Teaching Materials - Exercise

The studium and the punctum

Name of Artist Educator: Ellis Yip
Level:
Excercise Category: Photographer's eye, Visual storytelling

What does a photo contain? When we hold it, how do we begin observing it? How different is the viewing angle of an average viewer and of a photographer?


Concept / Inspiration:

What does a photo contain? When we hold it, how do we begin observing it? How different is the viewing angle of an average viewer and of a photographer?

In his book Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes notes that there are two ways of viewing an image, which he coins as the studium and the punctum. The studium refers to the range of information made available by the image, while the punctum points to something stinging from the photo that stimulates viewers’ interest and attracts their gaze. Instructor elaborates further, “Sometimes the punctum pricks you, but sometimes it’s me. That means people will be touched by different things even if they are looking at the same photo. For example, when I see a yellow umbrella, for me, it will immediately project certain meanings, but for viewers who are culturally different, they will not see the same things.”


Goals:

Students learn how to depict a photo with the knowledge of the studium and the punctum. They can make use of them to analyse the intention and the connotation behind an image. This helps them to further explore the narrative of photography and the ambiguity of image, at the same time, the exercise also trains the imagination and logic of students.

 


Materials / Equipment:

  • Camera or mobile phone

Location:

Anywhere


Workshop Description:

Instructor will first explain the concepts of the studium and the punctum to students with various photos as examples.

The studium implies that the viewer is able to interpret and understand a photo based on their personal experience and knowledge; the punctum is a detail in the frame that holds the viewer’s attention. We can have two exercises in class to facilitate students’ understanding.

 

Part One l Chain story

  1. Instructor brings a pile of photos to class, pick one student to create a story based on one of the photos
  2. Instructor picks another student and a relevant photo from the pile, asks the second student to create a story based on the ending of the first.
  3. Repeat the photo picking and storytelling process, until the fourth or fifth round.
  4. Instructor can explain how this activity highlights the storytelling feature of photography, and that ambiguity exists among images.

 

Part Two l In search of the studium and punctum

  1. Students are asked to pick one photo that draws his/her attention from the pile, and take turns to share the studium and the punctum of the photo with the class. They need to guess at the punctum and intention of the photographer. It would train their imagination and logic (all the photos used in class are shot by instructor himself).
  2. Students look for the things in campus that stung them like the punctum and took a photo of it. This further enhances their understanding of the studium and the punctum.

Actual Outcome:

During class:

Students were engaged in Part One “Chain Story”.
1 2

Students were able to present the studium and the punctum of his/her photo to the class. When they were asked to describe the stadium side of an image, they would simply speak their mind, for example, they would say, “there is a fat person.” However, “fat” is a rather subjective description, students were only allowed to describe the photo with more objective and less judgmental adjectives. After detailing the objective information of the photo, students could shift to discussing punctum, in this way, the differences between the two concepts would be contrasted.


Work:

Student Work

Hui Shun Chun
Student wants to highlight the difference between sunlight and indoor light, the sun beam that shone through the window became the punctum of the photo.
3

 

Lai Wing Chin
lai wing chin

 

Liu Bao Xuan
liu bao xuan

Wong King Seng
wong king seng

Yeung Mun Ting
yeung mun ting

Fung Cheuk Lam
fung cheuk lam


Student Feedback:

“What we learnt from this lesson is practical.”


Reference Materials:

“Crisis of the Real: Writings on Photography” by Andy Grundberg

 

The studium and the punctum:

“Camera Lucida” by Roland Barthes

Stadium: objective visual information

Punctum: the elements which stimulates audiences to pay attention

 

Studium: The first, obviously, is an extent, it has the extension of a field, which I perceive quite familiarly as a consequence of my knowledge, my culture; … Thousands of photographs consist of this field, and in these photographs I can, of course, take a kind of general interest, one that is even stirred sometimes, but in regard to them my emotion requires the rational intermediary of an ethical and political culture. What I feel about these photographs derives from an average affect, almost from a certain training. … It is by studium that I am interested in so many photographs, whether I receive them as political testimony or enjoy them as good historical scenes: for it is culturally (this connotation is present in stadium) that I participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions.

(“Camera Lucida” by Roland Barthes)

 

Punctum: The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. This time it is not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness), it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. … A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me). … Very often the Punctum is a “detail,” i.e., a partial object. Hence, to give examples of punctum is, in a certain fashion, to give myself up.

(“Camera Lucida” by Roland Barthes)

 

On the ambiguity of image:

A photo is inherently “ambiguous,” that is, the meaning of a photo is subjective, complicated, or ambiguous, it sits between being realistic and surreal, between certainty and metaphor; it is difficult to be defined, because we are no longer living in a time where photo is a representation of truth. A photo can be read in many different ways, by many people; the photographer no longer owns the (sole) right to interpret his/her own work. Take the iconic June 4th Incident photo, “Tank Man” as an example. Some might read it as the army being obstructed despite its lack of intention to hurt the people. Viewer needs to be conscious that an image has its own stance, it is never neutral; where the image is displayed also contributes to the meaning of the image itself. It is also said that, the more ambiguous a photograph is, the more open it is to the interpretation and imagination of the viewers.