In Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography, Linda Rugg describes how Christa Wolf uses the missing photos from her childhood to recreate her past. According to Rugg, “Wolf reenters, reclaims, and rewrites her childhood memories through the photographic frame” (6).
Wolf’s tendency to access her past through photographs is not unique – it’s a common trope that many other writers from Margaret Lawrence, to Michael Ondaatje, to Walter Benjamin have also been drawn to employ in various ways. In fact, photography has been conceived as a metaphor for memory since close to the medium’s very beginning in 1859 (ibid 23).
This is also something that’s brought to the forefront in the newly established Dear Photograph genre, where users submit images from the past that reveal their relation to a specific space in the present. Dear Photograph images are achieved by taking a photo of a personally meaningful space and integrating an older photo into the foreground of the shot.
These types of photos reveal how space has the ability to recall memories from an individual’s past (Weinbaum 400). Dear Photograph images showcase the complex interconnections between space, memory, and photography as all three intersect in each snapshot.
Memories impact how we construct and experience the present-day spaces around us. Dear Photograph makes this process explicit by revealing each person’s punctum, or the element of a photograph that pricks and wounds them or is poignant in some other way (Barthes, Camera Lucida, 27).
A snapshot of an individual’s family home might puncture because it reminds them of an ideal past that’s no longer accessible: of their deceased parents, for instance, who inhabit the majority of their memories of that space. Dear Photograph makes this punctum blatantly clear for all viewers by literally overlaying a photograph of these deceased parents into the present-day frame (see below example).
Further, the text that accompanies a Dear Photograph image makes the punctum even clearer by revealing the photographer’s relation to the subject in the overlaid photo, and to the space that is featured in the background. The captions “direct the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others […] it remote-controls him towards a meaning chosen in advance” (Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image,” 136).
The punctum revealed in Dear Photograph images thus has several interesting functions. It allows for the photographer to: narrate the perceived link between time, space, and self; reveal why certain photos (or more accurately, physical spaces) wound them; and voice a micro-autobiography, uncovering a glimpse of how the past has shaped their present outlook. Of course, as with any autobiographical form, this raises other unique questions of reality versus construction, of memories mediated by external forces.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: reflections on photography. Trans. Richard Howard. Canada: Harper Collins Canada Ltd, 1980.
Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image.” Image – Music – Text. Sel. and Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 32-51.
Rugg, Linda Haverty. Picturing Ourselves: Photography and Autobiography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Weinbaum, Alys Eve. “Ways of Not Seeing: (En)gendered Optics in Benjamin, Baudelaire, and Freud.” Loss: the Politics of Mourning. Ed. David L. Eng and David Kanzanjian. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 396-426.