david han

It was like stepping into a time warp.

He had brought in a couple of rotten logs from the pile in the garage that provided shelter to a family of mice. After neatly piling them beside the hearth, my father clumsily rearranged the fire to create an appropriate spot for a new piece of firewood. It had been at least 15 years since my family had used the old fireplace. However, after evicting a family of birds that had turned the chimney into their home, my father had reclaimed the fireplace in the name of energy efficiency. Having set the same old blanket on the floor in front of the fire to prevent fleeing embers from burning the wall-to-wall carpeting, he grabbed two pillows off the coach and stretched out in front of the fireplace to enjoy the apples my mother had cut up for us to enjoy after dinner.

I had gone home to investigate my family's past as recorded in the countless photographs stored away in a forgotten cabinet in my parent's house. I was as unprepared for what I would find as much as I was to see this scene from my childhood acted out right before my eyes.

Opening up the old cabinet that housed our family photo albums, I was shocked to discover five or six I had never seen before. Grabbing one - an oversized, leather-bound album with metal coil binding that stood in sharp contrast to the cheap, garishly decorated albums I had leafed through countless times - I flipped it open. It was filled with faces and stories I did not know, yet seemed strangely familiar.

I took the album and sat down next to my mother on the couch. Looking over my shoulder as she peeled apples, she was immediately filled with stories of a young couple on their honeymoon on Jeju Island. It was rare to hear my mother tell such animated stories. Over the years, I had heard bits and pieces of my parent's past, but I had never seen the images associated with it.

In one photograph, there was my father as a young boy, dressed in his school uniform, standing next to his sisters in front of a small house. In another, there was my mother in her early twenties, finishing second in a foot race held during a company picnic. In yet another, there was my older sister at her first birthday, dressed in a traditional Korean outfit and surrounded by a variety of seemingly unrelated objects. (According to Korean tradition, the first object to be picked up by the child foretells her future. She picked up the pencil which meant that she would lead an artistic life.)

I opened up another album, this one green with gold trim, and discovered photos of my parents during their first years in Canada. My father was studying international law at Carlton University in Ottawa. He had come over by himself on a student visa. My mother, also traveling on a student visa, would join him six months later, leaving behind my older sister, only 8 months old at the time. Flipping through the pages, I discovered that the majority of the photos featured my parents posing in front of various bleak, wintry Ottawa landscapes, dressed impeccably in the latest mod fashion. Behind each these photographs were stories that revealed a previously hidden part of my parent's past. At the back of the album was an envelope filled with what appeared to be rejected photos. Among these duplicate, out of focus and seemingly mundane photos, I discovered one that immediately grabbed my attention.

I studied the photograph thoroughly. It showed my parents in the summer of 1972. They are walking down a garden path somewhere in the countryside. The elongated shadows indicate that it is late in the afternoon on a bright, sunny day. My parents walk alongside four other people, none of which I have ever known. On the left, a middle-aged woman, holding a small boy in her right arm, is gesturing with her left, in the midst of telling a rather engaging story. To her right is my mother. Unlike the other photos taken at the time, my mother is dressed in what seems to be a very formal, Korean-style dress. She walks closely behind a small girl in an orange dress and white sneakers. They both have their heads turned towards the woman, apparently quite interested in whatever is being said. In fact, unlike the others who all appear to be in mid-stride, my mother looks as if she is just about to stop and say: No? Really? To their right is a young man who is walking with his arms crossed and his head bowed, as if listening closely. Or perhaps the photo has captured a lull in the conversation between him and my father, who walks to his right. This would explain why it appears as if my father is uncomfortable. He stares off camera as if searching for something to speak about.

This photo, out of all the photos that I saw that day, was the one that grabbed me. It had, in Barthes' words, an "element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me." (Barthes, Camera Lucida, 26) Barthes called this the punctum.

I took the photo home when I left my parent's house that night. I wanted to know what exactly it was about this photograph that grabbed me. I wanted to find the punctum and hold it up and say: Here it is! My parents obviously didn't think much about the photograph. This opinion was only confirmed when I showed it to my sisters later on in the week. Yet there was something about this photo that, to paraphrase Barthes, took me outside its frame, where it I animated the photograph and that it animated me. (Barthes, Camera Lucida, 59) And despite Barthes' assertion that the punctum could not be named or located, I took the photo, dropped in my scanner and began my search.

Looking at the photo on my computer, transformed into palette of pixels, I began to feel that this was not the ideal method to get at the elusive allure this photo held for me. Wanting to reflect the process of my desire to understand this image, I broke the image down, "sampling" the photo with discrete geometric shapes.

I was left with an image that reduced the original photograph to its basic visual elements. At first glance, the geometric shapes seem like random fragments scattered across a white background. Yet the position of these shapes was not random, but rather held in place by their reference to the original photograph. Somewhere between the broken-down image and the original photograph, I hoped my search would be clarified. As I strained to piece together this puzzle I had created for myself, I wanted to locate (either in what was missing or what was already there) what had originally jumped out at me.

I was unable to do so.

Barthes' argued that the punctum could not be sought out. He wrote, "in order to perceive the punctum, no analysis would be of any use to me." (Barthes, Camera Lucida, 42) I couldn't agree more. He continued by arguing that "the reading of the punctum is at once brief and active." (Barthes, Camera Lucida, 49) It appears wholly and quickly, leaving no room for explanation or analysis or even understanding.

'Anoesia' is a reflection on this entire process. My desire to understand started from a lack of knowledge (about these previously unknown photo albums; about my parent's past; and about my relationship to my parent's past and this one particular photograph). I chose to fulfill this desire by attempting to analyze one photograph. By re-building this photo I hoped to pinpoint the allure it held for me. In this, I was unsuccessful. In deconstructing the photo, my desire to understand went unsatisfied. Only the entire image, appearing briefly, provoked that initial "prick" - the punctum. And yet I am still left with no explanation or understanding of it.

Perhaps it is this want of understanding, this "anoesia", which lies at the root of Barthes' notion of punctum. "What I can name cannot really prick me. The incapacity to name is a good symptom of disturbance... The effect is certain but unlocatable, it does not find its sign, its name; it is sharp and yet lands in a vague zone of myself; it is acute yet muffled, it cries out in silence." (Barthes, Camera Lucida, 51-53)