Monday, September 13, 2010

Book #25: That Accident Which Pricks Me....

"This second element which will disturb the studium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole - and also a cast of the dice.  A photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)."   -Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

Since my father retired, he has been digging into family history.  The other day while I was at work, he sent me the above photo, which he found upon googling "Minidoka" - the camp where my grandmother was interned during the Second World War.  "I think your grandmother is in this photo," his email read.  "Third girl from the right, in profile.  Zoom in."

And there she is. 

A whoosh of gratitude came over me - had the camera caught her a moment before or after, her face might have been obscured, like the girl on the far right.  Quelle chance!  Then weird thoughts started rushing through my mind.  I found myself looking at the styling of her hair and wondering how, while living in an internment camp, she could manage to keep it freshly curled and glossy (while I, from the comfort of home, can barely make the effort to blow dry).  But imprisoned and made to rake mud, my grandmother would not let herself go and, though I knew that should make me happy, it made me feel sad.  Her dress remains smartly pressed, despite everything.  And while the other girls are working, she appears to me to be only pretending to work - something about the whimsical tilt of her head.  She's caught in a moment of fantasy or denial, her mind a thousand miles away.

The frailties and defenses of her personality seem to be encapsulated in that image....  For the grandmother I knew some fifty years later was a complex, cryptic woman.  She was often cool and remote in person, but had a penchant for florid language (I recall receiving a postcard that said "the stars are like chrysanthemums" and thinking, Huh?).  She shied away from talking about the past, even when my father would press her, until the very final days of her life when she began to give in.  She was a woman who seemed ill prepared to be a mother or grandmother, preferring to play the role of a younger aunt, dressing half her age.

It was as if she always wanted to remain a girl - as if some beautiful moment in her adolescence had been stolen away.

Looking at this photo makes me think of Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, which I read years ago (back in my geeky, academic days).  At the time, I thought I understood what Barthes meant in coining the terms punctum and studium to describe two different and opposed kinds of experience upon looking at photographs.  By studium, he means the cultural and political dimensions of a photograph, all the ways in which it can be rationally discussed and made comprehensible to an audience.  By sharp contrast, punctum refers to a viewer's private experience of a photo - a purely subjective response.  To experience punctum is to feel idiosyncratic details jump out and grab you with such emotional force that you feel pierced, wounded. 

At the time of reading Camera Lucida, I had been deeply moved by certain photos which I'd viewed in various museums, galleries and books.  But I cannot say that I'd felt pierced.  Until now.

Photo from: here


Mimi said...

What an insightful and touching blog! I get that "pierced' feeling when looking at old photos of my family and myself in younger days.

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Thanks, Mimi! I think "punctum" is quite a universal feeling....


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.