Pierced Memories

On the Rhetoric of a Bayoneted Photograph




Hanno Hardt University of Iowa/University of Ljubljana

Abstract: This essay reflects on the relationship of photographs, history, and memory based on a found and mutilated photo album. Photographs provide opportunities for disrupting and restructuring history with their attraction to memory; they privilege the subjective, creative power of the personal explanation and provide an emotional and even ideological grounding for memory. Photographs as manifestations of memory assist in the process of understanding the present.

As this century fades into the past it is worth remembering that its course--in contrast to earlier times--has been chronicled by a visual narrative that relies on the attraction of photographs as means of storing and disseminating information. Photographs emerge as documents of a lived experience, and their presence in the cultural milieu of technologically enhanced contemporary communication practices remains virtually unchallenged at the threshold to the twenty-first century.

Photographs are the story-telling companions of time, they direct the gaze of the spectator to ponder the past. Reflecting on our own lives we often refer to photographs whose presence conditions our recollection of people and events and keeps them alive. Recently I came across a small family album--a generation after the end of the Second World War--that had been left by an aunt who had saved it through times of expulsion, flight, and resettlement in West Germany. It had been severely cut--pierced but not destroyed by the thrust of a bayonet in 1945--when the invading Soviet army overran refugees and ransacked their belongings. Its sudden appearance in my life is a reminder of the power of photographs, the seductive specificity of the dated image, and the collective possibility of an extended visual narrative in considerations of memory. The violent markings of the photo album and its images, however, produce an equally powerful message that jars the memory as it disrupts and distorts the photographic chronicle of her life and that of her family and friends. The result is a complex visual experience that addresses the use of images in producing knowledge and making history.



Photographs are re-collections of the past. This essay is about photography, memory, and history and addresses the relationship between photographic images and the need to remember; it is based on the notion that seeing is a prelude to historical knowledge and that understanding the past relies on the ability to imagine. At the same time, the role of thought and imagination in the production of society--as reflected in the earlier work of Louis Althusser (1970), Maurice Godelier (1984) and perhaps more significantly, Cornelis Castoriadis (1975), suggests yet another role for photography in the construction of a social and cultural reality. Photographs in capitalist societies contribute to the production of information and participate in the surveillance of the environment where their subjective and objective qualities are applied to the private uses of photographic images in the perpetuation of memory.

Photographs are also manifestations of time and records of experience. Consequently, writings on photographic theory are filled with references to representations of the past. Roland Barthes (1981, 76), for instance, writes about the location of photographs in history and confesses that "in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past." He also ponders the consequences of photographic imagery that is typically identified with the past and concludes that "in front of a photograph, our consciousness does not necessarily take the path of memory . . . but for every photograph existing in the world, the path of certainty: the Photograph's essence is to ratify what it represents (1981, 85)." And what it represents is, at least for Barthes, always what has been rather than what is no longer. Because inevitably "every photograph is a certificate of presence (1981, 87)," and photographs anticipate the decisive moment of convergence, when the past meets reality. For Susan Sontag (1973, 15) such a convergence is a reminder that "all photographs are memento mori," and she adds that to "take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability." Under these circumstances the practice of photography becomes an intensely personal experience that exposes photographer and subject to the fragility of a shared moment and to a realization of life's uncertainties.

Photographs are also cultural products, and others have theorized the photograph in ways that reflect the role and function of photographs as a mode of communication in the cultural and political apparatus. They focus on the ideological in cultural theory in the context of theories of culture and cultural production (Berger, 1980; Burgin, 1982; Mitchell, 1994). Thus, photography as cultural or even political practice constitutes a major terrain of historical inquiry, which reinforces its importance in the rise of a contemporary visual culture and the resulting issues of representation in modern society, including power and access to the means of production.

Photographs are related to notions of image and imagination, which are associated with the idea of memory. The latter appears as an object of philosophical and rhetorical studies since antiquity and its use as a medium has been discussed by a number of authors (Casey, 1987; Carruther, 1990; Krell, 1990; Mitchell, 1994; Yates, 1966). Mitchell (1994, 192) suggests, for instance, that "memory takes the form in classical rhetoric of a dialectic between the same modalities (space and time), the same sensory channels (the visual and aural), and the same codes (image and word) that underly the narrative/descriptive boundary." He concludes--with Yates (1966)--that memory is an imagetext, a mental storage and retrieval system with intersubjective qualities involving the other as a social or cultural context. Much earlier Henri Bergson had developed a theory of memory in his Matter and Memory (1896) proposing that memory constitutes an intersection of mind and matter and displays the seamless succession of past and present. Bound up with his theory of duration, memory guarantees the survival of things remembered which interact with present things in a continuous exchange of images. Indeed, as Michael Ann Holly (1996, 15) argues concerning art works, "the continuum between the production of the work and its historical processing negates the distinctiveness of either pole." She recalls Jacques Lacan's observation that "when we look at a work of art, we find the work looking back at us, having anticipated our gaze." Photographs, too, bridge the conditions of their production and subsequent interrogations by history to challenge the physical and psychological orientation of the contemporary reader. But while the gaze may be returned, understanding and interpreting the photograph and its specific historical condition encounter problems of elucidation related to notions of seeing (as opposed to looking) and memory.

Recently, Andrea Liss (1998) has alluded to a crisis of interpretation in postmodern analyses by questioning the contemporary uses of photographs in the representations of Holocaust memory and history. In fact, according to Liss (1998, 1), "Questions of mimesis, strategies of empathy, the truth in fiction, the fiction in truth, and the tension between literalness and metaphor are always at work in documentary photographic representation." Photographs call on the historical consciousness of the reader and challenge the process of interpretation from within a specific historical moment. Consequently, reading a photograph is subject to the existential context in which it appears before the reader and relies on the process of converting memory into present knowledge. It is also hostage to the persuasive power of photography which conquers the uncharted terrain of memory. Linda Haverty Rugg (1997, 23) proposes that the camera takes on the qualities of the mind; she states that "photography acquires the power to supplant memory, and our image of the mental process of remembering then comes to resemble photography." Her study of autobiographical uses of photography encounters the consistent strength of the metaphor over time when photography emerges as memory and eventually offers "a new arena for visualizing the structure of history" (1997, 25).

The idea of memory is particularly emphasized by social and cultural historians who discuss its role in the construction of history and of the image--or the imagined--as an expression about the past (Benjamin, 1969; Samuel, 1994; Le Goff, 1992). "Memory is an essential element of . . . individual or collective identity, the feverish and anxious quest for which is today one of the fundamental activities of individuals and society," according Le Goff (1992, 98). But there is more than a semantic relationship between image and imagination. Both concepts relate to identity and memory and refer to a process of seeing, recognizing and identifying; they rely on the eye and the mind to make sense of the world and, ultimately, on the familiar to describe the past.

Photographs attest to the conditions of the past. For instance, Barthes (1981, 89) argues that each photograph "possesses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time." In fact, "from a phenomenological viewpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation." For Victor Burgin (1982, 2), on the other hand, photography is "a practice of signification," which resides in society and whose major feature is its contribution to "the production and dissemination of meaning" for specific purposes and at a specific historical moment beyond the narrow range of technical or aesthetic concerns. His work reflects the more recent focus of cultural studies on the notion of meaning and meaning making in society; photography contributes to such practices and becomes a major source of interpreting and understanding the world.

Rhetorical analysis is yet another approach to examining photography; it was introduced as a model of analysis to the study of photographic meaning by Barthes (1977, 32-51), who raises questions about the infusion of meaning into an image and the ways of determining its location. Photographic messages, according to Barthes, are continuous messages, deeply imbedded in the cultural fabric of society from where they speak. Moreover, Allen Sekula (1982, 87) insists that "every photographic message is characterized by a tendentious rhetoric." But he recognizes at the same time that "the most generalised terms of the photographic discourse constitute a denial of the rhetorical function and a validation of the 'truth value' of the myriad propositions made within the system."

More specifically related to the concerns of this essay is Pierre Bourdieu's (1990, 30) work on photography which refers to the capture of memory and the significance of the family album, in particular. He observes that photographing one's children "is to become the historiographer of their childhood and to prepare as an heirloom for them the image of what they used to be." For Bourdieu the "family album expresses the essence of social memory."

Photographs constitute a major site of theoretical considerations; despite philosophical or ideological differences, various authors confirm the location of photographs between the past and reality and agree on their role in the social and cultural processes of constructing meaning and making sense of one's existence. It is particularly useful, however, to understand the consequences of an 'anticipated gaze,' which suggests a qualitatively different presence of the photograph and introduces a challenge to the imagination that extends beyond the boundaries of the image and involves complete immersion in the reading of photographs.

This essay shares the theoretical concerns of these authors and relates the practice of photography and the social uses of the photograph--based on a critical reading of a found photo album--to the popularity of photographs as expressions of power and control. After all, photographs are identified with memory and the possibility of providing a cultural and ideological grounding of experience. Their power derives from their ability to bridge time and space and to respond to the gaze of the observer with their potential of tapping into memory.

Reading photographs suggests an understanding of communication not only as the foundation of community but also as the cultural determinant of memory and history. Indeed, memory and history meet at the site of photography where photographs constitute the text of memories--waiting to be deciphered--as well as the representations of historical "truths" which reveal "what really happened." Reading photographs always implies an acknowledgment of the past; moreover, in contemplating personal experiences and the ways in which the past has been shaped and reconstructed, photographs help individuals become conscious of themselves as subjects of history.

Photographs constitute the record of a time; collectively they offer an eyewitness account of history that reflects an imagined world of relationships among people and objects. Photographs offer proof of past lives and they sustain their power of a personal expression of a time; they breed familiarity and confirm the social or cultural identity that contributes to a definition of self. Photographs acquire importance with their ability to capture and preserve the authenticity of a specific historical moment as they describe various states of being. Their attraction as culture-specific texts, their familiarity as a technology of communication--particularly reflected in family photographs--and their ease of accessibility explain their popularity among the possibilities of a visual discourse.

Photographs possess rhetorical dimensions that relate to informational and persuasive qualities of a visual narrative, ranging from emotional to intellectual appeals of representation. They occur in the process of "looking" or "seeing," two qualitatively different approaches to the reading of photographic messages. As photographs enter the stream of everyday communication they become visual markers of a public discourse that relies on the image as text, on the text as context, and on the context as confirmation of the ideological foundations of community. Photographs are looked at but rarely seen under these circumstances. Indeed, such a use of photographs--and of visual images in general--has become a common cultural practice that reflects the impact of the visual on the process of textual or verbal communication and shapes the understanding of people, institutions, and processes. Seeing, on the other hand, refers to an attempt to reconstruct the experience of the photograph by exploring the deep structure of the image; it involves the application of practical knowledge and creative insights and relies on the historical consciousness of the reader.

There is a unique formality about the typical family photograph that speaks directly to the time or distance of the image. Family photographs are signifiers of a collective life; they are evidence of social standing or material wealth, although their real importance lies in their ability to create the experience of a living history. The family photograph offers social and psychological enhancements as it confirms social relations and personal standing of the individual. In fact, it is a constant reminder of a connectedness--like kinship or friendship--that is essentially human and responds to a universal desire to belong. This is particularly true--and significant--in times of disrupted or disconnected relations among people, including times of war, when isolation and displacement become the rule. In those moments the family photograph provides reassurance; it re-connects individuals and addresses the lost balance between public and private moments by helping the individual recapture a sense of the social self which offers strength in desperate times.

Family photographs, in particular, deliver the text of memories; they refer to the shared experiences of the past, which rely on the proximity between community and communication. Thus, the authority of the family photograph reveals itself to the reader in the process of discovery with its insistence on being a passage into the real social conditions of individuals, their intellectual and material being, and their relations to others. Family photographs provide the opportunity for the reader-as-relative to penetrate the surface of the image and its aesthetic qualities and to enter into the concrete details of previous existences. They always invite looking, but the expectation of seeing lingers on, offering recognition and acknowledgement of kinship.

Not surprisingly, in times of war and physical displacement photographs are gathered up to find their place in the baggage of a refugee existence where they reside among the rescued possessions of a disrupted life. Taking a photograph on a journey without return and harboring it through periods of personal hardship and disaster speaks not only to the general appreciation of the visual and its specific task in twentieth century social life; it also reinforces the textuality of memory and confirms the need for its physical representation. Photographs as open and yet undeciphered texts invite interpretation, but since they also facilitate instantaneous storage and recall of experience, they represent the inability to forget. Individual memory depends on it and collective memory builds on it as photographs assist in the process of remembering.

The re-appearance of old photographs in the postwar bourgeois milieu of 1945 Europe, for instance, frequently signaled the reconstruction of the past to confirm the concrete historical conditions of a previous life vis-a-vis a hostile and suspicious environment and the failing memories of an aging refugee. This was particularly important for establishing legal claims over property, for instance, but it was equally significant for reasserting the social and economic conditions of a previous way of life. More than fifty years later, family photographs help document the former life of Europe's latest refugees in Kosovo, Bosnia, or Croatia. The need to remember has not changed and neither has the use of photographs--now typically in color as portable memories and accessible evidence--which remains equally popular.

Photographs that endure become the visual building blocks of a biographical narrative; they solicit reflection on relations among individuals, places, and events and aid in the search for a lost identity and in the rehabilitation of a shattered existence. They also re-establish a sense of place and time by revisiting the sites of social and cultural identity and locating the displaced individual in a specific moment of history.

But they also remind the reader of the initial intent of taking photographs and preserving them--like in photo albums for instance. Photographing family members, specifically, is a process of controlling and directing private memories to certain ends while contributing--collectively and unconsciously--to the construction of a cultural history that privileges the subjective and the idea of individual articulation.

The photo album is an objectification of memory; as a cultural artifact it provides an intense and cumulative visual narrative within specific structural boundaries dictated by cultural considerations and the creative possibilities of selection and display as well as by the physical limitations of the volume itself. The photo album contains a flow of personal history, typically in chronological order and frequently reinforced by words and dates to fix meanings and to locate the images securely between the growing vagueness of a fading memory and the eternal quest for certainty and historical truths. Series of photographic images are a rich source of biography; they confirm the familiarity of a social milieu and reinforce the feeling of being among family and friends while providing multiple sets of visual evidence and points of factual validation.

By the conditions of its selection and survival the refugee's photograph represents an often arbitrary choice of evidence; since it is the only tangible sign of a personal presence elsewhere, the photographic image stands for a set of complex relations between the belief in its infinite power of representation and the personal desire to preserve a specific reality. Photographs serve a need for arresting time--for a return to the past, and for resurrecting faces and places--which is never greater than in moments of physical upheaval and psychological crisis which call for a return to permanence and stability. They offer conversations with the details of the captured moment. In fact, their capacity to reveal the details of past lives is only limited by the experience of the reader and the lack of proximity between image and imagination. The lasting photograph transcends the documentary qualities it undoubtedly possesses and emerges as a measure of the depth of memory, which provides comfort and restores self-respect in the face of human disaster. At the same, the presence of photographs overcomes and eventually defeats other forms of recollection, ranging from the vaguely remembered but lost photographic image to memory itself. The absence of a complete recollection of people or events is replaced by the availability of specific photographic proof that shapes an understanding of the past. Faces and gestures remain in our presence because of photographs, while voices and sounds recede irretrievably into the past, since looking at photographs rarely restores the aural dimension of an individual but confirms the limitations of the photograph as a visual means of preserving the past.

Violence to memory is painful and irreversible. The attempt to destroy the visual links to the past reveals more than the savagery of the attacker; since the act of saving a photograph signifies a strong interest in the textuality of memory and the presence of tradition, the photograph encourages a perception of a powerful source of maintaining and reinforcing a sense of rootedness. The deliberate and blinding stab of the bayonet into the body of the photo album derives from an intense antagonism not only against the physical representation of the enemy but also against the potential of memory and the idea of history as a subjective construction of the past.


In the attempt to destroy memories or eradicate a historical moment, violence stops time and creates a new visual experience. The rough edges of the pierced photographs throughout the album constitute a permanent visual record of yet another, equally real experience which is more abstract, brutal, and direct in its effect on the reader who is drawn into a text that is immersed in the conditions of war. In fact, the pierced pages and the slashed images of innocent subjects disclose the disappearance of privacy in times of war and alter the popular conception of the album as a coveted private sphere. The slashing of the photographs also acknowledges their power as documentary evidence and the undeniable fact of biography. If war is about death and destruction it can never succeed, however, with a violent denial of the human spirit, the memories of the past, or the feelings of connectedness to people and places. Since photographs reinforce these human tendencies, mutilating rather than destroying them suggests a strategy of permanent violence based on the knowledge of images and their positions in the private lives of individuals as objects of reflection and introspection. Cutting the photographic image is an expression of power relations; it signifies the vulnerability of the victim and the fragility of the photograph itself. Piercing the photograph is also a process of destabilizing memory resulting--perhaps more importantly--in superimposing a new text, that is, the memory of the act of violence itself. Consequently, photographs and the incision merge irrevocably to reproduce a different memory as history and biography are reconfigured permanently by the thrust of the bayonet.

While injuries to the human body heal--with scars to remember pain and suffering--the strike to the photograph creates a permanent cut without recovery of the object. The wound remains open and projects its violent nature into the memory of the past, disrupting the traditional reading of the photograph. Indeed, the incision creates a physical and psychological distance between image and reader, suggesting a new measure, which privileges the imagery of violence and pushes the photograph-as-experience into a more distant past. The violent cut is also the manifestation of a traumatic experience, the visible result of a physical assault, superimposed upon the imagery of an ordinary life.

Both, the slashed photograph and the violated album are signs of a disrupted life and permanent reminders of a destructive force which separates the image from its historical meaning and incorporates the memory of displacement and destruction into the photo album as a physical representation of history. At the same time, the distance between the inaccessibility of the traumatic experience and the visibility of the defaced photographs raises questions about whether history can ever be comprehensively told by reading the visual evidence.

And yet cutting of the photograph is all but a futile attempt to destroy the memory of other times and places and to deny the evidence of biography. The bayonet may have cut through the lives of people, defaced the imagery of past experiences and destroyed the physical autonomy of private memories, but it could not eradicate history or displace the resilience of memory. On the contrary, the slashed photograph survives in its incompleteness and gives rise to new interpretations and confidence to those in search of understanding their own life who trust that the power of memory and the evidence of history always survive, albeit changed by the concerns of the presence.

The saved photograph represents an inevitable compromise between the dangers of forgetting and the promise of recalling the details of a visual encounter with people and places. It must stand for innumerable and irreplaceable other photographic images that chronicle the lives of individuals. Selected for its documentary value or its emotional appeal--or hastily gathered to maintain a visual link with a private history--the saved photograph reflects the refusal to relinquish the past. Thus, a photograph among the belongings of the refugee provides physical evidence of a place in history, a previous existence, and knowledge of different way of life; at the same time, it is a sign of individual worth, bourgeois values, and the potential of personal memory.

In the latter sense, the photograph becomes an expression of freedom as its imagery soars above oppression and the threat of destruction, connecting the mind of the reader with the thoughts and actions of previous times. Because photographs are also about worlds of ideas as they relate an intellectual and emotional life, private values, and public convictions of those looking out at the reader. They are the innocent actors in a profound human drama that spans generations as people and places furnish the text that fuels memory and from which history is made.


Yet family photographs also have an ideological grounding, they are typically the product of a bourgeois existence, representing the material conditions of life while reinforcing specific values, like the notion of family itself. The production and collection of photographs--in this context--responds to the desire to reproduce and perpetuate status and power and achieve immortality. The preservation of the photographic image requires modest means, frequently in the form of frames--for public display in the family home--or albums for private purposes of collection and review. In fact, the photo album becomes a fashionable showcase of family values and accomplishments, however personal, and a chronicle of significant events in the life of the family.

Bourdieu (1990, 30-31) observes that family photographs--arranged chronologically--"evoke and communicate the memory of events which deserve to be preserved because the group sees a factor of unification in the monuments of its past unity or . . . because it draws confirmation of its present unity from its past: this is why there is nothing more decent, reassuring, and edifying than the family album." Each of its photographs contributes to the making of a personal history--augmenting the typical series of ritualized poses and studied postures of confidence and good will; the latter complicate the understanding of photographic images when assumptions about the nature of the photograph as visual evidence clash with its actual use as promotion or propaganda.

Consequently, history is but a picture story, carefully composed to fabricate a vision of the family that corresponds to bourgeois ideals. Photographs and their arrangements in albums may reflect personal taste, but they are also the expression of a specific world view and become objects of empowerment for those depicted as well as for those in control of producing and claiming the album in their possession. Their intent challenges knowledge and interest of the reader and the ability to relate to the ideological context and, therefore, appreciate the feeling of connectedness as the photographic image begins to resemble life.

The experience of coming across photographs with their wartime markings, finally, is a reminder of the importance of memory in considering the past. Memory engages experience and constructs a private vision of the world in which the past is continuously forged from the concerns and preoccupations of the present. In fact, when Walter Benjamin (1969, 255) observes that "(f)or every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably," he refers to a crisis of memory and the problem of forgetting. More recently, Paul Virilio (1995, 144-45) addresses the acceleration of historical time and warns that "computing speed is now leading to the possible 'industrialization' of forgetting and lack." Speed kills and the speed of events destroys historical reality. He concludes that in the near future "we will not only miss history . . . we will also long to go back to space and times past." History--under these circumstances--constitutes a fading response to the search for knowledge and the location of human interests against a rising desire for experiencing the past.

Photographs provide opportunities for disrupting and restructuring history with their appeal to memory; they privilege the subjective, creative power of the personal account against the power of received history. Photographs are the texts of future possibilities as memory engages the image in a dialogue about the past under emotionally--and perhaps politically--charged conditions. Memory assesses and readjusts official history; it may also reduce the acceleration of events by reversing the course of disconnecting objective appearances from reality. While film and television, specifically, epitomize the serialization of images in contemporary culture and contribute to the process of acceleration, photographs represent a different dimension of time. They are much more akin to traditional textual practices with their tolerance for contemplation and speculation--even reconsideration. Photographs, like books or magazines, can be revisited; they are portable records whose accessibility is virtually unlimited in the public sphere. Their use is always private, like the process of reading, and involves intellectual engagement to penetrate the veil of gesture and mime in the age of photography and to appreciate the gaze of the image.

Personal images, like family photographs, offer an emotional and even ideological grounding for memory to remind us of these differences and the need to expand on our inability to forget in order to understand the present. The discovery of a family album--ravaged by the point of a bayonet-- stops time and initiates reflections on the conditions of history and the role of photographs in the creation of self-knowledge as memory connects images with time and space to reveal the buried treasures of past experiences. It is a ritual of re-collection as the image returns the gaze of the spectator.


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Photographs: Copyright Hanno Hardt, 1998.


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