Camera Lucida: Roland Barthes’ Meditation on his Mother’s Death.

My tutor Jayne recommended a reading of Camera Lucida from the part where Roland Barthes meditates on the elusive nature of memory in relation to his deceased mother.  I found the book hard to understand at the beginning and I did read some of the recommended part before but I decided to re-read it twice and only when my mind is ready to absorb dense information.  To my surprise, I loved it and I very much enjoyed this part, it relates so much to my situation when I lost my grandmother.  I am here summarizing what I understood from the book:

After the death of his mother’ Barthes went through her photographs.  He had no hope of “finding” her.  Barthes was looking for a photograph that “speaks” of his mother.  He found lots of photographs of her but they all speak of history “his non-existence“.  A picture of her when he was not born yet, where history separates him from her, when there is no memory of him of her.

Barthes wanted to discover in her photographs, objects that reminds him of her, things that he saw and remembers such as objects she kept on her dressing table, her ivory powder box, etc.

Barthes considers the time when his mother was alive before him is history, a period that is good to see and acknowledge but not recognizable to him since he did not exist at that time.  The fashion, clothes she wore, items etc all unrecognizable to him.  He wanted a photograph of her that reminds him of the face he saw and recognized, the smell he loved and the memory of his existence with her that he cherish.  He wanted to find her in that photograph.

Barthes states that Photography forced him to perform what he called a “painful labor” as he was struggling to find the essence of his mother’s identity, the true “complete” her until he found the “Winter Garden Photograph” which to him provokes her truth and not just her identity.

The photograph was very old with blunted corners and faded sepia print.  It shows his mother ate age 5 with her brother age 7 at the time (1898) posed side by side under the palms of the Winter Garden (a house where his mother was born).

Barthes rediscovered his mother in this photograph.  It reveals all the innocence and kindness that he sees in his mother being a grownup.

Barthes looked at the old photographs by moving back through time just like Greeks who entered into death backwards, what they had before them was their past.  In the Winter Garden photograph, Barthes found his mother, the little girl in that old photograph is the little girl of his that she became during her illness.  The one he nursed and helped during her weakness.

To me the photograph of my grandmother that I cherish the most and reminds me more of her is an old Polaroid photo of her hugging me tightly while I am sitting on her lap.  My grandfather’s thumb that ruined a small part of the photo, my grandmother’s sweet look at me is the true “her” that I missed.  I can still hear her asking my grandfather to take the photo of the two of us and I can still hear my grandfather asking me to smile.  I don’t remember how old I was perhaps 10 but I remember everything about this photo and the place where it was taken.  Looking at the photo you can read the sweetness and kindness in my grandmother’s face.  The photograph is also so close to my heart because although my grandfather is not in it but I still see him in the photo from the mark he left of his thumb and him being behind the camera making a conversation with both of us (my grandmother and I).  I did not only miss her but I also miss him.  They both played a big part in my life and losing them was the most painful.  The look in my eyes in that particular photograph seems like if I knew this was coming, I was not smiling, I just stared at the camera!  The photograph to me talks about both of them, the sweet relationship between them and the love they have for me.  Those things that I remember and cherish.

Looking at the photographs I created for my grandmother’s memory, one photograph in particular explains me the most after their death:


When everything has ended and you can no longer hear the voices of the people you love or visit the places they were once in, it’s no longer the same place, everything is changed, everything is different, everything is gone, only painful memories stay…

Bibliography / References:

Barthes, R. (2008) Camera Lucida. TATE Publishing: London.


3 thoughts on “Camera Lucida: Roland Barthes’ Meditation on his Mother’s Death.

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