That Photograph

Photography has played a huge part in our understanding of 20th century history. There are images that most people have seen and few will ever forget. There are even images that we wish we could unsee, that they weren’t imprinted on our brain with so little explanation and understanding attached. Here, of course, I am talking about images of war and genocide; the little girl in Vietnam, the bodies of the people in Auschwitz, their eyes… In her essay On Photography Susan Sontag discusses the impact of such an image, her personal experience and the way in which we get used to these images, how they lose impact. She suggests that “Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel”.(19) Unfortunately there is a “proliferation of such images of horror” and eventually they become “like an unbearable replay of a now familiar atrocity exhibition”. (19) This is something that we constantly come up against, that inability to feel when we’ve seen too much. It seems that there is a constant battle within photography (and it applies to literature as much as film), between making us feel and anesthesizing us. Every now and then there is an image that just stands out. And this can be personal, not always collective. Roland Barthes calls it punctum, “this element which rises from the scene, shoots out it like an arrow, and pierces me.”(Barthes, 26)

Both Sontag and Barthes agree that there occurs a certain realisation and understanding when we see a photograph of an event, it becomes real. This is what it was like for me, when I discovered a photo of my great-grandfather after (or in?) one of the GULag camps. I realised on a much deeper level what I had always known intellectually. The uncanny nature of the photograph is that its impact is instant. It can both represent and create a puncture (to use Barthes language) in a life. This is how Susan Sontag describes her first encounter with Holocaust photography:

One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, the prototypically modern revelation: a negative epiphany. For me, it was photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa Monica in July 1945. Nothing I have seen – in photographs or in real life – ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Indeed, it seems plausible to me to divide my life into two parts, before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after, though it was several years before I understood fully what they were about. What good was served by seeing them? They were only photographs – of an event I had scarcely heard of and could do nothing to affect, of suffering I could hardly imagine and could do nothing to relieve. When I looked at those photographs, something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying.(19-20)

My own experience of seeing my great-grandfather’s photograph similarly awoke my understanding of his life, it was a “negative epiphany”. It also broke something, not only in me, but it finally awoke me to the break that occurred in his life. I was finally able to witness his breaking, not mine. I always knew that my great-grandfather was imprisoned in a camp, and that he was saved several times by his friends, that he walked across the land to find my great-grandmother. All of these facts seemed like legends to me, and to a certain extent, they probably are, but I grew up knowing about suffering and starvation, as most Soviet children did. Having found myself with a seemingly inexplicable interest in the GULag, I started looking into my family history. I re-read my great-grandmother’s memoir and found out about what happened to my great-grandad. (By the way, I remember him from my childhood as someone everyone looked up to and I was scared of.) I found his letters from the camps, the little triangles scribbled neatly and tightly with facts about food and weather, and a constant longing for home. I knew all this, and yet, it was the photograph that made it all true and clear to me.


I was looking through a collection of photographs that a relative of mine transferred to a CD. The photographs date from the late 19th century to around mid 20th century. Most of them are that beautiful sepia colour with men in uniforms and women in full length dresses and big sweeping hats. It is a fascinating collection of about 300 photographs and I often like to transport myself in time by seeing life as it was in the early 20th century Russia (for a wealthy family of course). Whilst looking at the photographs of my great-grandad as a young man having fun with his friends on a yacht, playing tennis and dressing up for parties, I had a clear vision of his §youthful and often jolly life. However, in the midst of these photographs, an image of him in his camp uniform appeared. It is just due to the digital shuffling of photographs that this image appeared in this place and in this sequence, however, it seems more profound to me than that. It was the perfect place for this photograph as it very explicitly and directly revealed to me what the camp meant and what it did. It broke my great-grandad’s life in half, in a similar way that Susan Sontag saw hers dividing after witnessing photographs of the Holocaust.

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The photographs above show the clear contrast between my great-grandfather as he was outside the camp and what he was after. I remember seeing this photograph for the first time and feeling a chill sweep across my body, knowledge dawned on me. In that instant I no longer knew the story, but I felt it and understood it at a deeper level. It truly did happen. And it happened to him. I was shocked because it was something “novel” and unexpected, I was not prepared for it. (A bit like what Freud suggested trauma is – an attack on an unprepared psyche. But I wouldn’t say I was traumatised by the photo, I was hurt.) It is exactly this “negative epiphany” that Sontag speaks of, that knowledge that dawns on you and can almost be experienced as an “epiphanic”(?) high. This is the danger with images that depict horror and their ability to shock, they may at times attract voyerism. This is however, something that is beyond the limits of this blog post and something to be discussed separately. What fascinates me is that the photo in itself is not as revealing of the truth as it is in the particular sequence of the photo album. The album follows the long lives of my family and I have seem many photos before, but not this one, not in this context.

In her book Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory Marianne Hirsch identifies the impact that photography may have: “They produce affect in the viewer, speaking from the body’s sensations, rather than speaking of, or representing the past.”(15) Seeing an image of my great-grandfather does just that, it produces a bodily effect in a way that stories of his life did  not. Hirsch explores the relationship between memory and family generations, how memory is passed on. I definitely have a clear sense of my history that extends to years before my birth. The events in my family’s life seem to me to be my own memories, and yet they are not my experiences. This is how Hirsch describes it:

Postmemory most specifically describes the relationship of children of survivors of cultural or collective trauma to the experiences of their parents, experiences that they ‘remember’ only as the narratives and images with which they grew up, but that are so powerful, so monumental, as to constitute memories in their own right. (Hirsch, 9)

I believe this is not only relevant to traumatic memories, but to any family memories and stories that get repeated and told generation after generation. Of course, there is something particularly intense about a traumatic memory and it can often be passed on through silence as much as stories. But as painful as this is, there is also something beautiful about this inter-generational connection. The memory gains new life and is retold in other ways, as perhaps I am doing with my great-grandfather’s life. I feel I know and understand him better than I ever did when he was alive.

This encounter with photography has made me consider images in fiction on a new level, and in particular images of GULag, of which there are so few. Even Sontag mentions that our understanding of the GULag is hampered by our lack of photography of this event. Solzhenitsyn in Gulag Archipelago attaches a great importance to photography, and this i something that I will consider in the following post. What do photographs tell us about the GULag and why is it important…

Works cited:

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

Susan Sontag, On Photography

Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames