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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Final Major Project: Research – Barthes, Sontag, and Downing

Initially, Barthes’ style of writing came across to me as eccentric and obscure ramblings. As I have progressed through the MA, I have come to understand with some of his insights regarding my practice.

Revisiting Camera Lucida recently, I realise that Barthes positions photography as being opposite to memory. He proposes that “not only is the photograph never, in essence, a memory… but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory” (Barthes, 1993: 91)

Sontag supports this view by arguing that the photograph replaces the experience that we had at the time the shutter was pressed. The photograph becomes the memory and is ultimately more durable than the experience itself. (Sontag, 2008)

The idea of the photograph replacing our memory of an event is fascinating to me regarding the consideration our own identity in images. The physical photograph challenges our interpretation of ourself. The more images we view, the more our sense of identity is challenged and disrupted.

“One of the most disconcerting consequences of the destructive effect of photographs on memory… is the always open possibility that the photograph that is mistaken for a genuine memory…that this photograph might not actually belong to his past at all, rendering the identity derived or developed (or simply pictured) from it false and baseless from the ground up.”

–  Downing, 2006: 302

Barthes (1993) proposed that only by examining and exploring the gap between our perceived self-image and our photographed image (i.e., between who we think we are and how we see ourselves portrayed in a picture), can we begin to understand the flexibility required to interpret and discuss photographs. The difference in our understanding of the photographic image compared to our view of ourselves increases the fragility of our identity.

In today’s online image-conscious world, our memory of an event or photograph being taken is bombarded with photographic images. We have a personal relationship to the photographs which impacts on our understanding of self-identity. We create our identity through these images, working hard to be portrayed as who we think we are.

Our individual identities are therefore not fixed, instead evolving and developing over time. We look at a physical photograph and accept it as who we were at that time. Perhaps that is why we are so hooked on social media. The immediacy of posting a photograph allows us to show who we are now.

Barthes (1993) considers how we pose for and actively engage with the photograph. We can change who we are dependent on the purpose of the photograph. There are at least four types of identity in photographs:-

  1. Who we think we are

  2. Who we want others to think we are

  3. The one the photographer thinks we are and wants us to be

  4. The one the photographer will use when disseminating their work.

We have control over how we present ourselves to the camera, even if this conflicts with our perception of identity. Yet we have no control how other people will read and interpret the image.

Revisiting Barthes and Sontag as I begin my final project has really helped me to understand where I have been journeying to all this time. Do I still think Barthes’ is eccentric and obscure? Yes, but I can now clearly see the relevance of his words in relation to my practice.


Barthes, R., 1993. Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Classics.

Downing, E. 2006. After images. Detroit (Mich.): Wayne State University Press.

Sontag, S. 2008. On photography. London: Penguin Books.

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