Following on an in-depth discussion of a section from Camera Lucida last week, I find myself using Barthes’s framework to deal with a photograph I was looking at today by Carl De Souza. The fragment displayed above represents what for me became the “studium” of the image. Just what was “Artisan Fine Art” selling in downtown London? The naming of the shop was a bit curious to me, and I wasn’t aware of any gallery by that name—in this country “artisan” is connected with craftsmanship, not with fine art. The name seemed to be oxymoronic. The mass of cameras in the image seemed incidental and commonplace, a scene that is easily repeated a thousand times an hour around the globe. The detail on a building drew me in more than the spectacle. It provides a good excuse to differentiate other details below the fold.
I located the business web site (it is apparently a multi-location chain) to find that they sell, among other things, a set of limited edition lithographs by Bob Dylan. On another edge of the same photograph, another detail “pricked” me in the way that Barthes attributes to “punctum.”
Why were these people talking on their cell phones in this complex scene? Who were they speaking with? What were they reporting? The drama of the scene is intense, but these guys were nearly smiling as they looked at something far outside the reach of the camera. Or were they thinking of something else, with some involuntary smile trying to exert itself as if to relieve the tension?
This also begs self-reflection: Why to cell phones bother me so much? When they are used in public, at least. Surely the calls these guys were placing were important and they weren’t just chatting with someone as the drama was unfolding. I mean, what really gets to me is the idea that people are so glued to their communication devices that they avoid being where they are at any given moment. This picture really bothered me, not because of a bloodied protestor (a commonplace these days) but because the density of reporting/recording devices threatens to snuff out any real activity or action. Citizen journalists strike their pose for the professionals time after time.
But there is a potentially dangerous misstep in calibrating recording as a bourgeois gesture. When a homeless man took a snapshot of Michelle Obama using a cell phone camera, the outcry on the net was interesting. Typically, the questioning went something like this: where does he have his bill sent if he is homeless? The ignorance of this leap is this: many poor people (both here and in the third world) have cell phones purchased with prearranged minutes that can be added to at a variety of convenience stores. No billing required, duh. The poor have the same needs for communication as the rich, and interestingly enough the same desire to collect images.
I have a niece on welfare who collects all her family snapshots with a $29 cell phone. She has no means to print them, and simply looks at them on a 2” screen. Everyone needs pictures of their family and friends. The collision of the social deployment of cameras/phones as devices for sharing connections and memories and their participation in the great political squabbles of our time is hazy and not easily theorized. Each time I am reminded, it leaves a strange wound in my preconceived notions of what making images means.