Constructed Human Narratives and Cultural Identities Through the Use of Photography



         We should not, for a moment, underestimate or neglect the importance of the act of imaginative rediscovery which this conception of a rediscovered, essential identity entails. ‘Hidden histories’ have played a critical role in the emergence of many of the most important social movements of our time– feminist, anti-colonial and anti-racist. The photographic work of a generation of Jamaican and Rastafarian artists…is a testimony to the continuing creative power of this conception of identity within the emerging practices of representation. Francis’ photographs of the peoples of The Black Triangle, taken in Africa, the Caribbean, the USA and the UK, attempt to reconstruct in visual terms ‘the underlying unity of the black people whom colonization and slavery distributed across the African diaspora[1]


Photographs have been used in multiple genres and movements as a tool by which we identify an underlying unity—specifically in visual terms. We define our lives by all of the photos we do and do not take. This has been a topic I have been debating internally for quite some time. There are so many ways in each of our contemporary lives that we can view the tangible nature of our constant editing. All I have to do is look at my cell phone, and I can see the archive of my life–how I have meticulously edited the images that define my past year. Facebook is an archive of photos that has been filtered through yet another visual edit of our lives. How do I want to be seen? How do I want to depict myself? I am emphasizing meaning on the things I deem important and minimizing, or maybe not showing at all, the things I chose to forget.  This is all done in the construction of the “image” we want to portray.

Recently, my family discovered a massive archive of Kodachrome slides my great uncle had accumulated throughout his life; photos of family, photos of trips back to his homeland of Denmark and neighboring Scandinavian countries, photos of time spent here in San Francisco. I never knew about the time he spent here, and it almost applied a retrospective meaning as to why I am where I am. Of course, this is all my narrative. This is choosing facts that I see to be pertinent and applying them for the purposes I want. It is almost as if there were some thread that ran through our family that would predispose me to be attracted to the Bay.

The ideas of human narrative, construction of realities, and imagined communities is tied so closely to the tangible, visible nature of the photograph. These ideas are truthful in their physical evidence, yet they are also constructed. Through photography we visually edit, narrate, and interpret a story.

The discovery of these images has had a large impact on my family and their own personal narratives of our heritage and histories, but certain aspects of this work speak to me much more directly because of the fact that I am a photographer. Ideas surrounding myth versus reality, the non-use of text in the archive, and the time-suspending arrest they create, gives me an incredible insight as to who my great uncle Robert McCune was and how he functioned. This being, of course, just my narrative.

Myth and Reality

         Individuals without an anchor, without horizon, colourless, stateless,

         rootless—a race of angels…It is always constructed through memory,

         fantasy, narrative, and myth. [2]

In The Rhetoric of the Image, Barthes first puts forth the idea that the photograph is a copy. The word image is derived from the root imitari, meaning copy. Thus, the photograph is merely a representation of reality, falling short of the lived experience.[3] Sontag describes this action as the “recycling of reality”[4].  So where do we find the meaning in an image? Even though an image is far from “Truth”, a photograph implies at least a presence in temporal reality due to the fact that it is a photograph. It is not a painting; it was not created by the hand of a man or woman. It does, however, retain the ability to be manipulated by the eye and the hand of the photographer through light, lens, perspective, chemistry, post-editing, etc. Therefore, a photograph can neither be a complete accurate account of the truth, nor can it be a complete myth. It is in fact, a representation of reality, an editing of facts, an emphasis on specific aspects of knowledge over others.

Richard Avedon is an example of a photographer who literally creates the meaning of a photograph through portraiture. Avedon enjoys photographing people the first time he meets them. He claims that he comes to “know” their personality, and understands their relationship, through the portraits he makes. Sontag points out the fact that photographers are self-contradictory in describing their medium. I agree with her statement that “the portrait I do best is of the person I know best”[5], but it is interesting to consider the fact that one of the most famous portrait photographers of our time thinks in a reverse manner.

I cannot say that I know exactly where this photo of a harbor was taken, or even exactly when it was taken. What interests me the most is why he took the image, standing there, viewing the scene from that perspective, at that time of day. I wonder if he realized his compositional choices. I wonder if he knew where the leading lines intersected or how the eye is naturally drawn through the image. Did he see the world as I do? Did he have an eye for the arts? Was he aware of horizon? Of balance? Color balance? Did this image stop him in his tracks? Was he walking to lunch with his camera in his backpack, or was he out specifically to shoot? It amazes me because it looks like exactly a photo I would take. Maybe I inherited his artistic vision.

Use of the Linguistic

Another idea that this brings up is that of the use of the linguistic with an image or a series of images. Text can be included as caption, as a title, as an artist statement, or otherwise. The debate in an art historical context is that of if a photograph requires text in order to stand as a strong photograph. If text is included with an image or set of images, does it enhance the experience or hinder the visual experience? Good or bad, the inherent meaning of a photograph changes once text is included. In this case text was not included at all on the slides. This leads me to wonder if they were ever intended to be viewed by anyone other than himself. They were not found in albums or in protective sleeves; they were found in carousels left inside of boxes, in a basement. With the fact that he did not use any text to explain the photographs—not even dates—and the fact that they were not preserved in a manner that would imply presentation, did he ever expect or intend for these to be viewed? Or was this simply and strictly a personal experience for him?

It would appear, and knowing what little I do about him, that he wanted the images to remain on a mostly private level. He was not trying to create a time capsule; he had no children for whom he needed to bestow his culture or heritage or legacy. Yet this goes against Sontag’s claim to one of the major roles of the photographic medium—visibility. “No one would dispute that photography gave a tremendous boost to the cognitive claims of sight…–it so greatly enlarged the realm of the visible.”[6]

This goes back to the ideas of denotative and connotative meaning that Barthes describes.[7] Ultimately, one would say that the role of text would be to assist in producing connotative meaning within an image that can not reach that level on its own—an image that requires a story, that cannot hold the same meaning if it is viewed as purely visual. But what is the significance, what is the meaning, what is the intent of the photographer and of the work when connotative meaning is not visualized nor is it given through the use of text?

This is yet just another void left in this work, that I will naturally fill in with ideas of what I think was his purpose and intent. The only explanation that I can come up with is that he did not view these images as images he would ever show to a public of any kind. We all, as artists, have or have had that body of work we need to create for ourselves, not for an audience. But was this a self-inflective work? It seems to me that this work is simply that of travel photography, in which case, there would be no reason to not label it and keep it hidden away in boxes. But all of the signs point to the idea that these images were used as a personal mirror; a reflection, introspection on his life of solitude.

It is interesting to note, however, that all of these images place a physical barrier between Robert McCune and the rest of the scene—whether it be water, the empty space of the dock, or space on the street between him and those passing by. While this might imply a detachment from the viewer, it is imperative to note that with the nature of a photograph, we, the audience, are placed in his shoes, so to speak—thus implying an interconnected nature or even sameness between the viewer and Robert himself. This innately would give license to personal interpretation of intent, to my personal narrative of his experience and its connected nature to my life.

…Such photographs, they might go on to say, are printed on the black curtain which is drawn across what we choose to forget or refuse to know…They bring us up short. The most literal adjective that could be applied to them is arresting.[8]

John Berger discusses the idea of arrest in his article Photographs of Agony. In such a case, we are arrested by the violence and atrocities existing in the work. However, we are left in a state in which we are unable to act, hereby forcing us to confront our own lack of political freedom. This act interrupts time, and as Berger says it, “[t]hey bring us up short.” [9]

Aside from viewing the concept of arrest in photographs of agony, it can quite literally be viewed in any photograph that which we did not experience in real time. And yet we feel some connection with these images—whether it be in the ideologies and morality in viewing photographs of terror and agony, or whether it be in the cultural ties and heritage with which we feel interconnected in photos such as these.

We try to emerge from the moment of the photograph back into our lives. As we do so, the contrast is such that the resumption of our lives appears to be a hopelessly inadequate response to what we have just seen. [10]

This speaks directly to a historical account of our family histories. We feel a tie to the past, a connection with the photographer—with a bridge of time and space between the artist and the viewer, bound by an invisible thread.

Did my uncle have a grand narrative? Does that even matter? Maybe he had a story, but without the words to interpret it. These photographs act as facts—they hold a sense of truth in their tangible nature. Yet aside from that physicality, there is nothing that grounds them in one specific interpretation. This archive acts as many other archives of the past; they construct unity through the visual.  Through the archive, I can construct a narrative on the meaning as to why I am in San Francisco. I can apply meaning to seemingly mundane facts of my own life. I can connect with a family history and root myself within that history. I know, for example, that he and I speak in a very similar visual language. Maybe it was just luck or chance that brought me to the same places he once explored with his camera. Most likely, my own personal account of this collection of work will change over time. But this lifeline, this invisible thread ties our lives together. Maybe I just need to live with these images, process these images, revisit them on occasion; and as with most stories, the words will come, the dots will connect, when I look back.


Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image (1977),” in Classic Essays on Photography, 269-270.

Berger, John. “Photographs of Agony,” in The Photography Reader, Liz Wells (London: Routledge, 2003), 289.

Fanon, Frantz, Black skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1967. Pg 176

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence and Wishart), 224.

Sontag, Susan. “Photographic Evangels,” in On Photography (NY: Doubleday, org. 1977), 115-116

[1] Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence and Wishart), 224.

[2] Frantz Fanon, Black skin, White Masks, (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 176.

[3] Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image (1977),” in Classic Essays on Photography, 269.

[4] Susan Sontag, “Photographic Evangels,” in On Photography (NY: Doubleday, org. 1977), 116.

[5] Susan Sontag, “Photographic Evangels,” in On Photography (NY: Doubleday, org. 1977), 116.

[6] Susan Sontag, “Photographic Evangels,” in On Photography (NY: Doubleday, org. 1977), 115.

[7] Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image (1977),” in Classic Essays on Photography, 270.

[8] John Berger, “Photographs of Agony,” in The Photography Reader,  Liz Wells (London: Routledge, 2003), 289.

[9] John Berger, “Photographs of Agony,” in The Photography Reader,  Liz Wells (London: Routledge, 2003), 289.

[10] John Berger, “Photographs of Agony,” in The Photography Reader, Liz Wells (London: Routledge, 2003), 289.


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