Granna held me tight against her as she flipped through old picture albums, narrating family histories as she made her way back through time and space. She weaved worlds from her La-Z-Boy recliner, generating familial ties and carving out a space of belonging that was as much mine as it was hers. Little bits and pieces would surface up, cause her to swallow hard or tear up or giggle or turn the page quickly. All these old pictures washed over her, moved her and carried me along, too, in their wake. We lingered for a while on a portrait of her mother and father posed in their Sunday best sometime around 1900, some ninety years or so before I entered the scene. A Polaroid of my dad, dancing in high school—complete with short shorts, tank top, and white clogs—held our attention. My dad never told me he danced once, and he certainly doesn’t dance now, so I found that picture equally fascinating and incriminating. Some shots of me I’ve never seen before, sitting with my sister on Granna’s couch, the one I would sleep on sometimes after school and on weekends. My sis had painted my face with make-up and there we were, sitting with our arms around one another, two shit-eating grins on our faces as the flash lit up the dark room.
Worlds are made in encounters, in flipping through the pages of old family albums with frail grandmothers. To say that worlds are made in encounters is to acknowledge the contingent and relational nature of what it means to inhabit and animate a scene replete with objects and others. A world is precisely the shape that such encounters produce as they are lived, including our lived encounters with photographs old and new, personal and impersonal, familiar and strange.
Because encounters are the elementary units of everyday life, and because they give shape to worlds, they warrant our attention as rhetorical scholars. Yet, we all too often push the embodied, emplaced encounter to the margins (or to oblivion) and pursue instead a hermeneutical accounting that necessarily divorces analysis from the encounter itself. Roland Barthes offers a corrective to this tendency by presenting a way of thinking about and re-presenting what it means to encounter photographs. Unlike his earlier structural-semiotic analysis of photographs, exemplified in his “Rhetoric of the Image” essay, in Camera Lucida Barthes prioritizes his own encounter with photographs as a means by which to generate theoretically rich understandings of photographs more generally. Although Barthes presents an impressive suite of insights in this small book, three in particular bear mentioning for my own conceptualization of encounters.
First, to encounter a photograph is also to encounter something other than the photograph: It is to encounter that which the photograph displays. Barthes makes the point succinctly: “Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see” (6). Rather than seeing the photograph (the material before us), we see what it shows us (its referent, that to which it refers us). This is why, in the second half of Camera Lucida, Barthes devotes so much attention to a singular photograph of his mother when she was a child. He loved this photograph so precisely because when he encountered it he experienced the essence of his mother, her truth. This encounter is, however, entirely subjective insofar as it existed for Barthes alone. We glimpse Barthes’s point about what it means to see something other than the photograph in a long parenthetical: “(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). Put another way, since we never see the photograph itself, the force of the encounter depends in some significant sense on one’s relationship to what the photograph shows.
Second, to encounter a photograph is to confront it with one’s whole body, which is to say that one’s encounter with a photograph is phenomenological in nature. This is why Barthes asks, at the outset of his inquiry, “What does my body know of Photography?” (9). To ask what one’s own body knows of photography is to emphasize the primacy of perception in apprehending and making sense of the medium for oneself. Rather than pursuing objective distance in order to answer questions about meaning in formal terms, Barthes entrusts his own perceptual encounter as a guide. To wit: “I make myself,” Barthes opined, “the measure of photographic ‘knowledge’” (9). Phenomenologically, Barthes found that he was “attracted” to certain photographs that “animated” him: but why? This attraction owed to the “affect” or “pathos” of certain photographs: “I stopped, keeping with me, like a treasure, my desire or my grief; the anticipated essence of the Photograph could not, in my mind, be separated from the ‘pathos’ of which, from the first glance, it consists” (21). It is only as a body that one can be affected, a point which would come to shape Barthes’s understanding of photography more generally. Animated by desire or grief, a phenomenological approach to the encounter shifts our attention to the encounter itself as a mode of world making, or worlding. As Barthes went on to demonstrate, photographs (both those we encounter through studium and punctum) constitute relations that extend beyond the immediacy of any given encounter. These relations are experienced as embodied and emplaced encounters.
Third, to encounter a photograph is to experience both the banality and extraordinariness of mediated life. If Barthes is right in suggesting that most photographs we encounter do not rouse us to extraordinary feelings, we should be sure to attend to the rather ordinary encounters that photographs facilitate. Of this, Barthes explained: “What I feel about these photographs derives from an average affect, almost from a certain training” (26). The vast majority of photographs do little to us, and the social and political frameworks provided by culture structure our encounters with them: we “understand” them within contexts already established for us. This is why, for instance, we spend very little time thinking about the photographs printed on the pages of newspapers or about the photographs we encounter on the Internet. Far fewer photographs, Barthes notes, seem to rupture the encounter. He reserves the term punctum for that element in photographs that occasionally “rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces [him]” (26). Although a punctum is rare, literally a punctuation of ordinary experience, photographs that pierce critics seem to dominate the works of criticism devoted to photography. Thus, while Barthes dwells on a particular photograph that pierces him, he also—and this is important—reminds us that, for the most part, we experience photographs in a rather average way. In its banal and extraordinary manifestations, encounters with photographs are everyday experiences.
Taken together, Barthes’s insights on what it is like to encounter photographs present a corrective to the sometimes-totalizing efforts of rhetorical critics to arrest the meaning of any given photograph as a consequence of particular formal characteristics. Moreover, rhetoricians have tended to reflect on those photographs that seem to possess a punctum while deflecting attention from those that seem to operate mostly by way of their studium. This is not so different from rhetoric’s historical attention to speeches by so-called “great men.” The result is an overemphasis on the social and political importance of iconic photographs. The majority of photographs we encounter are experienced in an average way; those encounters, however, shape our lives in noteworthy ways as well. If that is the case, as I believe it is, then we will need to take these encounters seriously as forms of worlding that profoundly impact the way lives are lived. Barthes presents a methodological approach that would enable us to apprehend the banality of most encounters, but in order to do so we will first need to establish the primacy of the encounter as an overdeterminate force in everyday life.
Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.