Tag Archives: Photography

21 Tags: a reflection on the group project

In this entry, I will reflect on our group production project, “21 tags:the Documentary New Media Tag Hunt,” summarizing what the project achieved, how it could be improved, and how its approach (and new media more generally) might inform my own documentary practice going forward. As a web-based work, it can be viewed at mfataghunt.blogspot.com (best viewed with Firefox), and the previous two entries on this blog serve to provide some sense of the project’s evolution from conception through to completion.

Initially, we intended to make a distributed photo-documentary in real time on Toronto Island, focusing on a specific event – the 2008 Cycle Messenger World Championships. As the project evolved, we discovered that there was a considerable logistical problem facing our original plan; namely, that wireless internet access is only available within a relatively small radius of the Island marina, and that this connection is frustratingly slow. We thus opted to abandon the real-time-uploading aspect of the project, and, accordingly, to put less emphasis on the time-sensitive sporting event at the project’s core. In its place, we decided to shift our focus towards producing a more general, poly-thematic documentary about our collective understanding of a shared geographical space. At the same time, we also developed an interest in interrogating the value of tags as semantic/thematic categories, and decided that it would be interesting to collectively create a list of 21 tags in advance of the photo shoot, constituting the parameters for the documentary while allowing the participants the freedom to interpret and discover these tags according to their own personal tendencies and curiosities as documentarians. We hoped that the result would be a number of interlinked web-pages displaying separate photographic slideshows for each of the tags, with each slideshow creating a kind of collaboratively-authored typology reflecting, on the one hand, our interpretive differences as artists, and, on the other, our collective knowledge of a place.

Alex raised the important point that the photos taken during this tag-based “scavenger hunt” could descend rather easily into total incoherence; photographs, pregnant with so many potential readings, naturally have an interpretive openness, and we did not want the finished product to become a meaningless jumble. We decided to address this by requiring each photographer to write a short caption about each of their tagged photographs, and then severing this text from the photos and randomly juxtaposing the captions with any like-tagged images in the slideshow. Our goal was to ascertain whether images and text by different authors can display correspondences reflecting their shared senses of dwelling within a certain space. We had hoped that certain captions would have coherent (and yet variable) relationships with multiple images, and that said relationships would occupy a continuum ranging from the purely literal/expository, to the more ironic, metaphorical, or poetic. Thankfully, our experiment was largely successful, in that many of the tagged slideshows do work as convincing typologies, and the image-text relationships are often rich testaments to the coherence and even power of collaborative, distributed documentation. That said, some of the captions are too specific to their author’s own vision, and become incoherent when juxtaposed with any other images; perhaps we should have set clearer parameters for the captioning component to avoid this.

Before we set out on our photo shoot, it was difficult to know whether the project stood any chance of achieving a coherent sense of dwelling in the space of the Island. However, immediately upon returning from the Island with our photos and captions, we were much more confident about the project’s soundness; while each individual photo presented in some ways the visual hallmarks of its author, the combined result (especially when mapped in Flickr or Google Maps) was a kaleidoscopic or cubistic view of place, a kind of psychogeography of Toronto Island (though I confess I have little formal knowledge about Debord’s concept and, for fear of misunderstanding it, will not elaborate on it more fully here).

One thing I learned from this project is the value, modularity, and flexibility of freely-available, open-source web tools and interfaces. Lacking much programming ability, our group was entirely dependent on such platforms to display and organize our content. We stored, organized, keyworded, and geo-tagged our content in Flickr’s database, and displayed it in slideshows using a Flickr add-on called Pictobrowser, whose code we embedded into 21 separate Blogger blogs. We were afraid the result would look too jerry-built and/or pre-fabricated (and indeed, compared to a custom-made web interface, it certainly did!), but with a little inquisitiveness, we were able to tweak our embeddable code to make the finished product fit our desired form and style.

If we could do the project again, I would make several changes. First, I would have a stronger idea of the finished interface in advance of the media collection, to allow me to design the collection parameters more carefully. For instance, had I developed the interface in advance, I would have realized that the presence of vertical photographs requires one to increase the dimensions of the Pictobroswer slideshow, causing the captions to be hidden from view; in turn, I would have known to insist that all photographs must conform to a horizontal aspect ratio. I would have also kept the captions in text form (rather than converting them into stylized JPGs in photoshop), so that, according to Alex, we preserved their value as searchable, feed-able “data” that could be manipulated, filtered, and reorganized with powerful programs like Yahoo’s “Pipes” (we did experiment with Pipes as a means of randomizing the orders of images, but found some of its inner workings confusing). Lastly, I think this project’s strength lies in its ability to present a documentary portrait of a place from many vantage points, in the tradition of projects like [mumur] (discussed in a previous blog entry). In my opinion, the project’s effectiveness would thus be greatly magnified if it were a larger collective enterprise, one which presented the perspectives of dozens or even hundreds of participants as opposed to merely seven. But the possibilities for expansion remain…

During the New Media course, I was introduced to several ways of using the virtual and physical facets of computing to create new kinds of experiences, many of which appear to have a great relevance to documentary. I was surprised to find that working on a distributed documentary with a group was remarkably liberating; as predicted in the article on urban sensing, I found myself taking pride in the collaborative nature of the initiative, not just the limited products of my own lens. Authorship, carrying with it connotations of ownership, competition, and heroic “auteur” mythology, was minimized, and in its place, emerged a work whose strength lay in its multiplicity of voices. Also, lacking a single “director”, distributed documentary entails a whole different approach to methodology than is found in established doc media such as film and photography. Another thing I learned in new media was the importance of thoroughly considering and testing out presentation space (whether virtual or physical) before displaying art work, both documentary and otherwise. Although I am still very new to the traditional image arts and have much to learn about them before I can fully understand and harness the potential of new media approaches, this course has opened my eyes to new ways of producing, presenting, and promoting documentary content. Going forward, I know I will find both a challenge and an opportunity in exploring the greater palette of possibilities that lie beyond the boundaries of traditional media.

Above: A bit of documentation from our photo shoot on the Island. The air-mail envelopes (sealed with wax!) each contain a list of the tags to be photographed, and a map of the Island to facilitate geo-tagging (though portable GPS units would have been preferable). The notebooks are for writing the accompanying captions.

Above: a rejected title bar for the website. Notice the ghostly nude figure, seemingly unafraid of an approaching storm.


Pervasive urban sensing / art vs. data

In a previous entry, I discussed my experience uploading content to Flickr, reflecting in particular on the implications of making EXIF metadata publicly available alongside the photographic image. In the article “Urban Sensing: Out of the Woods” by Dana Cuff, Mark Hansen, and Jerry Kang (2008), the concerns I voiced (in a somewhat impressionistic manner) about the building of a web-based data commons are systematically discussed under the headings of “property” and “privacy”.

As regards property, the authors note that “Copyright law only protects creative expressions; it does not protect the underlying data” (p.30). In the case of Flickr, this raises an interesting problem: is a digital photograph uploaded to the web a “creative expression” or an informational record? Or, more fundamentally, is it “art” or “data”? I had mentioned that, in the context of my printed photobook, the photographs decidedly fell under the “art” rubric, in that they were geographically non-specific images aimed at connoting a personal state of mind — lacking captions (and thus, context), they were not “data” in the traditional sense (or, to use the article’s term, they are scientifically worthless “junk data”). But when uploaded to Flickr, with metadata specifying time and photographic settings, and geographic data supplied voluntarily by me when I mapped the photos, the photos, freely available and submerged in the sea of information, lose some of their “artistic” value as standalone works (for instance, the monetary value the work might have in a high-quality, limited-edition print); simultaneously, they acquire an informational value as “data,” that can be aggregated with other citizen-collected information for any number of uses. (And, if my camera possessed a GPS sensing component, the geographic data could be as precise as the temporal data). The article asserts that what one loses in individual property rights one might gain through “attribution,” which I interpret as the ability to advertise one’s talent as a citizen data-gatherer and feel rewarded by contributing to a larger project. And I agree that being part of a distributed data-gathering project (such as distributed documentary) can be very rewarding.  

However, I think there is a curious paradox in today’s world, in that the need for academic credentials to “get ahead in life” has never been higher (look at the proliferation of MFA and MBA programs for proof), yet articles such as this one evangelize on behalf of the idea that “research” (scientific/artistic/political) is leaving the rigid central control of the Academy and becoming dependent on mass participation by all citizens, whether expert or not. Credentialization as a means to power vs. citizen participation as a means to knowledge: I have no clue what the implications of this are, except it doesn’t seem to be a sustainable tension. Thoughts?

The loss of privacy seems to be a simpler matter — constant self-surveillance, in which people voluntarily record and share information about their location and activities, is becoming the depressing norm. While the article argues that people will not contribute data to the commons if they perceive that “computer security is weak”, quite frankly I do not know if most people have any sense of how good or how bad “computer security” actually is. I, for one, do not. I did not even know that all my metadata was being gathered along with the coloured pixels in my photographs, and for all I know, maybe there IS a GPS sensor in my Nikon D80. But the web has enough conspiracy theories out there, and I have to get to class in the Rogers Communication Centre by 1 pm (there’s some self-surveillance for you!). Let’s just say that, as the article notes, privacy preferences ARE adaptive, what seems radically invasive today may seem commonplace tomorrow, and the cultural creep towards 1984 will go unnoticed by most.   

One question I’d like to throw out there: the article discusses the importance of data visualization (and who doesn’t love a good multicoloured map or cartogram?). But do we run the risk of a “culture of visualization”, where data integrity is secondary? 

Work Cited:

Dana Cuff, Mark Hansen, and Jerry Kang. “Urban Sensing: Out of the Woods.” Communications of the ACM 51:3 (March 2008): 24-33.    

Virtual space as context of presentation

Now that the blog has been up for a little while, I have had some time to contemplate Alex’s question as to the effect of space (in this case, virtual space) on the context of presentation for visual works. Recently, I uploaded some landscape photographs to Flickr (see sidebar), taken on Toronto Island and in some midtown ravines in the dead of winter; these were originally presented in a printed book, produced for Blake’s Doc Studies class. For that project, I had juxtaposed these images with a personal archive of old letters and postcards, attempting to suggest emotional correspondences between text and images. In the original context of the book, the photographs were not captioned, and thus, deprived of their geographical specificity; their primary purpose was to present desolate, empty spaces and suggest the condition of solitude (admittedly in a rather Romantic way, along the lines of Caspar David Friedrich).

Flickr radically changed the context of presentation, and thus altered the meaning of the work. Using Flickr’s map function, I was able to pinpoint, with near-exactitude, the geographical locations recorded in the photographs, and was able to see all the photographs taken by the Flickr community in the immediate vicinity of those locations. For one thing, the sense of individual solitude was decidedly diminished; though the photographs depicted lonely snowscapes, in Flickr Maps, it is possible to get a sense of the sheer volume of photographers documenting the same (or nearby) terrain. “Documenting” is a key word; once a landscape photograph is pinpointed in Flickr (or Google Maps, or Wikipedia, for that matter), it becomes less a Romantic or expressionist reflection of the image-maker’s consciousness, and much more a specific document of a place at a given point in time. And the availability of EXIF metadata means that users can tell exactly which given point in time the photo depicts, not to mention how the photographer has enhanced the image in Photoshop. The photo becomes less singular, less mysterious, and more a piece of a bigger documentary puzzle. In effect, social media platforms such as Flickr make your photos part of an ongoing, collaborative documentary/encyclopedic mission, to record every place, person, thing in existence, from every possible temporal-spatial vantage point. (Obviously, the goal of said mission is unattainable; although with the proliferation of webcams, the paranoid and otherwise Orwellian-minded might reasonably disagree).

The paradigm changes, as individual images, immersed in a sea of other images, lose some of their individual value, but gain a different significance as part of a collaborative project, and the ego is forced to adapt (or possibly turn inward to painting or making daguerrotypes). That being said, sometimes I peruse the billion or so debates raging fiercely between thirteen-year-old wikipedians from their parents’ basements, and I am reassured that collaborative, financially non-lucrative online ventures do not by any means entail the death of the ego.   

An aside: personally, I opted to hide my EXIF data, for several reasons. For one thing, I think photographs, even those posted on social media sites, should leave viewers with some mystery (“was that Photoshopped?”, “what time of day was that?”, “was that taken recently?”). For another, as a novice photographer, I feel self-conscious, and don’t want the broader world to know that I took a picture in broad daylight with ISO 1000 (can’t I claim that my specific technical deficiencies are private?). I imagine that professional photographers would consider some of their metadata to reveal trade secrets; my metadata only reveals my flaws. (But then again, would professional photographers with a mind to asserting the monetary value of their work actually post work on Flickr?) Lastly, a minor point: I didn’t like being included in a graph depicting how many thousands of people used the same camera model – does Flickr exist only to provide market research information for Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Apple, Adobe? Anyway, my anxiety over metadata is, for now, mostly academic. I have received about ten picture views during brief my tenure as a Flickerite, and a sum total of zero comments.

By the way, I am still reflecting on the way physical (as opposed to virtual) space changes the context/meaning of visual work. We didn’t really get far during the exercise in which we were to project work on non-traditional surfaces (for the record, I brought a special holographic edition of National Geographic and some silk scarves, but time elapsed before I got to experiment with them). Will return to this question next time.   

Preliminary reflections on new media

First, a disclaimer, or, more accurately, an excuse: lacking a production background in any of the three documentary media (my university degree is in history), all media are technically “new” media to me. Prior to the beginning of the MFA program, I had never made serious use of either a still or motion-picture camera and was convinced that the intimidating world of even newer media was thoroughly beyond me. (In fairness, I did have one short documentary to my credit, an exceptionally naive five-minute nature film shot one afternoon on Toronto Island using the video function of a Sony point-and-shoot. It was called The Canada Goose: Friend of Man – link to follow). Furthermore, my brother, a software engineer at Microsoft in Seattle, was adept at belitting my modest computing skills.

With this aside, over the past two weeks I have already begun to open my eyes to the potential of new media, in both its physical and virtual manifestations, to complement (and challenge) traditional documentary conventions of process, form, authorship, etc. Truthfully, this sense of new possibilities emerged somewhat more gradually over the last several months, through exposure to works like Robert Arnold‘s then-unfinished Rotunda Project, an installation work that combines time-lapse imagery of the University of Virginia rotunda taken by a remotely-controlled camera with electronic musique concrète composed out of environmental sounds. Arnold’s Morphology of Desire, a “continuous loop” video created from Harlequin Romance covers and displayed in the Ryerson New Media Gallery, was also inspiring. Another eye-opening exposure to a new-media-type process was seeing Tori Foster‘s response to the photographic typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher, produced using some sort of algorithmic process beyond my understanding, and presented on the web (anyone know if the link is still active?). And this is clearly just the tip of the iceberg (these examples demonstrate new ways of integrating computing into documentary production and presentation, though neither would appear to address the interactivity that is key to much new media work). It’s still an intimidating iceberg, but definitely worth trying to scale.

Today, an interesting issue emerged in class: the question of whether a documentary must necessarily be situated in the past, or whether a documentary can exist in the present, evolving organically through ongoing interactions with a group of people. The idea of an evolving, present-moment documentary seems, to me, to challenge the traditional notion of documentary authorship, so bound up in a heroic and hierarchical auteur theory. In the traditional view, documentary artists gather material in production, and then use an editing process to transform select “decisive moments” (to use Cartier-Bresson’s term) from actuality into finished, (ideally) perfect products that cannot evolve once they have attained the hallowed goal of “picture lock.” (These products can, however, be supplemented by trailers, subtitles, and something called a “featurette”). New media seems to offer a democratizing, collaborative alternative, in which audiences/participants (just what is the right word for those who share in a new-media experience?) shape the work through interaction with it. New media, with its emphasis on continuing bi-directional or multi-directional communication, seems to fundamentally blur the lines between maker, subject and audience. True, the old media came to emphasize collaborative approaches (the National Film Board’s Challenge for Change program, started in 1967, is an important example), but, at the end of the day, technocrats possessing the means of production still held a good deal of the creative control, and the finished films were, due to the constraints of the medium, still just that: finished, linear, inflexible. The virtual species of new media, in particular, appear to present immense opportunities for work that is ongoing, nonlinear and truly collaborative. Clearly, new media entails a necessary diminishing of the ego (no small feat for someone whose documentary idol was for many years that Wagnerian cowboy/conquistador, Werner Herzog).

Come to think of it, I have had the opportunity to assist on a documentary new media project. It is called Testaments of Honour, and its aim was to produce an evolving, online archive of primary source materials about the Canadian contribution in World War II. Testaments travelled the country conducting interviews with Canadian veterans and scanning their photographs. Rather than organize the material into a single, definitive documentary, the video and photos were minimally edited, meticulously tagged with keywords (using digital asset management software like iView Media – a kind of database, isn’t it?) and made available online through the government’s Heroes Remember website. Not high-concept new-media art, but an attempt to make a large, evolving database widely accessible and somehow responsive to public feedback.

Okay, so I am rambling. I also have some thoughts on how Flickr’s map function changes the experience of sharing/viewing photographic work (and not necessarily for the better), but they are not yet well formed.

Documentary Manifesto

Note: My manifesto was originally entitled “Manifesto: Ten Principles for New Documentary Film,” though most (if not all) points also apply to the production of documentary works in photography and new media.

I. Primum non nocere.

Documentarists cannot know the full impact their works will have on their subjects, but they must take special pains to predict the effects of the filmmaking process and avoid any action that could reasonably be expected to cause mental or physical harm to any living being. In particular, when a subject’s ability to consent to participation is compromised, the filmmaker’s restraint – privileging a subject’s personal well-being over any filmic/dramatic concerns – is essential. For example, filmmakers exploring the memory of traumatic events through re-enactment need to consider whether their attempts to uncover repressed memories will cause their subjects serious distress. In films that reduce the human subject to guinea pig or martyr, the principle of respect between filmmaker and subject is violated. Pious claims of their value to a vague “posterity” are no justification.

II. True activist documentary names its subjects, and understands that human experience is, at its core, individual.

In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag notes the tendency in documentary photography to genericize the sufferings of individuals and subsume the powerless under vast categories of injustice (in the tradition of Steichen’s Family of Man) – rendering the actual subjects anonymous, “representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights”. [1] This, she says, has the effect of engendering in the viewer a feeling that world problems are too immense to be solved. Thus, a deadening feeling of resignation ensues and any positive action is completely inhibited. Only by according victims the dignity of their individual names and circumstances – privileging concreteness over abstraction – have we any hope of achieving a genuinely activist mode of documentary.

III. In documentary film, the archive has the power to illuminate or corroborate a narrative of the past; it must not be deployed to mislead and manipulate.

Allan Sekula, in his essay “Photography Between Labour and Capital,” notes that the use of images from archives necessarily entails a certain loss of original meaning. Being “an abstraction from the complexity and richness of use, a loss of context,” the archive serves as a mere “clearing house” of meaning. [2] Writing about the use of archival footage in film, Stella Bruzzi calls attention to abuses of archival material. In contemporary historical documentaries, for example, specific recollections in voiceover are frequently accompanied by “generic” images to convey a specific mood or feeling – and the helpless audience is lulled into the assumption that the two are factually related (and that the image can be known to reflect the meaning of the scripted narrative). [3] To facilitate the viewer’s unquestioning absorption of such a problematic juxtaposition, music – that cinematic “opium”– is used liberally. (Ken Burns’ work exemplifies this technique, and, as one of the very few household-name documentarists, demonstrates its commercial potency). Without full disclosure of an image’s provenance and context, audiences are unable to perceive the gulf between original and imposed meanings. Aware of these and other ethical issues, Claude Lanzmann’s principled rejection of the archive for his work is commendable.

IV. “The problem of speaking for others” must burden, but not paralyze, the documentarist.

All too often, Western documentarists, possessing means of production accessible only to an elite few, employ a rhetoric of emancipation and inter-cultural collaboration, but they stand alone before festival or film-school audiences, garnering praise and career-advancement not extended to their ostensible “collaborators.” Linda Alcoff addresses the unforeseen consequences of speaking, from a privileged position, on behalf of groups who have been traditionally disempowered and prevented from having an independent voice. [4] However, while a sincere interrogation of one’s social location and context, as prescribed by Alcoff, is indeed necessary for privileged documentarists to understand the impact they have on groups for whom they speak, she gives few examples in which such speaking-for could, in her view, be justified. (Sontag, ideologically likeminded but more pragmatic, alludes to situations where journalistic or artistic responses to sufferings in distant communities might be worthwhile efforts in bringing needed attention to them.) Documentarists have a responsibility to listen attentively to their interlocutors, and to seek new ways to empower their subjects’ attempts at self-expression. But the result should be more equal collaboration in the production of documentary works, rather than the wholesale relinquishment of representative privileges.

V. Documentary depends as much on instinct as on intellect.

The filmmakers of the National Film Board of Canada understood this when they adopted as a model the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose book, The Decisive Moment, emphasized the discovery of subjects in spontaneous, everyday events while incorporating a keen concern for the time-sensitive moments of heightened pictorial composition existing within them. Such moments are the raw material of documentary; they are captured by the firing of a synapse, by a shot of adrenaline, as a cat seizes a bird. Hesitation, self-questioning, rationale: the bird escapes.

VI. Know your tools.

If instinct is an engine of documentary filmmaking, the director must engage physically and knowledgeably with the filmmaking apparatus. The camera and microphone must be connected by flesh to his eyes and ears. Michel Brault, the consummate cinematographer, implores the documentarist: “You must scrub the soul of your camera!” So you must; the still-photographer has always known this. It follows that the ideal work unit is the two-person crew consisting of cameraman and sound-man, conjoined twins working in intimate, fluid coordination: able to penetrate any situation as if a single being, without the drag of vestigial egos.

VII. The documentary camera must make its presence known and engage its subject; the “fly on the wall” is a mere insect, a parasite, waiting to feed! Better that the camera be a friend, coming to dinner.

The histories of documentary film note that the appearance of the hand-held camera (and synchronous sound) circa 1960 caused a forking of paths in the development of the form. On the one hand were the Americans who aspired to capture the drama of “real life” by feigning invisibility and observing their subjects without intervention. In the illustrious tradition of paparazzi, their favourite subjects were glamorous celebrities. At the other pole was Jean Rouch (and certain fellow travelers), who captured the everyday experiences of “ordinary” people with a degree of richness and intimacy not equaled by the Americans because he looked them in the eye, spoke with them, laughed with them. The registrations of the mechanical eye and ear are given life only by the human heart.

VIII. Documentary is a potent means to communicate, build awareness, incite action. It must move beyond the “niche”, appreciated by a small group of initiates. It must strive for universality.

To accomplish this, documentarists must work to overturn the assumption that their art is necessarily a “discourse of sobriety” (to use Bill Nichols’ oft-quoted characterization [5]). Chris Marker has rightly and famously accused the genre of leaving “a trail of sanctimonious boredom” in its wake. Herzog, with his ecstatic images of dreams, nightmares and wild men, has accomplished much in the cause of inebriation. Humour, subtle or overt, is a characteristic of almost all worthwhile documentary – through its ample use, Michael Moore (perhaps documentary’s most unfairly maligned practitioner) has brought an unparalleled degree of attention to issues of critical global importance.

IX. Beware the distinction between documentary and “documentary style.”

In a 1971 interview, the photographer Walker Evans characterized his art as being in a “documentary style,” and asserted that “a document has use, whereas art is really useless.” [6] As an example of a useful document, he cited a police photograph of a crime scene. Without assessing the validity of Evans’ personal rejection of the term “documentary” as applied to his work, or attempting to make an insupportable claim that art and documentary are mutually exclusive, it must be acknowledged that Evans’ comment raises an important issue for the documentarist. “Documentary style” describes a set of aesthetic conventions – in film, this may mean the shaky, grainy quality of hand-held, low-quality footage, or the alternation of talking heads with archival stills – not the function or value of the work itself. Makers must ask themselves what purpose their film serves: is it to record testimony, to advance a political position, to work through a problem? In an age where “documentary style” is deployed to enhance the illusion of reality in fictional works and advertising, filmmakers and viewers alike need to be careful not to confuse its product with genuine documentary.

X. Your work will outlive you, its meaning and value transformed anew in every pair of eyes! Even the most intellectually controlled, authorial works will furnish the future with all manner of unintended subjective experiences.

And thankfully so. For some, Duchamp’s urinal has outlived its statement – it is a nostalgic bathroom fixture, a fine specimen of old porcelain, a window into any imagined past. In the mind it may conjure the Cabaret Voltaire, or the trenches at Verdun. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes of the punctum – the detail in a photograph that punctures the heart of a viewer (and which is so subjective as to vary from viewer to viewer); it is often a minor detail (or an interpretation of a detail) to which the image-maker himself was likely oblivious. The punctum is rarely, if ever, a deliberate addition of the image-maker. “I dismiss all knowledge, all culture, I refuse to inherit anything from another eye than my own,” Barthes declares. [7] The punctum’s key paradox is that “ it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there”: the viewer locates it in an image based on his own, intensely personal and indefinable tendencies and curiosities. [8] While Barthes does not readily find puncta in cinema, I see them there: watching Chronicle of a Summer, beyond appreciating its self-reflexivity and spirit of sociological inquiry (part of its studium), I cannot help but remember (and find strange pleasure in) the innumerable tiny details passing in and out of the frame: the vague but somehow appetizing lunch of a factory worker at her machine, the full lips of an Italian immigrant. As the bliss of images resides in the personal discovery of such little things, I say to all makers and viewers: the punctum is never a misinterpretation! Happily surrender to it!


[1] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 79.

[2] Allan Sekula, “Photography Between Labour and Capital,” in Mining Photographs and Other Pictures, 1948-1968 (Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design, 1983), 194.

[3] Stella Bruzzi, New Documentary (Milton Park, U.K.: Routledge, 2006), 38.

[4] Linda Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique (Winter, 1991-92), 5-32.

[5] Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana UP, 1991), 3.

[6] Leslie Katz, “An Interview with Walker Evans,” in Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, ed. Vicki Goldberg (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981), 364-365.

[7] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981), 51.

[8] Barthes, 55.