Life and Death in an Instant

Recently, I finished reading Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, and I was overcome with a feeling of despondency. The book, which is all about the photograph, challenged many of my long-held assumptions and views about the visual image. Like Susan Sontag’s On Photography, it expresses strong views about the photograph, its message, the act of photographing, its many uses, etc. I can see why both these authors consider photographs to be passive and distant, and why, in certain applications, they even make the viewer feel robbed of agency and helpless at being able to effect change. I don’t agree with all of Barthes’ or Sontag’s views, but that is not what made me feel despondent.

According to Roland Barthes, “the photograph is death”. It is an accurate representation of what has been, what was, and what might never be again, at least not in the same way.

As I was approaching the end of Camera Lucida, I realized why it was. I was forced to confront the ephemeral and transient nature of the photograph. According to Roland Barthes, “the photograph is death”. It is an accurate representation of what has been, what was, and what might never be again, at least not in the same way. I cannot argue with this view of his; it is a statement of fact. He uses several examples through the book to explain what he means, but there it is: a photograph once taken, is a moment frozen in time. It is gone. Barthes says, “it authenticates the existence of this-has-been.”

Requiem for a photograph; Image: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In this context, he draws a very important distinction between the photograph and film, or cinema. While both offer fleeting images of moments, the fact that there is something to follow the single frame or image in cinema, suggests it has a “future”. Sadly, the photograph has none. It made me think immediately of how important and all-consuming the image has become in our lives, especially in the age of social media. And how images, as indeed all posts, vanish somewhere into cyberspace, the moment we have tapped on the post or tweet button. We constantly hear of posts, videos, images that have gone “viral”. But where are they? Do you or I as the sender of the photo have any control over it anymore? Can we stop the epidemic? Where has it gone to die, or who indeed is it afflicting?

One of the signs of the capitalist world we live in, is that everything gets transformed into images. And never has it been truer than in the digital age of social media.

Interestingly, Roland Barthes himself uses the word image at one place in the entire book about photographs, when he means what we project to the outside world. And he uses it to mean an image that we project that is different from who we are:

‘Looking around at the customers in a café, someone remarked to me (rightly): “Look, how gloomy they are! Nowadays, the images are livelier than the people.” One of the marks of our world is perhaps this reversal: we live according to a generalized image-repertoire. Consider the United States, where everything is transformed into images: only images exist and are produced and are consumed.’

The image we project in the age of social media; Image: Eaters’ Collective on Unsplash

That is indeed one of the signs of the capitalist world we live in: that everything gets transformed into images. And never has it been truer than in the digital age of social media. Scarcely has our meal been served to us at a restaurant, and we start tweeting and instagraming images of it to our friends and the whole world. I suspect many do it, not just to share the experience of dining at that particular restaurant, or with a certain set of friends, but most importantly, to tell the world this-has-been. I was here and I must be seen to have been here. This is what Roland Barthes is referring to: it authenticates the has-been. Is it any coincidence then, that the world’s first photograph by Niepce should have been a still-life of a dinner table? Barthes thinks that the first man who saw that first photograph must have thought it was a painting.

Even before the days of social media, people were consumed by a compulsive desire to photograph themselves. Especially on their travels. If you were travelling some place on a holiday, well, where are the pictures? Don’t you have any pictures of yourself on holiday to show for it? It was almost like saying, “If you don’t have any photos of your holiday, how do we even know that you were there?” And it wasn’t good enough if you had pictures of the places you visited; you had to be in them. Nowadays, thankfully we have selfies to take care of that.

Travel pictures are always this-has-been; Image: Atikh Bana on Unsplash

Coming back to photographs and Roland Barthes. He writes about certain features of photographs that make them arresting, if you were. The first time we see a photograph, we gaze at it, let our eyes scan over it, and we try to make sense of it. He called this the studium: something in the picture that evokes our general interest and a sense of taste and commitment in our viewing of it. There is also another feature or aspect of a photograph that we don’t necessarily seek out, but which jumps out at us or catches our eye. He calls this the punctum. Most good photographs would contain both elements and I suppose it is the punctum that makes a picture memorable.

I think it might have been the punctum in photographs that might have discomfited Susan Sontag enough to say that photographs (and she most often meant journalistic photographs) leave viewers with a sinking feeling and no sense of agency. They are meant to provoke, but offer no means of influencing or effecting change in a particular situation. In On Photography, she says:

“A photograph that brings news of some unexpected zone of misery cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude.”

In the middle of Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes describes finding an old picture of his mother taken before she died. This must be one of the most evocative passages in the book and one that most of us would relate to: photograph as keeper of memories. That sets him off on a journey back in time:

“Nor could I omit this from my reflection: that I had discovered this photograph by moving back through Time. The Greeks entered into Death backward: what they had before them was their past. In the same way, I worked back through a life, not my own, but the life of someone I love. Starting from her latest image, taken the summer before her death (so tired, so noble, sitting in front of the door of our house, surrounded by my friends), I arrived, traversing three-quarters of a century, at the image of a child… Of course, I was then losing her twice over, in her final fatigue and in her first photograph, for me the last; but it was also at this moment that everything turned around and I discovered her as into herself… (eternity changes her, to complete Mallarmé’s verse).”

Old photographs as keeper of memories; Image: Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

And yet, Barthes thinks that nostalgia has nothing to do with photographs. He believes that the photograph merely corroborates or authenticates that what we see in the picture existed once. The closest he comes to accepting a connection between them is when he uses the expression “flood of photographs”, something we would normally say about memories. Note his use of the capital T and D for time and death respectively in the preceding paragraph.  

There are no real measurements yet for how users are engaging with the digital media, and whether there is any scope for long-term brand-building.

In my area of work, which is brand communications, the photograph, the image is becoming all-important. Even more so, in digital and social media. However, it is also where there is huge room for improvement and innovation. What passes for advertising in the digital medium today isn’t even scratching the surface and nowhere is the “photograph as instantaneous death” truer than in digital advertising. Programmatic advertising, like most of social media posts and adverts, changes and vanishes before the viewer has fully read the editorial (which is why he or she is reading the screen content, not for the advertising). It is supposed to be set in a context, but most often doesn’t give the reader any context for why they want to communicate with you or why you should even be remotely interested in said product/service. Oftentimes, there is no message, just a photograph of the product/service, a product descriptor or a price discount and a “learn more” or “explore” button.

There is no serious attempt being made by the social media companies or the digital publishers either, to create engaging, meaningful advertising formats and features that would help companies devise better communication plans. If anything, platforms like Snapchat and Instagram proudly tout the fact that their “disappearing story” is a great advertising draw, since it is “fun” and their young users find it engaging. There are no real measurements yet for how users are engaging with the media, and whether there is any scope for long-term brand-building. To my mind, all of it is mere digital activation. Yet, we read of advertisers shifting more and more of their advertising spends online, possibly because they have little choice in the matter, since that’s where they believe their customers are.

Image as consumerism; Image: Kevin Laminto on Unsplash

In the process, the advertising and marketing industry are wasting their advertising money, taking a shot in the dark. They seem to have been herded into thinking that digital/social media advertising is the holy grail and worse, that brand-building is different and divorced from digital advertising. Nothing can be more damaging to the health of brands than this sort of thinking.

The solution lies in both advertisers and communications agencies working with social media platforms and digital publishers to devise new, innovative and meaningful communication formats that will take this communication discipline to the next level.

So, if a beautiful photo in a social media or digital advert (because that’s all the space there is) doesn’t make the reader click and visit the company’s website, what can? The solution lies in both advertisers and communications agencies working with social media platforms and digital publishers to devise new, innovative and meaningful communication formats that will take this communication discipline to the next level. I always saw the future of digital communications moving towards the world of one-to-one personalized direct marketing someday and I still do. More than 10 years later, I have to say I am disappointed that not much progress has been made in this, or indeed any other meaningful direction.

Instead, all hopes are being pinned on teenage influencers influencing more teens and tweens, on making them try new products. The entire digital communications business needs to grow up and start addressing real and legitimate brand marketing concerns. The image is what everyone is trying to sell, except that in most cases, it has nothing to do with the brand concerned. One only hopes that brands, like the vanishing stories, will also not vanish into thin air.

The digital medium then, is the new avatar of the photographic image: life and death in an instant.

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