Even before reading Roland Barthes’ book Camera Lucida and his careful, almost poetic way to describe and consider his love for specific photographs, there has always been one photograph which caught my eye and my love. Reading his thoughts on how photographs work I have constantly thought about his ideas and how they relate to my photograph. The assignment to write about this love forces me to finally commit my thoughts on paper.
The photograph I am writing about shows my mother being around the same age I am now. A year or two before she married my father and became pregnant with me. She must have been 23 or 24. She is lying on a bed, wearing a lined bathrobe. The sleeves are rolled up, revealing the skin of her arm. Her body is covered in a thin linen blanket and her hair is beautifully arranged on the mattress. My father seems to stand on the bed and photograph her from above. It is a beautiful black and white photograph of a beautiful woman which could easily be printed in a magazine. But where is this place? The blanket is the only indicator that it might neither be her room nor my father’s. I remember how my father told me that she had visited him during his army time at the Cosmodrome in Baikonur. The visits were not legal and so she had to hide. Everything was planned very carefully since there were no mobile phones or internet. I guess the photograph shows her staying in his army base over night.
I saw many pictures of her growing up in Kazakhstan. Pictures of her taking piano lessons, rehearsing a play in school, dancing, dressing up or working. Like my father she studied architecture and finished her diploma with the highest grade. My father always tells me I have inherited her ambition.
In this photograph, though, I do not see any of her ambition. The way she is looking at my father is what catches my breath. What I see in her gaze is a flash of insecurity and fragility. She does not seem to fear the possibility of getting caught. I think the photograph is capturing the moment when she realizes that this man who is taking her picture will become her husband and the father of her children. Every goal she had in life before she only had to study for to achieve it. Whether it was learning French, getting accepted at a ballet school, learning the piano or finishing her diploma par excellence. What I read in her gaze is an insecurity of becoming a mother and an insecurity of what will happen to her body. It is a change that she will not be able to study for, a faint of power and control.
A long time I have thought that this is the punctum of the picture. But it is something else, something that is not visible in the picture, something about the absence of the present. It changes the reading of the photograph and even the protagonist. The punctum is the pose of my father. As I have pointed out before, my father seems to stand on the bed and my mother is lying between his legs. Superstition is a great part of the Russian culture. I remember many sayings and proverbs my father believed in and that were part of my upbringing. One of them was that I was never allowed to step over somebody (mostly my brother), who was lying on the ground, because this gesture would cause the person to stop from growing. Standing in this position over my mother, my father seems to try not only to freeze her in a photograph but also in reality.
Is the photograph an excuse for this gesture to make this saying come true? I am not any longer looking at my mother but at my father and how he is looking at her. I am looking at his attempt to save her beauty, her love, her gaze, even her life. Before this moment I thought that the place in this moment is replaceable. That this scene could be anywhere without changing the reading of the picture. But given the fact that her visit is only for a short time and my father will have to stay in the army, leads me to the relevance of loss in my father’s biography. I know that he lost many relatives in WW2 and that his father died of an inoperable shrapnel years later. And suddenly it is not only my mother who is experiencing a faint of control. It is my father realizing that he will not succeed to keep her and this moment.