Tamara Rosenblum
How a Desire to Possess Read Death onto the Photograph
(A proposal for a larger investigation)

In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes proposes that a photograph is an image of what has been without revealing to the viewer if that thing remains; that when we look at photographs we understand them as metaphoric killings in the pursuit of the image. This essay reads Barthes’ proposal against the erotic colonial postcards produced in Algeria for a French public presented in Malek Alloula’s The Colonial Harem. I will argue not only that the idea of a dead image cannot be safely applied to the erotic postcard but that such application would represent a troubling misread of the representation of women. In this I am refuting both Alloula and Barthes for whom the objects of representation have been killed, their deaths plaguing both mens' feelings of desire before the photograph. This thesis will prove problematic in that I am reading a philosophical and at times esoteric text written by a man in mourning, Barthes, against a document concerned with uncovering the social mechanics behind a very specific historical event – the postcards were produced almost exclusively between 1900 and 1930. Yet the incredibly prevalent application of the photograph to pornography or the photographic nude asks that it be considered against reigning theories of photography such as Barthes’.

I owe this argument to Solomon-Godeau’s Reconsidering Erotic Photography: Notes for a Project of Historical Salvage. I will use Solomon-Godeau’s central claim that, “Within the realm of sexually coded imagery, there is reason to think that erotic representation demonstrates a shift from a conception of the sexual as an activity to a new emphasis on specularity-the sexual constituted as a visual field rather than an activity as such.” (Solomon-Godeau 33) If the sexual field is constituted as a visual field then the production of desire through still imagery is not a killing from lack of action but an arousal misunderstood as a killing. Alloula misreads his desire as a photographic killing in his attempt to save the Algerian woman from complicity, and Barthes’ desire for his mother causes him to read death onto any image that was not accessible to him.

I find the general acceptance of Barthes’ proposal troubling, too easily applied, and often misrepresented. I believe instead that the photograph can present a thing very much alive for the viewer as this thing is often understood to continue its action beyond the moment of capture. This is the power of the photographic image. Further, that a photograph is not always about a moment but about a point of view, one that troubles, confirms, or refutes the viewers’ sense of meaning.

I hate to simplify Camera Lucida but I must for the sake of this exercise pin down a thesis opinion on death and the image. The problem is that the word death almost means too much and so means nothing comprehensible. Defining photographic meaning is just as slippery. In fact Barthes’ description of death and its relationship to the image is not uniform as that would be too impossible. He says on the one hand that, “The photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been.” (Barthes 85) and on the other that:

“…everything which happens within the frame dies absolutely once this frame is passed beyond. When we define the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figure it represents do not move; it means that they do not emerge, do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies. Yet once there is a punctum, a blind field is created (is divined): on account of her necklace, the black woman in her Sunday best has had, for me, a whole life external to her portrait...” (Barthes 57)

So Barthes’ does not believe that an action in the photograph is necessarily discontinued after the shutter closes, if I understand his first point correctly, yet the photograph must point to a death by stilling by anesthesia, according to his second point, a death which can only be surmounted if the punctum is piercing enough to tell the story on the margins of the image. That photographed thing, may in fact live on for the viewer even if it was stilled for a moment, but if that stillness represents the annexation of its future, its death, then I cannot reconcile Barthes contradiction. And in fact the punctum does not necessarily resurrect the thing that is understood as dead, it merely adds another narrative to the story proposed by the photograph.

I will have to read Barthes thus: that the photograph presents something that was, that may or may not have continued to be and whose presence in front of the camera killed it so that the viewer could view it; although paradoxically it continues to live, its existence complicating any understanding we might try to have of it or of the photograph’s meaning.

Chapter one of The Colonial Harem opens with the idea that the colonial postcard was a representation of a phantasm. “In the paltry space of its representation, the postcard at long last offers the photographer the possibility of roaming through the site of his phantasms…” (Alloula 26) A phantasm is defined as the product of a fantasy by Webster’s dictionary, that product being a delusive appearance, ghost, or figment of the imagination. In platonic philosophy a phantasm is objective reality as perceived and distorted by the five senses. So the photograph is fantasy, or reality as distorted into fantasy. Alloula has reduced the very real women of the erotic postcards into the mental trappings of the colonist. And yet he writes, “…I attempt here, lagging far behind History, to return this immense postcard to its sender.” (Alloula 5) If, as Barthes describes, the figures are anesthetized and fastened down, or mere phantasms, then why the drive to return them; if they are no longer, or never were, why would their presence be so confronting as to inspire Alloula to be rid of them. Do we bring them back to life by publishing and viewing them, or is it in fact because they never died, because the representation of these women does not for the viewer kill them that Alloula must struggle to deal with their continued presence.

“…any engagement with this category of imagery [the photographic nude] inevitably circles back to the central issue-the discursive construction of “woman” as a set of meanings which, once launched into the world, circulates within it and takes on a quasi-autonomous life of its own.” (Solomon-Godeau 220)

The rich life of the erotic postcard, of this representation of woman as object of desire, imbeds the photograph with autonomy. The postcard becomes a fetish object; a thing traded and kept in secret places imbued with erotic power. Does this autonomy of the image derive from the death of its subject as both Barthes and Alloula claim? “What he [the French colonialist] brings back from his expedition is but a harvest of stereotypes that express both the limits of fabricated realism and those of models frozen in the hieratic poses of death.” (Alloula 35) Or, as I argue, can the postcard function as fetish while the viewer understands that the woman herself is alive as object.

The erotic relationship to the image is not limited to the image as fetish but derives from the possible possession of a real life woman. The tentacles of perception reach into the visual field feasting on a figure that exists somewhere in the world, a place that can be visited where she can be had. Nude models were often assumed or understood to be prostitutes, whether or not they were, and they were photographed in a studio meticulously dressed up to look like the orientalist dream of Islamic women’s quarters. Further research would need to be made into the look of Algerian Brothels for this particular point to really stick, nonetheless the aliveness of these women and their existence in a fixed place that the French possessed was present for the images to hold the pornographic power that shakes and violates Alloula to this day. Surely these photographs have very little to do with the real lives of these women, or with their real life surroundings, but they are absolutely not figments of an imagination. The desire for her, the desire she is meant to inspire, seems to confuse Alloula. So as not to tarnish her with any responsibility in the production of the image, Alloula removes her of her existence, ironically imposing a heavier silence then the silence of misrepresentation.

Alloula writes, “Among us, we believe in the nefarious effects of the evil eye (the evil gaze). We conjure them with our hand spread out like a fan. I close my hand back upon a pen to write my exorcism: this text.” (Alloula 5) I had a Moroccan grandmother who taught me to spread my hand out like a fan and run it across my forehead as if I were moving my hair aside when really I was guarding myself against the evil gaze. If she knew I was acknowledging the gaze she would be very nervous. The thing about the evil eye is that you are not supposed to acknowledge it, you are not supposed to let it know that you know about it, hence the sneaky ways of presenting your palm, of secretly guarding yourself. The more interesting note about the evil eye though is that you protect yourself from it in the event that things are going well, in fact, you avoid complimenting the ones you love for fear that the evil eye will target them for their good fortune. If life is truly miserable you have nothing to fear. In my family we never conjured the evil effects of the evil eye. Why would you conjure them, why draw attention to yourself that way! Yet Alloula calls the evil eye in order to exorcise the colonizer’s gaze. It feels as if Alloula is mortified to have been subjected to the same gaze that would have produced the photographs. What could be more alive than an image capable of making Alloula feel violated? Could the life of the photograph be present in his humiliation? When trauma is passed from one generation to the other, and the memory of humiliation is alive in photography, it seems that the photograph is anything but asleep, in fact its continued existence is a wound reopened. The image is alive now for Alloula and the women were alive then for their viewers, the photograph indexing their existence in real time in a real place.