An Old Uni Essay: Photo’s as a Way of Telling: Berger

I was digging in my old PC archives again and found one of my favourite essays out from uni days; the year 2000 to be exact. That’s pertinent for the reference in the essay to The Dome. This essay has come back to my mind recently because @learningspy said a few weeks ago he was reading Berger’s book, which this essay rests on in part. And then, @imagineinquiry shared a clip from Blade Runner that I’ve also quoted in my introduction here. So, a few minor coincidences triggered this. Hope you enjoy some of it as much as I did back then (and still smile about when reading now) 🙂

To what extent can the photographic image be ‘another way of telling’ (Berger)?


The 1980s futuristic movie, Blade Runner, attempts to make a profound statement highlighted by the short-lived, yet sight-rich ‘lives’ of human ‘replicants’, created as adults to colonise and work on other planets. The replicants, created as expendable workers, live only 4 years. At the beginning of their ‘lives’ they have no knowledge of human emotion, but within the space of their 4 years they acquire it. In a desperate attempt to build an emotional memory bank, the replicants stockpile photographs, demonstrating high appreciation of visual experiences and related memories and feelings. When one replicant leaves his photographs behind the loss felt is immense; he lost his ‘precious photographs’. Upon dying, the last replicant tells our human hero that what his eyes have seen is far beyond anything the human could imagine. Yet now, as he dies, the replicant knows that the memory of what he has seen will not be recalled by anybody or anything else. His visual memories will be lost forever, ‘as tears in the rain’. Photographs are therefore portrayed as being fundamental to the human experience of emotion and feeling and memory. They are building blocks of memory banks, and records of an ‘isolated instant’ (Berger 1982:95). The private photograph is treated and valued today as if it were a materialisation of a glimpse through a window that looks across history towards that which was outside time (Berger 1982:108). And, photographs ‘speak’.


Photographs have been analysed as to the significance of their use, their content, meaning and nature. In the context of this essay, photographs, as a way of ‘telling’, are defined: separately from words, cinema, paintings and drawings, which exist in their own special sphere of meaning, use and interpretation. Photographs are seen as ‘motionless images’, fastened down, like butterflies (Barthes 1984:57), to be beheld and observed. They are observed, however, in juxtaposition to history and speech, which are other ways of ‘telling’. The extent to which the photographic image is another way of telling is limited only by 1) at the level of the individual, the experiential/reflective capabilities of the individual, and 2) at the social level, by the collective accumulation of experience and reflection of that society, and 3) by the photographic images themselves.


Material here considered includes the discussions of Barthes, Berger, Chaplin, and that collectively presented by Cooke & Wollen. If Barthes were to walk into a museum of photography, he would no doubt face a dilemma. One may well ask if he would be there in the first place, as his dilemma, according to his Camera Lucida (1984), would stop him from attributing any value to photographs, first of all if they were not his own, and secondly, if placed for appraisal in such a wide social context, and therefore given wide social significance. While Barthes has his own explanation of this, Berger (1982) had already extended the theoretical boundaries of the deeper meaning of that which Barthes said, and set the theoretical value of photographs in a wider arena, writing about their ‘language’. Chaplin (1994) elaborated further, and in greater detail, how the photographic image can be another way of telling, mainly according to sociology , and Cooke and Wollen (1995) contribute with further examples of visual display, to show how other images also fit into the paradigm of ‘telling’, relating how they ‘speak’, to who, and in what way. To ‘tell’ something, the photograph must have meaning, to someone, about something.


For Berger, photographs actually speak. It is in this way that they are a way of ‘telling’. They speak with the language of appearances (Berger 1982:111). However, he also says this language is only a half-language, due to the gap between the coherence of photographs and human perception of them (Berger 1982:118,119). Appearances, be they represented in photographs or otherwise, cohere (Berger 1982:113). They cohere according to common laws of structure and growth, and establish visual affinities (Berger 1982:113). They cohere in visual imitation, which begins as soon as a developed eye exists (Berger 1982:113). Appearances distinguish and join events, and to recognise an appearance requires the memory of other appearances (Berger 1982:113). In relation to photographs, we think or feel or remember through the appearances recorded in the photograph (Berger 1982:124). Photographs then become a better way of telling than words. Photographs are used in expressive communication. Some events recorded in a photograph are too complicated to enumerate in words (Berger 1982:125). A photograph from a million miles away may speak to us through an idea, to our fingertips, or to a memory of what our fingertips once felt (Berger 1982:126). When we see an expressive photograph that tells us something, the photograph moves us (Berger 1982:129), in the same way as when reading the words of a letter from a best friend or close relative. But photographs speak to different people, and groups of people, in different ways.

In the figure above, photograph ‘x’ has little significance to the ‘private’, or the individual, but has large significance to the public, to whom it speaks volumes and which at the same time includes the individual. The determinant of the scale of significance of a photograph in this case being time; i.e. as to how the time represented in the photograph has been made to stand still and the extent to which it is then understood as a result of the photograph. The photographs belonging to the replicants in Blade Runner for instance would have been large at the private, individual level above, but small and with little to say for themselves at public level. One might use another arbitrary example to illustrate – a bird’s eye photograph of the Millenium Dome for instance. This photograph would be large in scale of significance to the public, and say lots, because of the depth to which time has been understood by the references the image makes. It would reference the end of an era (the 20th century) and the start of a new (the 21st century), and political controversy surrounding the object’s presence and meaning. And, for the people who have now visited the Dome, it would also reference human knowledge, education and achievement by means of its social content. They would reference their visit to the Dome and the memory of what they saw with the new picture they were seeing of it now.


To the individual, however, it might mean very little, especially if one had not been to the Dome and was not interested in going. Therefore, its significance to the private individual would be small, meaningless. The irony of this, though, is that at the same time this photograph could indeed be very large in significance to the private individual – especially if they were the photographer (Barthes ‘operator’ – 1984:9). This could be true even if the observer (Barthes’ spectator – 1984:9) of the photograph were not the photographer. It is the role of the observer, or ‘spectator’, which is of interest in this discussion.


As a better example and case study, we have Barthes’ contrast of the value of photographs in terms of what he calls ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’. For Barthes, ‘studium’ applies to the element in photographs, which to him represents little personal meaning, but which is socially loaded. One has for example Koen Wessing’s photograph, ‘Nicaragua, 1979’ (Barthes 1984:22). Barthes remained unpleased, uninterested and ‘un’-intrigued by this photograph on a personal level, but ‘foresaw a structural rule’ on a different level, which, by definition, was not personal (Barthes 1984:23). He grouped other photographs together with this one, according to his structural rule, and said their homogeneity was as cultural scene only (Barthes 1984:25), providing a ‘classical body of information’ (Barthes 1984:26). This produced in Barthes an ‘average feeling’, which he in turn used to classify the level of human interest produced by the photograph as ‘studium’ (Barthes 1984:26). ‘Studium’ then, fits into my above schema as photographs with large significance to the public, or socially and culturally. For a Blade Runner replicant any photograph not of constructive value to the building of his/her personal memory bank would have been of the ‘studium’ type.


At the other end of the scale, we have Barthes’ ‘punctum’. ‘Punctum’ shoots out from a photograph and pierces Barthes, as an individual, like an arrow, punctuating photographs with points of meaning; it strikes the spectator with that which is poignant (Barthes 1984:26,27). ‘Punctum’, in contrast with ‘studium’, which has to be found, is apparent at once. This is because of its ‘large’ meaning to the private, the individual – this time at the other end of my schema. A Blade Runner replicant’s photographs were filled with punctum; signals to invoke emotion based on memory recorded in a photograph. It is important to note, however, that photographs, which give one person an impression of ‘studium’, may at the same time hit another with ‘punctum’. And, while a person recognises elements of ‘studium’ in a photgraph, they may also simultaneously gain the benefit of a certain ‘punctum’ as well. This implies that a photograph can co-exist simultaneously at both extremes on my schema; having ‘large’ public, and ‘large’ private meaning.


An interesting example is Barthes’ commentary on a photograph of Queen Victoria. The Queen is seen sitting side-saddled on a small horse, which is bridled and held by a kilted man, presumably a Scot (Barthes 1984:56). Barthes analyses the photograph for content of ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’. He finds ‘studium’ in the historical interest of the photograph; ‘she is on horseback, her skirt suitably draping the entire animal’ (Barthes 1984:57). Barthes sees ‘punctum’ in the kilted groom holding the horse bridle (Barthes 1984:57). Barthes’ mind runs riot with ‘what if’ scenarios: ‘What if’ the groom failed his duties in supervising the horse, ‘what if’ the horse began to rear, what would happen to the Queen’s skirt – to her majesty (Barthes 1984:57)? Here Barthes sees the ‘punctum’ bringing to life and bringing ‘out’ the Victorian nature of the photograph (Barthes 1984:57). This aspect of ‘bringing to life’ the nature of a captured moment by means of a photograph is subjective, and therefore individual. Yet, it also requires the added benefit of conjecture enabled by knowledge of history.


Here, Barthes’ punctum would not have aroused his interest if he had not known about the time and place of Queen Victoria. He would not have wondered about the consequences of her losing her majesty if he had not known she had had any. Moreover, while the idea of Queen Victoria’s skirt flying above her head while the horse gallops mercilessly off into the distance may seem amusing in a Pythonesque way, one supposes that Barthes’ ponderings were of a nature more to do with the seriousness of the matter of a highly esteemed royal figure being shamefully reduced by an uncontrollable animal at the hand of a subordinate foreigner of the British Empire. Outrage! Other knowledge may cause one to ask if the Scot was the now notorious Mr Brown. This could be speculated upon further, but nevertheless serves to demonstrate the link between ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’; Barthes’ ‘punctum’ was fuelled by ‘studium’. That, which made significance to him on a personal level, was borne of that which already existed on a wider, social scale. So while on my trajectorial schema photographs slide between significance of public and private, it would also appear that in a different sense, private exists within the boundaries of the public, socially significant realm. Or, as Berger says, ‘if we are looking at an image from the past and we want to relate it to ourselves, we need to know something of the history of that past’ (Berger 1982:102).


While Berger speaks of photography as a means of expression, he also distances himself from it theoretically (Berger 1982:83). He examines the nature of writer/photographer collaboration and the relations between images and text in the light of the problem of communicating experience (Berger 1982:83,84). On the one hand Berger shows how a photograph can be examined by a positivist approach, reporting exactly what one sees in a photograph without implying meaning, which he says forms part of ‘game’ playing (Berger 1982:86). The information obtained by means of the positivist approach provides ‘evidence’ of existence, but tells nothing of the significance of that existence (Berger 1982:86). The photograph contains an element of an instance from the past that was not continued, and therefore represents two messages; one concerning the event photographed and another concerning the shock of discontinuity (Berger 1982:86). This difference, however, he says is not commonly recognised because of one generally taking for granted the loaded content of the photograph (Berger 1982:87), which equates to the level of disinterest we find in Barthes’ definition of stadium.


Similar to the contrast between stadium and punctum of Barthes, Berger also provides an opposite value to the above. The ‘exception’ to his rule of generality comes from the ‘special circumstance’ relating to a deep and singular, personal response to the appearance of the photograph (Berger 1982:87). The similarity between Barthes’ and Berger’s polarities can be represented on my schema: Barthes’ stadium appears at the public end of the scale, along with Berger’s general hypothesis of one taking for granted many photographs, the similarity being found in the lack of emotional significance attached to a photograph. By contrast, Barthes’ punctum is found at the ‘private’ or personal end of the scale, along with Berger’s deep, personal response to appearance, the similarity this time being in the profound existence of the emotional significance attached to a photograph. The dichotomy of meaning that here comes to the fore is a distinction between the superficiality of a photograph on the one hand, and the deep significance of personal attachment with a photograph on the other. This seems to imply the ‘virtues’ of deep significance of one kind of photograph over another.


However, the dichotomy is reduced when thought of in a different way. Berger stresses the ambiguity of photographs according to this classification, and relates the ambiguity specifically to the break in continuity that the photograph effects (Berger 1982:91). Of photographs of public event the continuity is history, but if the photograph has captured a personal event then the continuity that has been broken is a life story (Berger 1982:91). The experience of finding meaning in a personal photograph is equal in importance to that of the deep significance of the socially historic. The difference is that on a collective level society relates to one photograph of social significance in a similar way, while individually each member of society might relate to that same photograph in a multitude of different ways. When text accompanies photographs the significance of a photograph is altogether pre-determined by the one making the ‘display’. The ambiguity of the photograph then diminishes and ‘together the two (i.e. photograph and text) become very powerful’ (Berger 1982:92).


Chaplin shows that words sometimes come in the form of a strong, political message. She reports that ‘the beginnings of social science in the United States are associated with some hard-hitting social photography’ (Chaplin 1994:198). Jacob A. Riis, a reporter, photographed the slum conditions of New York in the 1890s; trained sociologist Lewis W Hine produced photographs which helped his fight against child labour in the period between 1907 to 1918 (Chaplin 1994:198). Of articles produced in the American Journal of Sociology, from 1896-1916, thirty-one used photographs as illustration and evidence in canvassing for social amerlioration (Chaplin 1994:198). However, the use of photographs to put the case for change was wiped away by a later swing towards the favour of ‘causal analysis, high level generalisations and statistical reports’ (Chaplin 1994:198). But it was not only sociologists who had been making use of the photographic medium of communication.


Anthropologists have regarded photographs as sound, objective evidence, building their work around the accuracy recorded by the camera – despite arguments that photographs can never be objective and are as socially constructed as any other cultural representation (Chaplin 1994:199). Once this first hurdle is overcome, then it can be accepted that photographs are both ‘taken’ and ‘made’; ‘made’ as in socially/politically constructed, and ‘taken’ as in produced in order to preserve the detail of a particular culture (Chaplin 1994:199,200). The third party spectator must then take upon him/herself the task of analysing the way in which the photograph has been engineered, in context with any accompanying written text or caption, and the argument must be understood in order to objectify the use of the photograph (Chaplin 1994:200). However, claims that social authors manipulated photographs further add weight to the argument that some photographs cannot be used as objective evidence; they ‘tell’ too much about the aims of the author (Chaplain 1994:204). They also raise the question as to whether photographs tell the truth at all.


Berger’s view of this is highlighted by his comparison of an X-Ray photograph of a wounded leg, which can tell the truth about whether the bones are fractured or not, with on the other hand the question as to whether a photograph could even begin to tell the truth about a man’s experience of hunger (Berger 1982:98). Berger asserts by this that at one level all photographs have the status of fact, and that what must be examined is in what way photographs can and cannot give meaning to facts (Berger 1982:98).


One example of intentional photographic fraud for the sake of the greater good – almost the Robin Hood of photographs – is the 1897 case study of ‘The Smoky Pilgrims’, by Blackmar. Interestingly, this was the first article to ever use photographs in the American Journal of Sociology. Blackmar’s argument was that the ‘ills of the city were not limited to urban environments’ (Chaplin 1994:204). As supporting evidence, nine photographs, in which none of the subjects smiles, most look away from the camera, while others stare or glare into it (Chaplain 1994:204). While this could relate to the several minutes it took for a photograph to be taken back then, one is also asked whether one would have seen the subjects staring/glaring if one had not already read Blackmar’s article, in which the sense of isolation and depressed state of the people was emphasised (Chaplain 1994:204). The fact that the background detail of the photograph had also been removed adds weight to this message, ‘suspending’ the subjects as if ‘unsituated in space or time’ (Chaplain 1994:204). This point on time and photograph manipulation should also be discussed.


Berger’s view was that for a photograph to be of deep and personal significance it had to ‘arrest’ time, and was a break in continuity of history or life story, while Barthes also saw a photograph as capturing the ‘isolated instant’. While an unmanipulated photograph is literally isolated from time and can be understood more because of that fact, one that is manipulated is not only isolated, or put under the magnifying glass for observation, but is also held in ridicule, as it does not tell the truth. Or, if it did, it is not trusted, because it has been manipulated. Such photographs are frauds, and tell lies. Just like ‘creative accountancy’, early sociologists and anthropologists seem to have been guilty of ‘cooking the books’ for the sake of political cause (Chaplin 1994:206). In like style, the more advanced replicants in Blade Runner were duped into believing they were humans. They were given the memories of someone else, and to back up the fraud photographs were supplied in which it seemed the replicant had been a part of the photographed event.


The message in a photograph is sometimes quite subtle though, and is maybe only recognised when placed in context, at which point new meanings may be imposed upon it. Analogous to this is the whole gamut of tools available to genres of display. Cooke and Wollen (1995) show the power of images when employed contextually, their argument being that ‘truth is revealed obliquely through display’ (1995:9,10). They present a series of case studies or examples where visual display, including the sub-set of photographic image, is employed with the intention of imbuing meaning; to the public and to the private. This therefore manifests the ability to manipulate ‘size’ of significance. One example used to demonstrate the contrived results of clever producers are a genre of 18th century medical books (Cooke & Wollen 1995:203). The end result of this display was a proud show of those involved, their work, as well as the insides of the human body (Cooke & Wollen 1995:203). The claim the producers were making was to power; in their field, about their knowledge, and their status. A more up to date example of this practice in the medical field is the hype surrounding the use of technical and abstract images of our bodies. CT, PET and MRI scans have been said to fit into the ‘high-tech medical culture of late Western Capitalism’, either under the bracket of cautionary technophobia or euphoric technophilia (Cooke & Wollen 1995:219). It appears that the frenzy surrounding technological culture and its display of the body creates two responses; one of distrust, the other of utopian embrace and the belief that such new technologies are the tools of social transformation (Cooke & Wollen 1995:219). These images by association ‘speak’ of those issues.


The conclusion one must reach in view of all of the above, is that, while photographs mean different things to different people, existing in varying degrees of size, say many things in their ‘half-language’ and tell many stories dependent on ones own sphere of emotional capacity and historical knowledge, photographs also fit into a generalised frame of reference of more socially profound significance. Photographs are not immune from manipulation, and can mislead the individual as well as society. Photographs can be used to force the hand of social change by the clever use of them, and placing a caption next to a photograph can further define its meaning. Placing a photograph in a body of text or in the context of a wider display can help to define the text or display, and can be used to create the sense of power where before there was none. The photograph therefore tells a different story at every instance, and must be to a great extent relative in significance, just like a twisted or misquoted phrase in an ordinary sentence. So, just as the writer works for years perfecting their prose so as to convey appropriate meaning, and as the photographer trains for years perfecting their art so as to convey appropriate meaning, so must the spectator of the art look on with a trained eye, so as to perceive the appropriate meaning, because more often than not, there is one there.





Barthes, R. (1984). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Jonathan Cape: London.


Berger, J. (1982). Appearances. In, Another Way of Telling. Writes & Readers.


Chaplin, E. (1994). The Use of Visual Representation in Anthropology and Sociology. In Sociology and Visual Representation.


Cooke, L., Wollen, P. (1995). Visual Display: Culture Beyond Appearances. Bay Press: Seattle.

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