An image is a powerful thing that transcends words and rationalization, and elicits thoughts, ideas and connections that we make consciously and unconsciously. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes defined two characteristics that give photography this ideas-eliciting nature: “studium” is that which the observer recognizes consciously about a photograph that raises his/her interests (be it because of culture, a personal exposure to what is depicted in a photo or any other sort of conscious connection to it); and “punctum” as that which “wounds” the observer by appealing mainly to the subconscious.
What do we see in this picture? Can we speak of a cultural subconscious in contemporary consumption society? A few months ago, I showed this picture to some of my friends. They almost unanimously told me it looked like a piece of United Colors of Benetton advertisement from the early 1990s. That is, the punctum of the observers. They referred back not only to a fact of materialistic consumption, but rather to a rhetoric of multiculturality as an expression of freedom (in terms of race, ideals and culture) made popular in the aftermath of the apparent end of history and the “victory” of liberal democracy.
Interestingly, though, I took this photograph not in the midst of the confusion of the early 1990s about what exactly constituted “ideology,” but during a general march by students and workers in New York City in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement, in October 2011. To me, in my studium, this is an image of the people that I saw in that march. Not revolutionaries, not hard-core left-wingers, but normal people who have been affected by the economic crisis and were angry at the fact that Wall Street institutions continued to win in spite of the so-called “99%”.
That being said, this image is not only what I intended. I intended to portray a discourse of “normality,” but what most people saw in it was a long-lasting rhetoric of diversity. This makes me wonder about the connections between the rhetoric of civil society (which became a buzz word in a post-communist world) as represented in contemporary social movements, and the punctum of popular culture (an association to an advertisement campaign). It also made me wonder how the visual language of photography can actually be a vehicle for such ideas to flow without a word being written, or a photo being rationalized.
Collective action (an example of civil society at its best) transforms participants’ identities because of the amount of emotional energy the latter put into the former, but many times the political core of the practices of a movement (such as in a march) can be re-framed in unexpected ways (like when the political was reframed through the language of soccer in Argentina, as Carlos Forment has explored). In this case, the march in support of Occupy Wall Street was not just a political act, but also an emotional one, in which all sorts of other emotional meanings were conveyed, reframing the meaning of the march.
Collective action is, therefore, never just that. It has meanings beyond its intended purpose, beyond its studium; and the solidarity they elicit in people is actually a consequence of its punctum, of their unrationalized unforeseen consequences. For me this is clear. This is revealed in the image, such as my snapshot, as it can be deliberately considered through social scientific inquiry.