Reflecting on the Impulse to Photograph and Barthes’ Punctum

Over the course of the semester, I have been thinking a lot about why we take photographs. I think it has something to do with a phenomenon similar to Barthes’ punctum. In Camera Lucida, Barthes explains punctum as something that “wounds,” “pierces,” and is something that we can only know once we feel it. The punctum is something that surpasses language and our ability to code semiotic meaning into photographs. I feel like this notion could also translate to the way we see things everyday, and is perhaps the reason why we are drawn to taking an image in the first place. Although, Barthes would perhaps take issue with this idea, because he felt that there might not be enough time to reflect thoroughly on what you were seeing in something that was capable of movement (which is why he believes there is no punctum in film).

However, if you are walking around town you do have the time to stop and reflect on a scene that catches your eye, and–if you’d like–you can take a photograph to document it. I find myself doing this every once in a while–although, I tend to catch myself reflecting on what I’m seeing and how I could frame it as a photograph. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I am the child of two photographers–I have grown up noticing what kinds of things my parents have been drawn to photograph and I have also watched how they set up and framed their photographs. In any case, every time this has happened lately, I find myself recalling Barthes’ idea of the punctum. I definitely feel as though the same idea that something can “pierce” or “wound” you visually can also occur in the everyday through the various little things that draws your attention as you are going about your day.

In response to this, I have been paying particular attention to what “pierces” my eye on my walk to the O-train stop on my way to school every day. My walk takes me down a particular alleyway in Hintonburg, and there are a number of things that catch my eye on a daily basis and make me think: “That might make a cool photograph.” I think it is this initial moment of being “pierced” by something that you have seen that makes you want to take a photograph. So, after a month or so of thinking this, I decided to actually take a photograph each time that thought occurred to me–in this way, documenting the punctum of my walk to the train over several weeks.

Each of the photographs below are from this experiment in documenting things that have struck me in the alleyway in a sort of punctum-like way. In each image, I attempted to highlight what caught my eye in the first place–be it an unusual texture, graffiti, wintery elements, or a juxtaposition of  elements. I won’t say what it was that drew me to take the photographs in the first place, because I do not want to limit your interpretation of these images and so that you can see your own punctum in them.

IMG_0720 IMG_0770  IMG_0806 IMG_0783 IMG_0814 IMG_0824



Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Trans. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.


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