Strategies of Thought : Roland Barthes on Images

The last ever Strategies lecture this week ended on high with Roland Barthes on Images. I have read some Barthes before, and quite enjoy his subjective writing style, and was looking forward to delving further into Camera Lucida.

The lecture this week set up a lot of ideas I had vaguely considered before, the distance created by the lense, the repetition of one single moment through the photograph and the way certain photographs can capture a kind of essence, and pushed them much further. The reading and lecture took as their starting point Barthes’ search for a photograph of his mother that properly communicated her, and I found this subjective start point made a lot of the ideas easier to understand as they could be readily applied to personal experience.

The studio seminar following the seminar once again brought up some interesting ideas, and pulled out what is probably the most relevant point within this subject, the idea of studium and punctum. Studium being the first level of interest within a photograph, and punctum being the unintentional thing within this photo that challenges or disrupts the viewing, delivering the most truth within the photo. In terms of a family photo, for example, this could be the way someone is holding their hand, an unintentional action that nonetheless communicates their whole personality.

This idea relates directly back to the challenge of seduction from last week’s lecture, and while we discussed it in the seminar I began to think of Kim Kardashian. As a media figure she is perfectly groomed, dressed and mannered in such a way that I find her almost completely invisible. There is nothing challenging or imperfect about her image which can be ‘held on to’ and so, for me, she becomes a kind of human wallpaper. Compare this with my affection for her sister, Khloe Kardashian, whose public persona, while equally stage managed and contrived, emphasises her ‘quirkiness’ and sense of humour and makes her much easier to relate to. Not that I used to watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians on an endless loop or anything…

Anyway, I digress. As well as the obvious application of studium and punctum to design practice, Barthes method of research and writing could also be considered as an approach to the Methodology and Learning Record essays required on the MA course. Writing subjectively and using your own experiences as part of research creates a far more engaging piece of work, and Barthes method of ‘problematising’ things and asking questions of himself and his working methods provides a way of reflecting on practice useful for any part of design.