The Punctum: allowing us to remember what really was

Roland Barthes talks considerably about the punctum and its affect on our relationship with photography. He also spends time talking about the identity crisis experienced of looking at oneself in a photograph. This essay will explore that crisis and how it affects the punctum.

The essay “The Real and the Reel” by sloankatherine  discusses the relationship between viewing oneself in a photograph, and the effect of that on the memory the photo evokes. “This disruption of identity that Barthes recognizes in the experience of viewing a photograph underlies his discussion of the disruption of personal memory, and therefore, one’s relationship to reality that the photograph often unravels.”  Viewing yourself in a photograph changes how you imagine the circumstances surrounding it. My first essay discussed a photo of me and my father, and looking back on the photo, trying to view the world as I saw it then. In doing so, I create a disruption of identity between who I am know and who I was then. This disruption creates tension in what I believe to be my memory of that time. Am I really imagining what happened, or just what I think of that moment now. In other words, am I remembering that moment as it happened, as I interpreted it then, or only as I interpret it now, with all my new knowledge and experience clouding the real truth? Which identity is the memory being viewed through? Which one should it be viewed through? I think through the identity of the person we were. But how do we do this?

To further confuse our interpretation of photographs, Barthes says “…:everything which happens within the frame dies absolutely once this frame is passed beyond.”(57) If this is true, then would our memory of ourself die? Of course you have a memory of yourself, but the memory will never represent the absolute truth of that moment. That is what dies, the absolute truth. The only thing left that can try to remind us of that truth is the punctum, or what I think is the punctum. That thing in the photo or memory which reaches us at a deeper level then the rest of the experience and reminds us of some emotion, no matter how small, that we had at the time the photo or experience occurred . Dwliu discusses Barthes argument that photos destroy memory in Summer in the Back of My Mind. Dwliu believes that true memories cannot be produced by looking at a photograph, but only by random events that uncontrollably remind us of things. She says, “Real memories rise to the surface unannounced when I come across a random object, hear a moving piece of music, or smell a familiar scent.” That is the punctum, that random object, or piece of music, because that is what reminds us of some piece of true memory. The punctum is that thing which reminds us of a true memory, for Barthes it is something in a photograph itself that touches you on a deeper level, but I believe it is whatever reminds you of a that memory. If an event had no photographer, or if it did, it does not matter, the punctum is whatever reminds you of the real memory, but it does not have to be from a photo. It is what allows us view the world, if only for a second, from the perspective of our old identity.

My first essay talked about the distortion of memory created by time and experience. Through looking at these other essays, it seems that this distortion can be solved by finding that thing which reminds us of our identity at the time of an event, and allows us to have clear memory of what happened. The punctum is just that tool. It allows us to take the identity of the person we were, and remember an experience as it actually happened.

For many years, I went skiing in Colorado every year. At least once during the trip, we would roast marshmallows in a fire pit next to the hotel. Whenever I smell the sweet odor that was omitted from that pit, I immediately think of those times, sitting around the fire, making s’mores. There are no pictures of this memory, just my own image of it. The smell is the punctum, and it lets me remember that experience naturally, as it really was, if only for a moment.


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