connection to the photograph at hand. As her mother was drawn to the photograph and from it knew the exact day and significance that photograph held, my father immediately connected with my relatives of the photograph. Though he could not remember this moment of his earliest years, he remembers all of the relationships among the relatives in the photograph and the image triggered the stories of his early childhood years. He started sharing details about each relative in the photograph and through his explanations I am finally able to fully understand at least this one small part of my heritage. For fbbillups and myself, both of our images were able to act as channels of discovery for us.

As I simply appreciated the mystery of my ancestry and father’s past in Cuba, fbbillups similarly commented on the beauty of the scenery with her initial analysis of the photograph.  Barthes comments that “the Photograph is indifferent to all intermediaries: it does not invent; it is authentication itself” (87).  Although I agree with the authenticity in a snapshot of one moment in time, photography holds much ambiguity without linguistics. If I viewed either of these two photographs without captions or background information, I would interpret both in the most basic of ways. Rather than delving further into my knowledge of time and place, I would simply be left with photographs that I lack any connection to whatsoever.  Linguistics plays a key role in our understanding of photography. Without language to connect oral stories and written captions to our photographs, we are easily left with empty images that neither move nor compel us.

In fact, Barthes argues that a photograph “actually blocks memory, [and] quickly becomes a counter-memory” (91).  Though I understand why cmtricoll rejects this statement, I feel I can relate to Barthes’ comment.  Coming across this quote in cmtricoll’s post, I found myself considering the fact that perhaps photographic memories block our own experienced memories. Considering this has me realizing that I allow photographs to influence my memory of certain times in my life.  Rather than remembering certain moments or experiences from family vacations, for example, I typically have snapshots in my mind of specific digital pictures that I developed after the trip. Although I would agree that photographs trigger our experiences to return to our thoughts, more often than not I find myself simply recalling photographic images in order to remember events or experiences I have had. Though I would not conclude that photography negatively affects our own memories, I do firmly believe that photographs can oftentimes override our own personal experiences and more heavily influence what we are able to remember.


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