In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes grasps at the essence of photography and attempts to synthesize and explain the medium. He approaches photography by analyzing various images and classifying them, while expressing how he personally interacts with these images. He quantifies a sort of grammar of photographic images, which one may individually assess in their reading of photographs. It is a distinctly phenomenological analysis, dealing in the personal relationship with, and the affect tied up in viewing, photographs. As he emphasizes, “the reading of public photographs is always, at bottom, a private reading” (97). It is an individual encounter and, to Barthes, the most powerful encounter is with the image “[that is] pensive, when it thinks” (38). Barthes, unlike Sontag, does not approach photography sociologically or historically, with political or ethical implications in mind (at least not expressly). He avoids photographs of agony and other similar “reportage,” with their lack of the “photographic look” (111). Even so, in my research I have been contemplating to what extent his thinking (his grammar on photography)—especially with respect to the “punctum”— can be applied to the death image of Aylan Kurdi.
Aylan was a two year old Syrian child attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece with his parents and older brother, along with numerous other refugees. Their rubber boat capsized. Of the four in the Kurdi family, only Aylan’s father survived. The photograph triggered a massive outcry on social media and in the news, which widely circulated the image taken by a Turkish photojournalist. It is of Aylan, with his red shirt, blue shorts, and tiny tennis shoes, lying on the beach. The surf is lapping at his head, which rests face down in the sand. The image is quiet, simple, restful—he doesn’t appear dead, but as many have expressed, seems to be merely asleep. To approach this image as Barthes might, we must first assess the photograph itself, without confronting the object it depicts (we will return later to the “object”). At work in all photographs, claims Barthes, are the “studium,” and the “punctum” (which has proven more elusive to me in a conceptual sense). The studium is a sought out rhetorical understanding, and what a photograph “speaks” (43). It is culturally coded, a something that is of interest. The punctum is an element that “pricks,” and stands out, which wounds (not emotionally, but a detail that catches one’s attention). “It is what [one] add[s] to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there” (55).
The stadium is innate in all images—it is clear; all images speak, most are of some interest. The punctum is more slippery, although I believe that the photograph of Aylan is possibly without one. Barthes claims that news photographs are often “unary photographs,” or lacking of the punctum (40). There is “a certain shock—the literal can traumatize—but no disturbance; the photograph can ‘shout,’ not wound” (41). The photograph of Aylan shouts as a news photograph (I think one can define it as such), but does it “wound”—is there a detail that interrupts our reading of its singular presentation: that of death? We are no doubt moralistically affected by the image, in that it is a dead child and, additionally, when we consider the socio-political context—but that is not the question. Would Barthes only look through it; do you? Do I? One must ask himself, through Barthes, do you “add something to the photograph” or is there only what is easily expressed? I’ve stared at this photo (and the pain of that image, at least for me, becomes more acute with duration), and am not pricked with the type of “prick” that Barthes entails. I see a small, dead child. It does do something, it is wounding in some other way.
What one can draw from this reading of the Aylan photo, is the phenomenological quality of the encounter—a reminder, in a vaguely related way, of the privacy (and subjectivity) of our reading of photographs. The photograph of Aylan certainly illustrates this variegated relationship, while also evidencing the conceptual functions of photography.
Aylan’s death exemplifies the notion of iconographic photography, a phenomenon that is not unfamiliar. Select images become the synecdochical substitutes for larger issues (which Scott discussed in our last meeting, with regard to police murder); or totems (I’m borrowing Sontag’s word) around which communities surround. Aylan, in the days following his death, seems to have become such an icon. (Or, at least, was in the incipient stages of such realization.) In a period of massive unrest, with thousands upon thousands of refugees fleeing war and terror, there almost seems to have been a thirst for symbolism, for something to foster an aligned spirit of action. There was a great deal of talk on social media platforms, even a correlative rise in pro-refugee rhetoric (with the hashtag #RefugeesWelcome) with the Aylan image. A sense that the image would alter perceptions and sway public opinion populated the network, that it was journalistically impactful:
Fig. 1 (Tweet)
Others were outraged at its dissemination and its “use” (see fig. 2), along with the especial focus given to this instance of Syrian death (see fig. 3). There continue to be, and certainly were, more deaths than Alyan’s. Even of his own family—his mother and brother, who were dead on the same beach, did not have images of them virally shared. But it was nonetheless Aylan’s photograph which was “chosen.”
Fig. 2 (Facebook post)
Fig. 3 (Facebook post)
Inflammatory comments from opposing parties, reflecting various interests around the Syrian conflict, were also traceable (see fig. 4).
Fig. 4 (Tweet)
The image is highly, and controversially, politicized—with debate, and emotions, peaking on the network. The intensity of this was, for a time, considerable.
Yet, interest did wane, along with the news stories, even as memes were produced. With the immediacy and attention deficit of media and the news cycle, there is an unsurprisingly quick receding of such images from the mainstream view. The increasing ordinariness of Syrian (and other) death, which continues to develop, is coupled—or results—in a sense that nothing can be done. It is redolent of the inevitability of death and dying to which Sontag refers, and which may give rise to feelings of apathy.
So what do such photographs do? They are not actions, nor do they necessarily instigate action. They do, however, illicit feelings about action (or inaction), and thinking. Is our repeated, relentless exposure to such imagery neutralizing of moralistic affect (even if that affect does not lead to action)? Suffering is made banal when perceived on a broad, globalized scale—to such a degree that it even becomes a part of our advertising (see fig. 5).
Fig. 5 (Tweet)
Although fig. 5 is an effort in aid of refugees, it is still telling of how imagery of suffering can be adopted and even commercialized for various purposes—the quotation of Aylan is apparent. (I might add that in some of my research, a Royal Caribbean advertisement of a father and son under water was on the periphery of the webpage on which I read an article about drowned refugees.)
Aylan has resurfaced recently, especially in the wake of the recent attacks in Paris. He endures as an image on the network, a fledgling icon, who fostered thinking and conversation on a dire situation, if only briefly. This, arguably, is the “ethical value of an assault by images” (Sontag 116). There is, however, only so much a photograph can do.
It is centrally, as Sontag states, “an invitation to think.” And on the modern, highly connected network we possess, with democratized access to images and social media platforms (thanks to the cellphone), this potential is magnified. Ultimately, the confrontational nature, as well as the memorializing quality, of the photograph is central to its function today. To sway those in positions of power with the horror of the effects of their policies, of their inadequate political action. It is on the modern network that photographs—in their essential nature—become especially effective, thanks to the newly globalized and immediate capacity of networked media. Although spectatorship is a luxury, more people than ever are now connected and capable of viewing shared media. It is also an accumulative body, a place one can return to and look at not only images, but also discourse on those images. Thus, the network has become an institution of memory within which we can, at least, reflect upon images of suffering.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York : Hill and Wang, 1981. PDF.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2003.