This photograph from my childhood is one that I have intimately studied on many occasions. Drawing from Benjamin’s notion of ‘unconscious optics,’ the lens captures a significant moment in this photograph, it is somewhat discernible to the eye. It is this element that raises questions relating to photography’s ability to capture truth, reality and the self.
The photograph from my childhood, was taken in 1979 by the seaside in Greece. It was taken with a film camera, so it is grainy and coupled with the texture of the paper, the fuzziness of memory seems amplified. The photograph enables me to distinctly remember the seaside town and it was December so there was a slight chill in the air. I wore a cream cardigan that my mother had knitted for me. I always wanted her to change the buttons to weaved leather ones that resembled the buttons on my father’s tweed jackets. I sit with my back to the seaside with a pot of pink geraniums on a wall behind me at my shoulder. But this photograph reveals more than is actually remembered because from here I have accumulated many years of memories related to this nine year old child. I see that I feel a little uncomfortable, shy even, I have never liked my picture being taken. My eyes staring straight at the lens, the look on my face and my posture reveal a modest uneasiness as my shoulder is ever so slightly raised.
I am drawn to this photograph because it captured that precise moment of me lifting my shoulder. Benjamin writes, “the invisible inside the visible, those bodily movements that are too minute to be discerned by the human eye and too automatic to impinge on human consciousness.” The cameras revelation, these “unconscious optics,” are crucial if a photograph is to resonate. Hirsch writes, “evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye.”
I often look at this photograph because of this unease. I was a nine year old girl and from where I stand now, I know it was before my sexuality had revealed itself. So why this unease? I know more about this girl from here than what the photograph is actually presenting to me. Cadava writes, “Rather than reproducing, faithfully and perfectly, the photographed as such, the photographic image conjures up its death.” I comprehend that my experience by the seaside, because it was photographed, becomes estranged from the actuality of my memory of it. But is it the death of that young girl? Perhaps that is something I cannot bear. One question continues to interests me to no end, where is that young girl?
Benjamin, W, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in J Curran et. al. (eds.), Mass Communication and Society, Edward Arnold, London, 1977.
Cadava, E, ‘Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History’, Diacritics, vol. 22, no. 3-4, Fall / Winter 1992, pp. 87-93.
Hirsch, M, Family Frames Photography Narrative and Postmemory, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1997.