On Photography and Trauma: The Sound of Silence

Shlomo Lee Abrahmov

This paper will focus on Barthes's second punctum and how it relates to time and not to elements within the photograph. In this sense it has immediate relevance to many photographs of trauma. A detailed description of the famous massacre in Maale Akrabim in 1954 will ensue including information on the re-creation of the chilling scene around the ambushed bus. These widely distributed propaganda photographs of the stiff bodies inside and outside the bus are raising questions about morality, ethics and the 'truth' value of photographs. Using examples from the Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia and the Yom Kippur war in Sinai, the article will argue that in general, photographs of trauma raise two polar sensations. The first is the clear confrontation with the horrific events, the second is the unanswered questions that are resultant from such a description. This aspect of the photographs, the way we reach and un-reach them, the conflicting closeness and forced remoteness, our ability to grasp and un-grasp them is their noemeor in other words their sound of silence.

Barthes’s Two Kinds of Punctums

In Camera Lucida (1), Barthes attempted to describe a method or a personal approach to observing meaning in photographs. This approach is related to their two attributes; the first is their ordinary nature; the second is their ability to convey meanings that are special and require engagement with the observed photographs.  Barthes related to these two aspects as the Studium and Punctum.  Studium relates to the factual aspects of the photograph, what it depicts or documents without causing any special sensation in the viewer.  The punctum is this specific detail observed in the photograph which moves the viewer by ‘pricking’ him. According to Barthes ‘punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole and also a cast of the dice’ (CL p.27).  While this first punctum has gained much of the focus in discussions and critiques of Camera Lucida (2), later in the book Barthes described a second punctum that was somewhat overshadowed by the first one. Unlike the first punctum, this second punctum does not relate to physical details in the photograph, but rather to time, or more precisely the dramatic event that took place after the photograph was taken, which gives it a certain intensity and poignancy. 




Fig. 1 Alexander Gardner Lewis Payne Washington Navy Yard April 1865


The example Barthes used to illustrate this punctum was the photograph of Lewis Payne, who was involved in the Abraham Lincoln assassination plot.  Barthes used the caption with this photograph: “He is dead and he is going to die” (CL p.95).  What makes this photograph special, its punctum, is the future death by hanging of its subject(3).  In this sense this punctum is relevant to all photographs showing a future death and trauma.  Its unique feature is that it relates both to the future (what is going to happen next) and to what has happened (as information that is brought in by the viewer).  


I think that we could use a famous photograph to illustrate this second punctum; it is Alex Libek photograph of a terrorist being led by the General Security Forces in the 300 bus-line incident (http://www.halemo.com/info/kav300/shabak300b.jpg). In this photograph as it was later discovered, the man with the white shirt was brutally executed (4).  Without relating to the moral and political aspects of the photograph, it certainly fits Barthes's caption of   “He is dead and he is going to die”.


A personal punctum

When I read Barthes description of Studium and Punctum, I did not find them immediately useful to discovering meaning in photographs until I came across a photograph from the Maale Akrabim incident of 1954.  I would like to describe this event in detail, as it is relevant to exploration of personal and national traumas.  On 17 March, 1954, while returning from Eilat, an Egged bus was ambushed in MaaleAkrabim. After the first volley of bullets the perpetrators entered the bus and continued their shooting killing eleven of the passengers.  The gruesome photographs of the massacre were distributed by the Israeli government worldwide after the event.  They are now part of the National Photo Collection and are available online athttp://www.gpo.gov.il/.



Fig. 2a-b Fritz Cohen the massacre in Maale Akrabim, March 17-18 1954


What we know now is that these photographs have been staged.  After the attack the bodies were moved to Beer Sheba Hospital and only later were returned to the original location in Maale Akrabim.  They were placed inside and outside the bus in order to recreate the chilling scene.  A convincing proof is that the photographs were taken at night while the attack had happened during the day. The bodies were removed during that afternoon as can be seen in the following photograph of the bus after the attack.


Fig. 3  Bus after the attack in Maale Akrabim 1954


Yael Gvirtz in her moving article in Yediot Aharonot (5), has commented on the ethical and political implications of the photographs from Maale Akrabim. I think that beside the immediate motivation for creating them, they are now acting as an iconic description of a pogrom and as such their chilling affect has not been dulled through the years.  They also act as a comment on the truth value of photographs, challenging our natural habit of assuming that photographs represent ‘facts’ or ‘objective truths’.


The photograph I wanted to relate to was taken prior to the attack.  There are no specific details on who took the photograph or how it was printed after the massacre:


Fig. 4 Unknown photographer  passangers in front of the Maale Akrabim bus1954


The photograph shows the passengers of the bus before the attack during a break in their trip.  The little girl in the photograph is Miri Furstenberg, who was five years old and is the only living survivor of the attack.  When I noticed her holding the hand of the soldier that may have saved her life, I was engulfed by a tide of emotions and the tears were running down my face.  Here for the first time, I experienced a personal punctumand could relate emotionally to Barthes's description of it.


While working on this article, I thought that it would be interesting to photograph MiriFurstenberg today, since I had the intuition that our meeting could add something to my exploration of the subject.  This is a photograph from this session:



Fig. 5 Shlomo Lee Abrahmov Miri Furstenberg hands with the Maale AkrabimPhotograph 5 December 2007


During the photo session Miri told me the shocking details of the attack, how a soldier next to her told her to shut up or she will be killed as well.  How he shielded her with his body and how she felt his blood on her after he was shot.  Silence in the bus after the shooting. Her brother Haimka, also survives the shooting and shouts her name, looking for her.  The attackers heard him too.  They re-enter the bus and shoot him in the head. He remained barely conscious for the next 32 years. Later Miri is alone in the bus hugging and caressing her dead father and looking outside of the bus and seeing her mother lying naked and mutilated.  This awful sight seen by five years old Miri, was recreated and it exists as a photograph in Israel's National Photo Collection (code D275-087).  It was described by Yael Gvirtz:


כבר 50 שנה שוכבת הדודה שלי, חנה, באותה תנוחה קפואה. רק ככה אני פוגשת אותה מעל מסך המחשב שלי. שרועה על גבה ליד גלגל האוטובוס. רגליה פשוקות, חצאיתה הפרחונית מופשלת וחולצתה הבהירה מנוקדת בדם. שערה הכהה והארוך פרוש על החול. פניה גלויות, עיניה עצומות וסביב פיה ואפה נחילים של דם קרוש. ידיה פשוטות בחוסר אונים מאחורי גבה. ידה הימנית מליאה בדם, האצבע שעליה ענדה את טבעת הנישואין שלה חסרה.

For 50 years now my aunt Hanna lies in the same frozen pose. Only thus do I meet her on my computer screen. She is sprawled on her back her legs are spread, her flower- patterned skirt is lifted and her white blouse spotted with blood. Her dark and long hair is flowing on the sand. Her face is visible, her eyes closed and around her mouse and nose, streams of dried blood.  Her hands are helplessly stretched behind her back.  Her right hand is covered with blood.  The finger on which she wore her wedding ring is missing.


Observing this photograph now, one cannot but think about its duality of meanings. The first is of course the horrifying incident which it portrays; the second is the deliberate act of recreating the scene. its fractured authenticity.     


Photographs of Trauma

Susan Sontag, in her book ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ (6), argued that photographs of trauma are limited in their ability to convey the scope of their events for the viewers. As such, our ability to absorb their impact is limited.  Yet there is something in us that wishes to see them and in certain instances they transfix our innermost beings.  Such are the photographs from the prison of Tuol Sleng in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge executed thousands of innocent victims (7).


Fig. 6a-b two unidentified prisoners, Tuol Sleng S-21 Prison Cambodia 1975-79


In the two photographs above we can observe Barthes’s two punctums. In the first photograph it is the chain choking its victim without mercy.  In the second, it is the safety pin looped through the skin of the boy which hints at his upcoming demise.  Both of these photographs relate to Barthes's second punctum since we know that they were taken prior to the torture and killing of these young victims.  For me there is something haunting in these portraits.  There is a certain silence and dignity, an absurd aesthetics which contradict their harrowing contexts.  They gaze at us and in a way demand answers.  They portray the ultimate presence of absence.  A cruel void which is physical but also spiritual.  As I look at them, I think that they symbolize the profound ability of mankind to create evil, which cannot be explained or excused.  


I was thinking that portraits can tell us something about the inner experiences of their subjects and thought about my friend Eyal who survived the rocket attack in Kfar Giladiduring the Second Lebanon War.  While telling me about the attack, he was unemotional, keeping his composure.  I tried to capture his unguarded moments when the camera can capture what the eye can barely discern.


Fig. 7  Shlomo Lee Abrahmov Eyal 19 November 2007


Looking at this photograph, I think that it could metaphorically relate to Eyal’s friends that were right next to him and are no longer with us. As if the photograph reveals his inner experience of the event, one that would not show in his ordinary daily poses. 


Illustrating battlefields traumas is almost an impossible task.  The immediate aftermath of fierce battles with the wounded and the dead lying around is a sight that we would rather avoid.  Such scenes can remind us of the futility of war, its end results and the indignity of the dead.  A noted example is Alexander Gardner stereo photograph from the battle of Gettysburg (8)



Fig. 8 Alexander Gardner Gettysburg Slaughter Pen July 1863


Coming to terms with the traumas of the Yum Kippur war of 1973, is an on-going national undertaking in Israel.  When it comes to the desperate fighting in Sinai, we are in a bind.  On the one hand we want to share in what has been, or what has been seen, on the other, graphic scenes such as Gardner's are too painful for us to observe. In this regard Abraham Vered's photograph from the Chinese Farm in Sinai is remarkable. Its wide perspective and the hill on the horizon that acts as a focal point, aid in de-emphasizing the dead soldiers lying on the sand.  Two pairs of army boots which remain uncovered act as a punctum, as the final demarcation between the dead and the living.  There is stillness in this photograph, a gap which is in contrast to the actual sounds of battle heard while this photograph was taken (9).  The vast empty spaces in the photograph metaphorically relate to the emptiness which remains after the battle when the survivors have to come to terms with their fallen friends.  As if, we as viewers are also asked by the photograph to untangle this emptiness, to fill this unsettling gap.


Fig. 9 Avraham Vered Chinese Farm Battlefield in Yom Kippur War 1973


As far as photography and trauma, photographs reveal and signify but in the same time they also represent something unfathomable, something beyond our grasp, a lingering trail of smoke that evaporated, yet its remains are buried within us.  In that sense the photographs disclose but also obscure.  Their indexicality or factuality should leave nothing unexplained, however in this case (trauma) there is this elusive quality.  It has to do with the challenge they pose for us.  If we refer to the idea of photographic meaning resultant of a continuous interplay between the referent the photograph and the viewer, we might get at the source of this challenge for us in viewing photographs of trauma.  It seems that they produce an inner conflict.  From one perspective we are graphically reminded of the harrowing events of their origin, from another we are removed from them by not been able to reach them, to fully grasp the multi-dimensional emotional impact leading to their creation.  This inner conflict might be illustrated by the portrait of the mother of the kidnapped soldier Omar during a demonstration in front of Tel Aviv Museum of Art.  At the time when the photograph was taken, it was not known yet that the kidnapped soldiers were already dead.  In a way the photograph asks the question of what is expressed externally and what is actually felt internally.  We can observe the external manifestation in the mother's face, but we have difficulty to fully encompass the internal turmoil or anguish.


Fig. 10 Shlomo Lee Abrahmov Hudra Savayed-Mother of Kidnapped Soldier Omar Tel Aviv December 2000


Naturally many photographs of trauma have an immediate political dimension to them. My aim in this essay is to point out that they also contain highly individual aspects. Maybe this is what makes them special and non-unary. Unlike ordinary press photographs they produce this dichotomy of meaning – one which is clear and understood in its social and political significance, the other is an individually created meaning, one which is much more elusive and intangible.  It acts like a question that could be answered and not answered in the same time. 



While researching this article, it occurred to me that trauma is part of our common shared experience in Israel, as if it is part of our DNA.  It is around us, whether we are its victims, direct witnesses or remote observers.  It is a vastly challenging question of how it shapes us socially, culturally and individually. Photographs of trauma can act as markers of what we need to transcend or debaters of if such transcendence is even possible (10).  They contain a duality in their meaning, as they are always connecting us to a void, to questions that can only be insufficiently answered.  The reaching and un-reaching, the closeness and the remoteness, the grasping and the un-grasping, this inconclusiveness is their noeme, their sound of silence.





(1)  Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida New York: Hill and Wang  

(2) For comments on Barthes’s punctum see: Fried, M. (2005) Barthes's PunctumCritical Inquiry  vol. 31 (3) pp. 539-574

 (3) When we watch Lewis Payne photograph in Camera Lucida, we assume that the photograph was taken just prior to his execution, but it was taken three months prior to the hanging, making it less urgent then firstly observed.

(4) On the political implications of this photograph seehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kav_300_affair

 (5) Yael Gvirtz (2004) The Truth that I Am Looking for is Buried Up the Road, Shavuot Holiday Supplement Yediot Aharonot 25 May  

(6) Sontag S, (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others  New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux York)

(7) The photographs are from the collection of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, for more photographs see:  http://www.tuolsleng.com/photographs.php

(8) This is the same area where Gardner photographed his famous sharpshooter photographs, in which he arranged the scene in order to create an improved composition.  It brings to mind the staged photographs from Maale Akrabim.

(9) On Abraham Vered  commentary on this photograph see Bamahane IDF Magazine, Issue 39, 7 October 2008 p. 36. Image copyrights are of the IDF Archives and the Bamahane IDF Magazine.

(10) As Miri Furstenberg commented: "We cannot be healed from it (trauma) but we can choose life". 

I would like to extend here my thanks to Yael Gvirtz for her generous help and for MiriFurstenberg for her courage and moving narrative.

Photography and the Political Arena, January 2009