Camera Lucida – Roland Barthes

Although I already had prior knowledge of Barthes, it was apparent in my research that I needed to research his writing more thoroughly as the photographic history texts I had been reading referenced him heavily. To make sure I had an accurate and comprehensive understanding of his ideas I set myself the task of reading Camera Lucida and drawing out points that would be relevant to my symposium. My notes and evaluation can be seen below:

  • Could we say that photography is unclassifiable?
  • The photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially
  • Sunya – the void (Buddhism)
  • A single photograph is never distinguished from it’s meaning, it is impossible to perceive a photograph without it’s signifier
  • A photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see
  • The operator is photographer, the spectator is the viewer and the viewer is the target
  • Two experiences that of the observed subject and that of the subject observing
  • Photography can be disturbance to the citizen and the person being photographed (passive victim)
  • Subjectivity in photography
  • Photography is every-day adventure
  • A spectator is interested in photography for sentimental reasons
  • Two different effects of a photograph – studium (a general, average effect with commitment) punctum (breaks the studium effect, pierces the viewer and draws an emotional response)
  • To recognise the studium is to appreciate the photographer’s intentions
  • We class ‘good’ photographs as ones that speak and induce us
  • Analysis does not come into the punctum effect – punctum is usually a detail
  • Does punctum have more power of expansion?
  • “The studium is ultimately always coded”
  • Punctum has a certain latency
  • Punctum is an addition
  • In order to ‘find’ a person depicted, is photography enough to the effect
  • Can you really recognise someone from a photograph?
  • Photography’s referent is not necessarily the content within the photograph
  • The presence of a thing is never metaphoric but the meaning behind it could be
  • Photograph – image revealed by the action of light
  • Because it’s a photograph, it evidence that the subject was there and was depicted (certificate of presence)
  • The photograph is violent because it fills the sight by force
  • The photograph is ‘flat death’
  • Photograph can’t concieve duration
  • Stigmatum is the new punctum, with time as the intensifier
  • Is photography a shared hallucination ‘it is not there’, ‘but it has indeed been’
  • Photography could be mad or tame, time is photographic ecstasy
  • Two ways of the photograph – to subject to the code of perfect illusions or to confront it in the wakening of intractable reality


Although my subject is the current state of photojournalism it was really important to research older texts such as Camera Lucida because the historic practice of photojournalism has shaped and influenced the current state. It has been described that digital photography has been trapped in the shell of the analogue practice therefore it’s necessary for me to understand the history in order to compare and comment on how the practice could continue. A vast amount of Barthes’ ideology is relevant today however I am mindful that I am adapting it to apply to the current age of image-making, his discussions are not based around the digital image. One concept I am particularly interested in using in my research paper is the two responses to the image: studium or punctum. I believe that this discussion is still heavily relevant today and will continue to be relevant for as long as the still image is still produced. We can relate the punctum concept to the imagery writers such as Fred Ritchin have defined as iconic imagery, photographs that have provoked a large response because of their challenging or controversial content. However we can also see this effect in the age of the digital image with practitioners such as Marcus Bleasdale and his work Rape of A Nation, in addition to this the current winners of the World Press Photo have produced provoking imagery. It can be thought that the purpose of photojournalism is to produce punctum images, photographs that will provoke a response from the audience and make them attempt to help the subjects depicted. In contrast the studium response from the image would perhaps be more suited to imagery from an art context, where the audience can view and appreciate the technique as opposed to being ‘pierced’ by the content. The different environment will affect the interpretation from the photograph and this is a concept I plan to address in my research paper. For example work from Broomberg and Chanarin comments on photojournalism but shouldn’t be perceived as photojournalism or interpreted in the way.

Aside from image response, Barthes also addresses the triangular dynamic between the photographer, subject and viewer. It is in this instance that we are reminded he was writing in a time when representation was still a very one-sided process, collaborative representation wasn’t really being seen as it is now. In modules like Picbod and Phonar we as photographers are learning that the subject’s role in their own representation is really important and helps to avoid their misrepresentation or exploitation. Barthes’ target, operator and spectator dynamic is outdated and perhaps something which I should comment on in a negative manner in my research paper. Representation and responsibility is interlinked and the photojournalist should aim to represent the subject in the most accurate and empathetic way possible. In addition to this the term ‘subject’ has been replaced by some practitioners like Sarah Davidmann who refers to the people in her photographs as ‘participants’ because they have an active role in the representation. Ritchin wrote that it is important to progress and stop using archaic terminology to describe the world despite it being familiar to us, this is a concept I can address in association to Barthes’ outdated photographer/subject/audience dynamic and stress the importance of the photographer taking the responsibility of portraying their subject with empathy and accuracy.

There are many other interesting points raised in Camera Lucida however the ideology I have addressed above is that which I believe will be most effective in my research paper in association to the concepts I wish to discuss.I approached this text with an expectation that some of the writing wouldn’t be relevant to the digital age because of the period in which it was written and I have been careful not to associate it heavily with digital photography as Barthes would only have been writing in reference to analogue. However I have identified one instance in where the ideology is still extremely relevant and addressed another concept which can now be perceived as outdated, however they are both beneficial. Overall this book has been extremely beneficial to research and has provided me with some historical ideology to contrast and compliment current writers such as Ritchin and Mayes. In addition it has developed my knowledge of photographic history and as a result I am equipped with a more comprehensive overview of photojournalism.


Reference: Barthes, R. (1982) Camera Lucida. London: Cape


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