Judith Ortiz Cofer: The Cruel Country

Cofer contemplates a photograph of her mother @ Brevity. “Mourning: a cruel country where I’m no longer afraid.”—Roland Barthes, Mourning DiaryI study a photograph of my mother taken on her return to the Island as a widow in her forties. What do I see? A woman in a bright red top and black pants, neither smiling nor frowning, posed in front of a painted canvas. Her back is very straight and her hands, showing signs of arthritis in the slightly swollen crooked fingers, are spread flat on her lap.

Something draws the eyes to this woman’s face. The camera has caught her in between emotions. We do not know whether she is about to smile or cry.

In his book on photography as memorial, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes talks about the two planes in a photograph that interest him. The first he calls the studium, and it represents the actual occasion, meaning, or intent of the photograph. But it is the detail that defies analysis, what Barthes calls the punctum, that interests him the most.

The punctum is the point of intersection between viewer and image, that detail that draws us into the picture as a shared human event. It is the thing, whether intended by the photographer or not, that touches you or triggers a quickening of the pulse, an irresistible impulse to look closer.

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