Margaret Olin: ‘Touching Photographs’

While interacting with fellow student Stephanie on her blog, she shared me with an article on signification of photography and photographs by Margaret Olin (2002). It’s about Roland Barthes and his ‘Mistaken Identification’ with photographs of his mother and aunt. Barthes description in Camera Lucida (1980) as a personal experience with old family photos is based on Peirce’s semiotics alongside Barthes’ own theory of studium (the cultural field) and punctum (the personal field)A topic, I was confronted with during my previous research (see Sarah Kember, 2008 related to Bergson’s and Deleuze theories of memory and intuition)

Olin’s argumentation deals with the semiotic perspective of indexicality, as an act of capturing what is present, an inscription of an object with light traces. Although the photograph may have some resemblance with the photographed person for example. Her further argumentation has to do with the recognition and identification of the beholder with a photograph. An aspect related to Barthes’ own encounter with old family photos.

Much has been discussed about the definition and meaning of studium and punctum. An aspect that I find not so much of interest as Olin’s detailed description of the ‘mistaking’ photographs or the existence of a ‘Winter Garden Photo’ mentioned by Barthes of his mother as a child and his grandfather. The key question is what a photograph does with the beholder and whether the indexicality really matters. Through single objects e.g. necklace in the photograph Barthes remembers something from the past (‘in the child, I read quite openly the dark underside of myself’, p.112), from his biography. A deferred meaning that goes beyond a missing resp. non-existing  necklace in a photograph that ‘triggered’ Barthes’ memories (‘realized that the necklace had be worn by someone else’, p. 104).

Olin argues with the power of a photograph lying in the ‘performative index’ as the identification of the beholder with the subject photographed. It doesn’t matter whether the subject is the ‘real’ mother or not. It is the subconscious relationship established and resurfaced that counts. This reminds me of Freud’s notion of suppressed memories resurfacing and resulting in uncanny sensations. Also, it reminds me of the process how ‘traumatic’ events and images are triggered by other images, unrelated objectively – or to say indexicality vice – but at times through other subconscious phenomena. Connected with some, often negative as in Barthes case, memories that overlay an ‘objective’ studium of an image. Olin concludes that this ‘performative index’ and the displaced punctum is a presence of the absent  (the missing necklace) .


Comparing the two texts, Olin and Kember, on Barthes Camera Lucida, I get a sense that a photograph is more than just an index or representation of a subject. To grasp the full meaning one need to look beyond the surface and to look inside the multiplicity of differences and meaning. An aspect that is independent of the photographer or time.  One could even question what really matters. Although, Olin made the point that for Barthes the ‘triggering’ effect was more crucial than the reality of the photographed subject, it should not be forgotten that photographs can also be just that: images of events that makes the event more real, as Susan Sontag described the effect of photography (On Photography, 1977).

Further, I am wondering whether photographs are needed to ‘trigger’ memories. Based on my practice dealing with traumatic ‘disorders’ I can see that also other senses or objects can have a similar effect. But perhaps it is the perception of a photograph as to be more real that matters in Barthes case.

And to quote Bergson (Kember, 2008, p.186):

“at any moment in our lives we are neither simply one nor many but an unfolding and enfolding virtual multiplicity: the time of our lives is both continuous and heterogeneous.” – Henri Bergson



  • Kember, S. J. (2008) ‘The Virtual Life of Photography’, in: Photographies. [Online]. 1(2), pp. 175 – 203, Available from: [accessed 23 Mar 2017].
  • Olin, M. (2002) ‘Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes’s “Mistaken” Identification’, in: Representations. [Online]. 80(Autumn, 2002),  pp. 99-118, Available from: [accessed 15 Sep 2017].

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