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Re-membering Ourselves Through Photography

In the introduction to her book, Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography, Linda Rugg outlines the complexities of textual and visual signification within the autobiographical genre. Both photographic and textual autobiographical artifacts complicate the position of the author, and disrupt the subject/object binary. Photographic and textual autobiography transforms the author from subject into both subject and object. As authors conjure their self they become an object of observation and other to their self. Borrowing from Susan Sontag, the author as object can thus be “symbolically processed”, the object’s (author’s) connotative and denotative meaning then read through a cultural lens. Thus, the author becomes fragmented through the autobiographical act. Rugg describes this as a dissociation from the self or a double consciousness. She explains it as, “…the awareness of the autobiographical self as de-centered, multiple, fragmented, and divided against itself in the act of observing and being; and the simultaneous insistences on the presence of an integrated, authorial self…a body” (Rugg 2). This fragmentation of the self, though alienating, ultimately allows the author to regain agency through the reassembling, or re-membering of these fragments.

This can be seen in photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero’s collection The Wait Watchers. The series features Morris-Cafiero posing in popular public places, like malls, or the beach, while passer-bys sneer at her appearance. Morris-Cafiero remains the object of her own gaze, but the photographs also allow her to cast her gaze on those objectifying her within the contents of the photographs. Morris-Cafiero states, “While I don’t know what the stranger is thinking, my goal is to reverse the gaze back onto the passer by and start a conversation” (Morris-Cafiero). The assemblage of pictorial memories allows the author to (re)create events, positioning herself as subject, ultimately allowing the author to (re)claim her identity and her body.

Blondie by Haley Morris-Cafiero

Blondie by Haley Morris-Cafiero

The fragmented autobiographer can re-member their identity through the stringing together of pictorial memories, whether those memories stem from photography, mental imagery, or ekphrasis. This stringing together of still frames of memory creates a sort of filmic event, allowing the autobiographer to apply context and meaning to these fragmented references of the self. Photographs in an autobiographical context reintegrate the author’s voice into the re-membered subject, in what Rugg refers to as a resurrection (Rugg 27). Not only is the author re-membered, the author is also remembered as a subject. Autobiographical photography thus give the author the opportunity to exert agency over the representation of their self.

A screen shot from the digital collection of The Wait Watchers

A screen shot from the digital collection of The Wait Watchers

Rugg, Linda Haverty. Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

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About sophiapelka

MA Experiment Digital Media @uwaterloo. Sandwich eater. Into visual n audio semiotics n hard thinks.

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  1. Pingback: My Selfie Practice: Self-Knowledge Production and Agency | Rhetoric of the Digital Image - April 3, 2015

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