Roland Barthes didn’t say “cheese” for the camera. The eminent theorist wrote brilliantly about the images of others but felt uneasy in front of the lens himself. On the back of my copy of Camera Lucida (1980), there’s a picture of Barthes, debonair, as always, but looking down, grimacing, apparently sighing in exasperation.

I can relate. A simple headshot turns me into: guy squinting in sunlight, guy who just drank lemon juice. Do you show your teeth, raise your eyebrows, look straight at the camera as if it were a person? And how do you hold that face, and keep holding it, like a man in a straightjacket pleased with his invisible friends?

Barthes, I assume, would have disliked selfies, at least taking them. He was embarrassed posing for pictures, explaining in Camera Lucida, “Once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes.” The smallest gesture became a conscious decision. Every expression had to be conjured wholesale, rather than elicited in conversation. And ultimately, as Barthes wondered, “How can one have an intelligent air without thinking about anything intelligent, just by looking into this piece of black plastic?”

The lens’ stare prompts us to try. Barthes declares, “I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.” One time, he plays coy and ironic: “I decide to ‘let drift’ over my lips and in my eyes a faint smile which I mean to be ‘indefinable,’ in which I might suggest, along with the qualities of my nature, my amused consciousness of the whole photographic ritual.” We might recall the self-fashioning of avid users of Facebook or Instagram. But for Barthes, the stilted acting was a tactic of defense, a protective façade against the alien agency of the photographer, the cold indifference of the machine. My own inclination is to tighten my lips, harden my cheeks, narrow my eyes, like a store greeter turned to stone.

The very idea of a camera makes us see ourselves through the eyes of others—an audience that can’t be known, whose values can’t be anticipated. We imagine friends or family or strangers or even enemies. Barthes likened the effect to heautoscopy, the sensation of seeing one’s body at a distance, roughly approximated by the feed of our front-facing cameras. He acknowledges, “I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture (comparable to certain nightmares).” Barthes, in other words, was his own worst critic, judging the smile in the picture against what he knew to be the feelings underneath. Despite his defensiveness, he wanted something true revealed, something genuine captured, what he called “the precious essence of my individuality.” The phrase is a little ironic, but Barthes believed strongly in the power of photography—especially amateur photos—to display artless truths, accidental details that could epitomize a personality.

If only the click…didn’t…take…forever, or come in an unending series, catching a range of expressions always a crucial millimeter out of shape. My lips twist and tighten as I look into the void, bracing for impact, straining under the weight of an ever-faker grin. Meanwhile, some patient soul says, “Ok, one more…wait, your eyes were closed…one more…try to smile this time…like a human.” Selfies preclude this ordeal but strand us, as we confront, once and for all, what we really think of our faces and ourselves.

Then it’s done, picture made: a disembodied self, what Barthes called “a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity.” The headshot became a mugshot, making him “a criminal type, wanted by the police.” Barthes went so far as to say he experiences “a micro-version of death,” feeling mortified in both senses—embarrassed and drained of life. And in any case, image and self-image never lined up, the picture coming out “heavy, motionless, stubborn” while the real Barthes, as he thought, remained “light, divided, dispersed…like a bottle-imp…giggling in a jar.”

The picture, once dead, then springs to life and flees the scene, posted, tagged, sent anywhere, by anyone. Barthes gave this example, in pre-Internet times: “One day an excellent photographer took my picture; I believed I could read in his image the distress of a recent bereavement”—which Barthes found pleasing, or at least true to life. Later, though, he found the same picture on a pamphlet—now in a new context—so that, “[b]y the artifice of printing, I no longer had anything but a horrible disinternalized countenance, sinister and repellent.” In an earlier book, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1977), the author includes several pictures and protests, “‘I never looked like that!’” Then he reconsiders and argues (against himself), “How do you know? What is the ‘you’ you might or might not look like? You are the only one who can never see yourself except as an image.” Maybe the camera knows us better than we know ourselves. And maybe our pictures betray secrets we’re not even aware we’re telling. The pose, after all, exposes, showing how we think we look best, how we’re proud to display ourselves. As Barthes put it, our pictures exhibit “the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am.”

Social media let us waive old formalities and reach out on new terms, making contact with others in moments of unguarded solitude. To grouse about the vanity of selfies is to forget they comprise networked conversations. People, not just celebrities, use them to connect. For Barthes, “The ‘private life’ is…that zone of space where I am not an image, an object”; the camera, he believed, invaded that space. But selfies seem less like invasions than invitations. And they permit us to be subjects, as well as objects, taking our own pictures almost however we like.

In any case, it needs to be said that the author of Camera Lucida spent relatively little time fussing over pictures of himself. The book has much more to say about images of others, most of all a single picture of Barthes’ recently deceased mother, Henriette, as a child. “I studied the little girl and at last discovered my mother,” her bereaved son wrote. “In this little girl’s image I saw the kindness which had formed her being immediately and forever.” The so-called Winter Garden Photograph, withheld from the book, haunts every page and informs the central premises: “I decided to ‘derive’ all Photography (its ‘nature’) from the only photograph which assuredly existed for me, and to take it somehow as a guide for my last investigation.” That’s why some scholars dismiss late-Barthes as self-indulgent, conceptually solipsistic. He turned his back on big ideas, the thinking goes, preferring idiosyncratic moods and obsessions. But still, these feelings are directed toward other people; indeed, Barthes expresses great love even for pictures of obscure, long-dead strangers. And Camera Lucida commands a big audience, far beyond academia, not despite but because of its confessional openness, which for many readers is a posture of generosity. We think anew of our own family pictures. I recall one of my own mother as a young woman looking carefree and sophisticated. I think of a framed picture of my grandmother smiling ecstatically next to the old entertainer Danny Thomas.

Like her son, Barthes’ mother too disliked being photographed, yet she “triumphed over this ordeal by placing herself in front of the lens with discretion…for she was always able to replace a moral value with a higher one—a civil value.” She must have understood that, on the other side, taking a picture is often an act of affection. No one sees your face as you do, in so much detail, as interestedly and idiosyncratically, but maybe someone has found in it something admirable, something you’ve failed to discover yourself. Barthes believed only his mother was able to take a good picture of him, the criterion being “love, extreme love”—but maybe it’s something milder, mere curiosity, openness to someone’s differences. Or just some portion of the perceptivity Barthes himself demonstrated in Camera Lucida.

—J.H. Pearl

Editors’ note: Jason Pearl is an Associate Professor of English at Florida International University.

Photo credit: Roland Barthes © Ulf Andersen / Photoshelter.com