Camera Lucida by Barthes and Appearances by John Berger: Two Views on Photography

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Roland Barthes
  • John Berger
  • Applying Both Approaches
  • Conclusion


In March of 1980, Roland Barthes wrote a book called Camera Lucida. In the book, Barthes describes what photography is and what it means to him. In 1972, John Berger wrote a book, similar to Barthes’s, called ‘Appearances.’ Though the books had the same general topic, the men had totally different viewpoints on photography.

For Roland Barthes and John Berger, photography was not a specialism but instead an area of interest. As writers, they wrote about photography; they wrote with the knowledge and understanding they had already acquired or were in the process of acquiring. After reading Barthes’s Camera Lucida and Berger’s ‘Appearances,’ we greater understand the lessons and unique vocabulary used to explain photography. Understanding the techniques used by each author will come from taking a photograph from their writing and explaining how the author sees, views, and understands the photo.

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Roland Barthes

According to French scholar, Roland Barthes, photography is a sense of adventure. With a photo there is adventure, but without adventure, there is no photo. One must first find interest in something to take a photo of it. Barthes uses two elements to describe photography. The first element in Barthes description is ‘studium’; Studium is defined as an ‘application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity’ (Barthes 146). A photograph’s studium, in other words, is finding something in the photo that you like, specifically, something that draws interest to you. The second element Barthes uses to define photography is punctum. ‘A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’ (Barthes 147). Punctum is the small detail in which attracts you to the photo. In most photographs, the studium is clear and speaks for itself, whereas the punctum may be hard to acknowledge and can differ from person to person.

By using the photo ‘Idiot Children in an Institution’ used in Camera Lucida, we can point out Barthes’s elements of photography. The studium is clearly known to be the children; for Barthes, the punctum would be the boys collar or the bandage on the girl’s finger. ‘I dismiss all knowledge all culture… I see only the boy’s huge Danton collar, the girl’s finger bandage…’ (Barthes 162). At first glance, I didn’t notice the huge collar but what stuck out to me was the bandage on the finger. For every person, the punctum may be different. These two elements used by Barthes explains what the viewer likes or loves about a photo. ‘A photograph arrest the flow of time in which the event photographed once existed’ (Berger 177).

John Berger

Unlike Barthes, Berger viewed photography as a sense of time. He defines photography as being a contribution to history. From photograph to photograph, each one is used to tell a different story and belongs to a different part in time. According to Berger there are numerous types of photographs and each photo supplies information to the viewer without having language. ‘It is because photography has no language of its own, because it quotes rather than translates, that it is said that the camera cannot lie. It cannot lie because it prints directly’ Photos are evidence; evidence that something occurred or happened in time. (Berger 183). If a photo has no explanation with it, there is no way to know the true meaning of the photograph; we know the photo has a purpose, but what is the purpose? Berger uses a term called ‘game of invented meaning’ to describe photographs he is unfamiliar with.

Take the photo from ‘Appearances’ for example, we know nothing about the photo besides the fact that the man and the horse once existed; they were a part of history. ‘The photograph offers irrefutable evidence that this man, this horse, and this bridle existed. Yet it tells us nothing of the significance of their existence’ (Berger 177). From the photo, the only information we can discover is from our interpretations, otherwise known as, game of invented meaning. ‘Why was it taken? What meaning did it have for the photographer? Would it have had the same meaning for the man with the horse?’ (Berger 176).

Photographs with no explanation go with any story the viewer choose to invent. ‘Nevertheless the mystery of the story does not quite end there. No invented story, no explanation offered will be quite as present as the banal appearances preserved in this photograph. These appearances may tell us very little, but they are unquestionable’ (Berger 177). Taking photographs that have no explanation gives the viewer the perfect opportunity to use Berger’s ‘game of invented meaning’.

Applying Both Approaches

By taking my personal photo, we can further explain the lessons learned by both authors using a photo other from their own. From Barthes’s ideas on how to view a photo, we can use his two key elements, ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’ to greater understand the purpose of the photograph. The studium of the photo is the obvious objects, the two people. The punctum on the other hand will differ from person to person. Some may say the punctum is unclear, while others may say it’s the cords around my neck, while others may say something different. To me, the punctum is the kiss on the cheek. Though you have no information about the people in the photograph, there will still be parts that you like or maybe something that draws interest to you. Using Berger’s ideas on this photograph would include his game of invented meaning. Who are the people in the photograph? Is that her dad? Did she just graduate high school, perhaps maybe college? What are the cords and banner around her neck? Without a title or explanation, we can make up our own story about the photograph. This photograph is a piece of evidence that something happened in history, photographs cannot lie.


In conclusion, there are many strategies used to view photographs. In Roland Barthes Camera Lucida, he offers a few key elements in learning how photography works. According to Barthes, every photo has adventure, a studium, and a punctum. Though all elements may not be present at first and have a different meaning to you than the next person, all photographs must include these elements for them to create a sense of interest for the viewer. Unlike Barthes, Berger explains photographs as a piece of history. All photographs have evidence that tells a story. Whether the photographer gives an explanation with a photo or not, we can create our own story for it. Without knowing the purpose of the photo, there’s no way to know how to view it. ‘The one who looks may explain afterwards; but, prior to any explanation, there is the expectation of what appearances themselves may be about to reveal’ (Berger 197).

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