Positions and Practice – Week 9 (3/3)

Part 3.

Talking about photographs.

Attention in the third presentation given this week was drawn to Roland Barthes’ explanation of how he perceives and reacts to photographs. He refers to how when he likes a photograph, or when it disturbs him, he will linger and scrutinise the image more deeply, which in turn mirrors Hodgson’s view from presentation one that when a photograph matters people will spend longer receiving it and thinking about it. Something which is crucial to developing a subjective response and a critical view when looking at images.

Barthes describes the sensation of when an image grabs him and which he feels a personal connection to as “the punctum”. He uses images of a man, Lewis Payne (taken by Alexander Gardner) facing his death sentence to describe how, from a series of three (see below) it is the central image that creates this punctum effect for him.


For Barthes, the middle image evokes a stronger reaction, leaving the others in the realm of studium – images that may attract a passing interest but do not “prick” or “bruise” you. The punctum is the means for separating photographs from their broader community and labelling those that create a personal connection – and as Barthes says, “It shoots out of it like an arrow and pierces me”.

A number of photographs in my life have had this effect (although I never realised it was akin to Barthes’ punctum). Choosing one would be pretty difficult but I adored looking through my mum’s black and white photograph’s, kept in her 1950s handbag at the back of the wardrobe, when I was a child. I still do and now have some of them now but always rifle through them whenever I visit her – it seems to have become something of a ritual for me. There is also a large framed photograph of her mum, my Nonna Someo. Every time I look at it, I wonder about her life, at how my hair is just like hers and how I can see her in the face of my mum and my female cousin. I could look at her for hours. It is definitely a personal connection, a fascination with who she really was to who, as a young child, I imagined her to be. To me it is beautiful. I miss not seeing it in person each day.


Emotion plays a part in differentiating between the punctum and the studium – you have to feel and think.

Images by Ori Gerscht from his Liquidation project were also shared. These images do not, at first glance, give a straightforward reality but provide a haze and fuzziness of something there. On a purely aesthetic angle, I find this work intriguing and it’s intrigue that I feel an image needs to separate it from the masses. It is the calling to make someone want to know more. I had not seen this work before. Although I do on a purely aesthetic level appreciate the work, I do not know how much more I feel about it on learning about the context of the subject matter. Perhaps a sense of secrets held? More concentrated looking may be in order.

In my own work, I feel a connection to the style of Gerscht’s work in that it won’t necessarily show an easily definable subject. It is interesting to me that on looking at Gerscht’s work I want to spend more time deciphering the photographs with a limited knowledge of the place they were taken and the past horrors that had taken place there. But this can be applied to all photographs – if they at first stir something within you – can’t it?

With Gerscht, Uta Barth’s unclear photographs were shown, both pushing our notions of perception and place of their subject matter. The question was raised around whether of not work such as this, which requires a deeper intellectual process to decipher, is elitist and arrogant. I think that goes back to how the work is shared and shown. It is elitist to imagine that only a certain person could be capable of appreciating a photograph in which the content is not clear as day, but I do not believe the work is elitist in itself.

Misrach’s images, with their environmental element and promotion of the fragility of humans, are constructed in response to strong personal emotions while retaining a strong aesthetic approach.

Emotion plays a strong role in how I create my work. But also political views, the influence of friends, news, other photographers, books, films are part of the mixing pot from where I take motivation and inspiration. Anger at human ineptitude and wanting to have a way to express perhaps the lack of what often feels like any influence on the world at large. On what matters to me. And through my work I aim to create something that matters.