Haunted Photography: Barthes' Camera Lucida and the Transgender Before/After Image

Curator's Note

With her Vanity Fair cover, Caitlyn Jenner announced to the world “Call me Caitlyn.” During her interview with Diane Sawyer months before, Caitlyn was called Bruce and often referred to with male pronouns. In many ways, the 20/20 interview was shot to seem like a Before image, while the Vanity Fair cover was meant to be the After image.

This framework—the before/after juxtaposition continued in this YouTube clip—is often used in diet culture to frame a supposed undesirable body next to a desirable one. The form is also replicated by the dominantly cisgender media when reporting on trans people, or when trans people document their own transitions. The effect of this framework is simple: it pits two sides against one another through the use of binaries. For trans people, the Before/After image filters their life through perceptions of good/bad or real/fake selves, but I also suggest that the Before/After image frames a transgender person around the binary of dead/alive, thereby making the transgender person a perpetually haunted subject in the West.

As trans people move through the world, they must contend with two life narratives. They deal with their past—like Jenner did in the 20/20 interview—while simultaneously correcting it for the current situation—like the Vanity Fair cover. They consistently deal with changing licenses, birth certificates, and other government-issued paperwork—or deal with being ignored. Even the act of calling a trans person by their birth name is known as “dead-naming.” The way in which transgender people engage with a cissexist society is by being haunted, and photography is one of places that still conjure ghosts.

In Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, he explores the punctum and studium of photography. The studium represents the cultural, political, and linguistic associations we can read in images, but the punctum is the emotion resonance we have with certain pieces. For transgender people’s images, the studium is their gender representation and what a culture says about their Before/After images when they’re juxtaposed. But the punctum is that perpetual haunting that follows the subject in the photograph around, and like Barthes says, pins them in place.

And it’s the punctum that I think of when I see Caitlyn’s Vanity Fair cover. To me, it’s not just a cry to call her by her name; it’s an echo in an already long haunted house.

Comments

Kate Morgan's picture

In Following Your Analysis

I like the way you’re breaking down punctum and studium here—but I feel a little unclear as to your “perpetual haunting.” Is it the dsyphoria a person who is queered or trans in gender identity feels? Is it an echo of the social elements you clearly define as studium?

Not critiquing, just curious. I feel as though this could be expressed more clearly.

Matt Smith's picture

Following on Kate's question

I’d like to understand that point just a bit further as well. Understandably the format of 350 words is limiting.

Additionally, building on that idea, I wonder if you could speak to the “occult” aspect of this, expounding on the problems of identity being something that is hidden by media, or occluded from the discussion altogether…

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