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This post is a continuation of ‘Project 3 Photographing the unseen — #1’ at: https://cormac513273.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/project-3-photographing-the-unseen-1/

Question: How do you feel about the loss of authorial control that comes when the viewer projects their own experiences and emotions onto the images you’ve created?

Roland Barthes (b. 1915) in his writing on photography identified two elements present in all photographs: the ‘studium’ and the ‘punctum’ (Barthes, 1982: 26):

lt is by stadium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in studium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions (Barthes, 1982: 26).

The second element, the ‘punctum’, ‘will break (or punctuate) the studium’ such that:

this time it is not I who seek it [the ‘punctum’] out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness) , it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me (Barthes, 1982: 26).

By this scheme all photographers must lose some authorial control because the ‘punctum’ is something personal to the viewer – ‘an accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’ (Barthes, 1982: 27) — something seen only by a particular viewer because of its emotional resonance.

Additionally, postmodern practice in the arts embraces the ‘Death of the Author’ so called after an influential essay of this title by Roland Barthes (Barthes, 1967). The essay’s publication was the ‘defining moment’ of the new intellectual revolution of the 1960s ‘whose locus was undoubtedly literary criticism’ (Gallix, 2010). Barthes wrote:

We know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message of the Author-God’) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash … Literature … by refusing to assign a ‘secret’, an ultimate meaning, to the text, (and to the world as text) liberates what may be called an anti-theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is in the end to refuse God and his hypostasis – reason, science, law (Butler, 2002:23)

Examining the work of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (b. 1857) can make this new criticism more relevant to the visual arts. Saussure proposed that meaning:

did not depend on reference to the world, or even ideas. On the contrary. He argued that, if the things or concepts language named already existed outside language, words would have exact equivalents from one language to another, and translation would be easy (Belsey, 2002:8).

Because translation is far from easy it can be concluded either that only one language exists that accurately describes the world or that language does not ‘depend on reference to the world, or even ideas’ (above). What makes Saussure’s work interesting to the photographer is that ‘for him, meaning resides in the sign and nowhere else’ (Belsey, 2002, 10). Saussure divided the sign in two: ‘on the one hand, the signifier, the sound or the visual appearance of the word, phrase, or image in question; on the other, the signified, its meaning (Belsey, 2002:11). This might imply that an image can mean whatever the photographer or viewer separately choose it to mean. However:

A purely private language does not permit dialogue, and so hardly qualifies as a language at all. But a specific instance of signifying practice can mean whatever the shared and public possibilities of those signifiers in that order will permit (Belsey, 2002: 18).

Thus when Barthes ends his essay with the declaration that ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author’ ((Belsey, 2002:20), he does not argue for subjectivism, the view: ‘that the text’s [or image’s] personal associations for me, as an individual reader, … will do as an account of meaning’. Instead:

his [Barthes] reader is not an individual, not a real person at all but ‘the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost. Such a ‘space’ does not exist, except as an ideal type, a timeless, utopian, model reader. In practice, some of us will see some of the possibilities, some others, and the text [image] itself keeps its secret about which is ‘right’ (Belsey, 2002: 21).

The theoretical background to postmodern practice is complex but accommodates the viewer who projects their own experiences and emotions onto images. This is because there are ‘no pure, free-standing signifieds’ (Belsey, 2002: 78). Thus in this scheme as a photographer I cannot make an image that contains a pure signifier/signified relationship – if achieved such an image would be dull and uninteresting, allowing for no interpretation. Crucially however I would have total authorial control. It follows that I feel happy about the loss of authorial control that comes when the viewer projects their own experiences and emotions onto the images I’ve created.


Barthes, Roland (1982) Camera Lucida. London: Flamingo

Barthes, Roland (1967) Death of the Author. [online] At: http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf (Accessed on 12.11.14)

Belsey, Catherine (2002) Poststructuralism. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford

Butler, Christopher (2002) Postmodernism. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford

Gallix, Andrew (2010) In theory: The Death of the Author. [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/jan/13/death-of-the-author (Accessed on: 12.11.14]