Read Chapter 17

Susan Moeller on Roland Barthes

CITE AS: Moeller, S. (2016). Susan Moeller on Roland Barthes. In R. Hobbs (Ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative (pp. 222 - 232). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 

Chapter 17
Susan Moeller on Roland Barthes
How do we make sense of our world? For me, always, images have been central. I’m a visual learner and a visual processor of both intellectual and sensory information.

My memory is entirely tied to visual representations. Situations that I should process in words, numbers, sounds, or touch are recalled in my brain through images. I remember history through a progression of illustrations—even if I myself have to conjure the illustrations. I recall data by way of charts and graphics—or failing those, of the simple recollection of the shape of the numbers on a page. Music is called up as color for me, and I remember the softness of my dog’s fur or my daughter’s cheek via the visual reminiscence of the curly coat or the flushed skin.

That kind of processing results in an overflowing file cabinet of images in my brain, a virtual repository of personal scenes and faces alongside visual notations from the public sphere. In that cluttered cabinet, certain images, especially photographic ones, stand out as aesthetic, political, and even moral markers. When I reference my “file cabinet,” there are certain pictures that surface first, that surface repeatedly, that are always accessible. I always wondered why. Philosopher, semiotician, and literary theorist Roland Barthes taught me why. He taught me to be consciously, photographically, and visually literate.
“The Most Quoted Book in the Photographic Canon”
Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1981) is arguably the most influential book yet written about individuals’ encounters with photographs. I read it in the midst of my doctoral program in the history of American civilization at Harvard, during my immersion in historiography and literary theory. I have since read and assigned it countless times.

According to Geoffrey Batchen, a professor of photography and editor of a collection of essays on Camera Lucida, Barthes’s last work is likely “the most quoted book in the photographic canon” (2009, X{AU: Should this be the roman numeral x, or is this a placeholder that needs to be filled in?}). By the looks of it, the book’s canonical role in the field is surprising. A slight book of only 119 pages, with no footnotes to add additional heft, Camera Lucida (or, in the original French edition, La chambre claire) is deceptively simple. The book has broad margins, few words on a page, and multiple black-and-white photographs scattered throughout (with one color frontispiece). The whole is divided into forty-eight fragments—a function perhaps of the fact that Barthes wrote the book in just forty-nine days.

Camera Lucida is not a work on the semiotics of photography—the kind of examination that followers of Barthes might have expected. As a review in the Guardian notes, it is “neither a work of theoretical strictness nor avant-garde polemic, still less a history or sociology of photography.” Barthes “has no interest in the techniques of photography, in arguments over its status as art, nor really in its role in contemporary media or culture, which he leaves to sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu” (Dillon 2011). The New York Times, in its review, said that Camera Lucida “does not reveal the long-sought ‘grammar’ of photographs, nor does it provide much in the way of clues to their ‘reading.’ It is more intimate than theoretical. . . . ‘Camera Lucida’ forsakes the analytic methods on which the author built his reputation in favor of a more personal discourse. . . . [H]is reflections on photography merely confirm his growing disaffection with semiotics and his decision to use his own emotions as a prime source of insight” (Grundberg 1981).

Indeed, the book begins with Barthes’s telling of his fraught encounter with a photograph taken over a century earlier, at the dawn of photography in 1852—a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother. Barthes’s haunted recollection {AU: If it is correct that the following quote is from Barthes as quoted in Berger rather than from Camera Lucida directly, please clarify this.} would not be amiss as the opening to a tale of mystery: “One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: ‘I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.’

Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of solitude), I forgot about it” (quoted in Berger 1972). Starting with that reminiscence, Barthes continued to use the pronoun “I” throughout the book—together with “we” and other inclusive language. It is, as the Guardian observed, a book “frankly personal, even sentimental.” It has, said art critic Martin Herbert, “a certain kind of vulnerability” (quoted in Dillon 2011). So if the book is not a work of theory, if it doesn’t offer academics a grammar and ways of seeing or reading photography, as John Berger’s BBC series (1972) and book (1990) did for art, why, then, has Camera Lucida been so influential? Why does the book matter?

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum might have the answer. In 1988, she appeared on an episode of Bill Moyers’s PBS series A World of Ideas. “The common perception of a philosopher is of a thinker of abstract thoughts,” observed Moyers in the course of their conversation. “I think that the language of philosophy has to come back from the abstract heights on which it so often lives to the richness of everyday discourse and humanity,” responded Nussbaum (quoted in Moyers 1988).

Camera Lucida matters because it grounded photography in the everyday concerns and emotions of those who engage with photography—everyday individuals who look at photographs and respond to them. It’s true that the book feels at times like a regurgitation of the stream of consciousness of a polymath. Barthes muses on the ideas of Zen Buddhism and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan on the same page. The book is dedicated to Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’imaginaire and includes photos by Robert Mapplethorpe. But Barthes is not just showing off his erudition. His point is that insights are found at the intersection of disciplines; the weighing of truths does not occur solely in philosophy but also in religion, neuroscience, literature, and art. His point is that photography connects to everyone, every day.

For me, the book is the ultimate example of how being media literate can inform one’s understanding of the world. Media literacies—all kinds of literacy, actually—are crucial to critical thinking. Barthes demonstrated his media literacy across Camera Lucida’s chapters, as he brought disparate fields to bear on core questions: Why do certain images seize our attention? What power is present in certain photographs so that we keep looking? Why are we troubled by those images—troubled as water is troubled when a stone is thrown in?
The Way Photos Work
When I teach media literacy, my favorite lecture is always the one I give about photography. I know my students have been looking at pictures their entire lives, and I know they have been taking and sharing photos at least since they first received a camera-equipped mobile phone. But even those students who consider themselves “photographers” have rarely considered the quantity and quality of information, messages, perspectives, and emotions they both imbibe and disseminate through photography. Why did that website editor select that photo for its home page rather than one of the eight others he or she considered or the hundreds{AU: Should this be more than hundreds?} of others possible? Why do people at different news outlets choose different photos—or occasionally the same photo—when they cover the same event? Do their choices have to do with differences in audiences? With the biases of their editors? With their understanding of the meaning of the story? With their assessment of what they ran two hours ago and what they might run two hours from now? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

These are important questions—media literacy questions, life questions. And these questions are just a few of those that I raise in the first fifteen minutes of my class on photography. This is why I believe that Camera Lucida is such a valuable text. Barthes gives explanations for what the world observes, but rarely thinks about, in images. Barthes explains the banality of so much photography and why few images hit their viewers with gut-wrenching force.

In Camera Lucida, Barthes argues that inherent in every photograph is what he calls the studium: the subject of the photo, the part that signals to an observer the geographical, historical, cultural, or other context of that image. “The studium is a kind of education,” Barthes explains. All photos have a studium, and while they may be “indexical”—they reference a given reality—this specificity{AU: OK? If not, please clarify what “this” refers to.} does not prevent the mass of images from being boring, pedestrian, not worth a second glance, forgotten as soon as the viewer looks away (1981, 26).

But then there are other photos, the ones that are bothersome. Barthes says thesehave a punctum—“a Latin word derived from the Greek word for trauma” (1981, 26–27)—that holds our gaze and “pierces” our souls (80). The punctum creates a direct relationship with a specific observer. The detail may be central to the aesthetic form and narrative content, or it may be ancillary to them; either way, the detail personally connects the viewer to the image and is perceived differently by different viewers.
Photos to Remember
Stop and think. What images hold you in their grip? What photos have a punctum that pierces you?

In my life, I have been seized—even literally changed—by several historically iconic images: the photo of a young boy, really just a toddler, staring straight at me, straight into the camera, as he sat starving during the famine in Ethiopia; the photo of a naked girl screaming down the road after having been struck with napalm during the Vietnam War; the photo of a mother with hands outstretched, perhaps pleading to God, as she roamed a Crimean battlefield of death looking for her son’s body in the midst of World War II. Yet I have also found myself emotionally bound by quotidian photos of family members: a photo of my brother on a tennis court, stretched nearly horizontal to reach a ball that can be seen as a whitish blur, and a photo of my parents, married for over forty years, walking hand-in-hand down a beach in midwinter, leaning into each other for shelter.

Why is it that the photos of global events that I have found most troubling are those in which I can see faces, yet in the photos of my family members that I have found to best capture their essences, their eyes are not visible? I’m not sure.

Barthes explains that when one is pierced by a punctum’s arrow, the photo fascinates, even if we do not know why we are caught. If we take the time to ponder the answer, however, we may learn more, both about the image and about ourselves. A pas de deux of sorts can result in that investigation of meaning. As I have thought about the photos in my life, and as I have considered Barthes’s reasoning, I have noted that as I advance toward understanding why a particular photo may have a power over me, the photo itself retreats. Like two parties in a waltz, the image retreats in sync with my consideration of it. I may never be able to articulate all there is to know about a photo (even a personal one)—the photograph “escapes” language—but in my dance with the image, I can gain a sense of how I have been moved.

When I read Camera Lucida in grad school just a few years after it was translated into English in 1981, I felt as if I had found a fellow traveler, someone else who used images to signpost his world. Here in print was confirmation that there are others who not only care about photographs, who not only file photographs away in their minds, but who are moved by photographs, who find in photographs a distilled essence of their lives. Barthes’s work confirmed for me that photographs matter not just because a photograph reproduces the subject in front of the camera but because photographs do more than document their subjects, or at least can do more than document them. “The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent,” writes Barthes. “From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here” (1981, 80).

Photographs, observes Barthes, those that “‘prick’ their observers,”{AU: Correct?} are in essence memorials to what has happened and never will happen again. As political activist and fellow photography theorist Susan Sontag wrote in her seminal book On Photography{AU: Cite specific essay here?}, “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt” (1977, 15).

To Barthes, because still images are a constant, tangible presence, they not only reproduce what is seen through the camera lens but also conjure the present moment of the viewing and the indefinite future in which the images can be viewed. Images denote what’s here in ways beyond what is possible through language. They also articulate what’s gone. Photography stops time and allows a lingering gaze—a gaze arrested by beauty or asymmetry, by joy or trauma.

In Barthes’s consideration of an 1865 photograph of Lincoln conspirator Lewis Payne in custody on board the monitor USS Saugus, he writes, “He is dead and he is going to die” (1981, 95). During his contemplation of the image, Barthes was aware that Payne had been hanged for his attempted assassination of U.S. Secretary of State William Seward—an attack made on the same night as the assassination of President Lincoln. Barthes knew that Payne, John Wilkes Booth, and others had also planned to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson and General Ulysses S. Grant that night. Barthes, in other words, knew the ending of the story—the story not just of Payne and his fellow conspirators but of Seward, Lincoln, and the Union itself. Yet Barthes’s knowledge of the future of the photo (events in the historical past) collided with Barthes’s experience of his viewing moment, when he saw, via the image, Payne’s sprawl in his seat against the iron cladding of the monitor and his steady gaze into the camera—

Payne’s steady gaze, in effect, into the eyes of everyone ever who has looked at that photo over the last century and more. In Barthes’s understanding, therefore, photographs are equally time machines into the past, mirrors of the present and crystal balls into what may matter in the future. Is there an object more potent—or one that more needs to be understood?
Media Literacy Is, in Essence, a Philosophy of Caring
When I started reading Camera Lucida, I believed I was reading a work entirely dedicated to deciphering the artistic impact and temporal authority of photography. But it gradually dawned on me that not only was Barthes writing about photography but photos were his means to explore life, loss, and memory. It became clear that Barthes’s emotional responses to the death of his mother, Henriette, in 1977, underlay and gave force to his intellectual perceptions about photography: “It is said that mourning, by its gradual labour, slowly erases pain; I could not, I cannot believe this; because for me, Time eliminates the emotion of loss (I do not weep), that is all. For the rest, everything has remained motionless. For what I have lost is not a Figure (the Mother), but a being; and not a being, but a quality (a soul): not the indispensable, but the irreplaceable” (1981, 75).

Almost exactly halfway through Camera Lucida, Barthes begins part 2 of the book. Part 2 details Barthes’s search to “find” his mother in photographs of her—photographs that not just capture her likeness but hold her soul. He doesn’t find her spirit embodied in recent images of her or, indeed, in any of those that pictured her as an adult. But he does find one photograph, he writes, that expresses what he considers to be her true likeness. It is a photo of her taken in 1898, in a garden in winter. She is five.

Describing his discovery of the photograph, Barthes simply wrote in his journal, “I cried” (quoted in Dillon 2011). When I read that page, I recognized Barthes’s keen anguish. I understood his turn to acknowledging the intimations of death inherent in all photography because not only do I, too, process the world visually, but I, too, had turned to old photographs to try and find the essence of someone whom I had lost. I, too, had suffered a cataclysmic death in 1977, when my brother was killed.

What is compelling and important about Camera Lucida is that Barthes is unashamedly writing about his own pain. It is a raw book. Barthes pretends no distance from his subject—which purports to be photography—and he does not pretend to be dispassionate{AU: OK?}. He demands that his readers similarly bare themselves. Camera Lucida uses photography as a simulacrum for its readers to consider their own vulnerability to love and their own consequent encounters with loss, grief, and mortality. The book helped me negotiate my own tragedy.

Perhaps as a consequence, it was Barthes’s humanistic approach to understanding photography that made the greatest impact on me. I wasn’t alone in my response. Others also remarked that the book was so moving because of its duality (Dillon 2011). Barthes used his mother’s death, and his search for her in images, to propel forward his idea that photography is more than a referent. When he found the photograph of his mother that held the most meaning for him, the one he called the Winter Garden photograph, he recognized both the indexical nature of photography and photography’s embedded humanity—its seizure and its pinning down of the ephemeral so that a viewer has the opportunity to grasp and hold onto the ephemeral in a manner otherwise impossible:

The Winter Photograph was my Ariadne, not because it would help me discover a secret thing (monster or treasure), but because it would tell me what constituted that thread which drew me toward Photography. I had understood that henceforth I must interrogate the evidence of Photography, not from the viewpoint of pleasure, but in relation to what we romantically call love and death.

Is that, then, the reason why the photo of my brother playing tennis and my parents walking on the beach resonate for me above all others? It is no coincidence, I believe, that those photos that for me best capture the “true likeness” of my family members who have died are the photos that capture them literally moving in time and space. Understanding the punctum in those photos makes it certain: it is less my brother’s and my parents’ faces that I miss than their active presence in my life.
From the Personal to the Professional
What did I learn from this, Barthes’s final book? Camera Lucida taught me to embrace “the subjective”—an approach that was “in academic terms quite scandalous” ({AU: Please indicate which source.}38). I also learned to be media literate, even if, at the time of my first reading, that phrase was not yet in my vocabulary. From Barthes I learned that media literacy is not a cold set of skills to be taken out of an academic toolbox in order to unpack meaning in texts, to decipher intentionally or unintentionally coded signs and symbols. Media literacy teaches critical thinking. As Barthes writes, “Ultimately, photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is ‘pensive,’ when it thinks” (1981,  26).

That is what I teach. I try to teach students to think critically, about photography and all the media and messages coming into their lives.

Barthes taught me—and I now teach others—to be alert for the studium and punctum not just in photography but in all media. Be alert to what gives you context about news and the world. Be aware of what kinds of media, what kinds of stories you fasten onto, and what kinds fasten onto you. Be conscious of why. If you do all those things, you will be media literate. And if you do all those things, you will learn important things about who you are.

I now have taught Media Literacy as a general education course to thousands of students at the University of Maryland at College Park. Every semester, I tear the course apart and teach it anew: the changing tools and technology of media insist that I do so. And as media have become ever more visual, having students learn about images, why they matter, and why they are powerful has become more and more central to the course. But even as I remake the syllabus and update the assignments, I’m aware that what matters most to me is that the course nurtures in students a deep concern for how the world is represented and how they represent the world.

It is for that reason that I cofounded the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change in 2007. The program annually brings together students from five continents to work in cross-border teams to brainstorm and develop solutions to global challenges posed by international organizations and foundations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Development Programme UNDP, and the Open Society Foundation. The students, mentored by more than a dozen faculty members representing universities from such nations as China, Lebanon, Uganda, Argentina, and the United Kingdom, focus on the roles that media and media literacy education can play in addressing global concerns, including environment and sustainability, poverty reduction, and human rights. In every instance, visual media are integral to real-world problem solving.

Barthes taught me (and I now teach others) that ideas don’t have to be—and should not remain—theoretical preoccupations; ideas should be applied, in ways central to the well-being of others. What I learned from Barthes is that media literacy is, in essence, a philosophy of life, a philosophy of caring: “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” (1981, 26).

I believe it is Barthes’s modesty and admission of his own frailties, together with his heartbreaking efforts to hold onto that which ultimately must be lost, that makes Camera Lucida his greatest book. I recognize my own frailties in his description of his own, but I continue to be inspired by the passionate humanity that informs his intellectualized analysis of what photography is and what photography can do.
Barthes, R. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Batchen, G. 2009. Photography Degree Zero: Reflections on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Berger, J. 1972. Ways of Seeing. Television series. London: British Broadcasting Corporation.
———. 1990. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.
Dillon, B. 2011. “Rereading Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes.” The Guardian, March 25. Available at
Elkins, J. 2007. Photography Theory. New York: Routledge.{AU: Source not cited in text. OK to omit from list, or do you want to add cite somewhere?}
Grundberg, A. 1981. “Death in the Photograph.” New York Times, August 23. Available at
Moyers, B. 1988. “Martha Nussbaum.” A World of Ideas. Available at
Sontag, S. 1977. On Photography. 


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