Log in
photographer/social anthropologist

Project: Publication


Three positions of observation: a personal reflection and some theoretical perspectives

A biographical view

In Roland Barthes Camera Lucida, a photograph of his mother is a central theme. He does not show us this photograph in the book, but tells us that the picture portrays his mother as she essentially was. From a phenomenological position, he believes that in the photograph "the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation".[1]

I do not have such a photograph of the house where I grew up, but I can still easily imagine my house. It was a white house. There were two big, old trees at the entrance to the courtyard, a chestnut and an ash. The trees gave me security; perhaps because they stood through changing seasons and everyday life, in silent acceptance. In the autumn, when thousands of leaves fell and had to be raked away, I made pearl necklaces from shiny chestnuts. My brother and I would rake the gravel in the courtyard, to make it look nice for the weekend. However, I never employed the meditative absorption I imagine Japanese monks practise, while they rake their gardens. We raked the grass while my father mowed the lawn, a lawn that gradually expanded as he cut further and further into the woods.

The house was built in 1690. It was spooky at night with its creaking body and three hundred years of history. During daytime freedom was outdoors: in the woods, by the little pond, by the lake or in the woodshed. We played mother, father and children, and made homes from whatever was available: a tarpaulin, a length of rope and some branches. Perhaps we played as we wanted life to be, or to become? I do not remember. Memories are as selective as photographs; they are products of choice, dependent on a specific occurrence in a given moment.

Since then, I have built no house.

I most prefer to be a nomad.


A social/cultural view

The home, as an idea and organisational principle has always been central in production of ideology in different societies. It is also an important factor in division of labour and in distribution of power between the sexes.

"We cultivate the self-contained and private home as the nuclear family’s central space", H. C. Sørhaug says in his article, Familiemønstre mot år 2000 [2], on the modern home. "In the home we find a continuous worship of central, sacred values such as closeness, security, independence, familiarity and kindness. This cultivation manifests through housework, education, care, sex, decoration (…). These practical forms of worship develop inside a private and intimate space, consisting of a man, a woman and possibly children."[3]

The anthropologist Janice Boddy describes in her book, Wombs and alien spirits[4], a small village community in northern Sudan. It is common in this society to use anatomical terms for non-anatomical objects, and the comparison between the house – hosh – and the female abdomen is one such analogy. Doors into houses are called mouths, and the female vagina is called a door. The home's seclusion with its surrounding high walls, and the woman's area behind these walls, where she is required to reside unless she is fetching water, or visiting relatives, underline the gender segregation. Within the enclosure the woman has politico-economical power, outside it is the men who possess this power. In this setting women's bodies are a metonymy for the community, which needs protection against external threats and hostile enemies.

Cultural ideas on the house and the body are woven into daily life, and therefore become as much a technique for the maintenance of the ideal society, as a representation of the same society.

I see the idea of the home as an outsider.

Then I go on.


A photographic view

Theodor W. Adorno characterises art as something divided from, yet contained within, empirical reality and social causality. He believes that art becomes social via its opposition to society, through its autonomy. "Society's immanence within the artwork is art’s essential social relation, not art’s immanence in society", he says in Asthetische Theorie.[5]

The photographic image is closely related to the world. Photographs are dependent on a something being portrayed, whether constructed or as part of an authentic occurrence. One important question in photography is how autonomy can be achieved through this close connection to reality.

C. S. Pierce's[6] semiotic theory makes it possible to see the photograph as an index, as a sign that points at, but also beyond what is actually depicted in the photographic image. Although the photograph is always a representation of a given reality, it can thus transcend being just a good or a bad copy of that reality. Through its relation to an empirical world the photographic image points both to an individual and a collective memory, and can be seen and interpreted from both a personal and a social viewpoint.

Choice is inherent in the photographic process. This chosen section of time and space relates precisely to infinite time and space, and creates the backdrop for our experience of the photographic image. It tells us that there is both a before and an after, and that something exists outside the limits of the frame.

I love to choose.

Through taking photographs I can do just that.


© Thera Mjaaland. Published in Houses/Homes. Bergen: Kunsthøgskolen, 2000


[1] London: Vintage Press, 1993:89

[2] Family models towards the year 2000.

[3] H.C. Sørhaug in Barndom i Norge. Arne Solli (ed), Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1991: 6

[4] The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989

[5] Vor tids filosofi. Engagement og forståelse. København: Politikkens forlag, 1982: 253

[6] Politisk kommunikasjon. D. Heradstveit og T. Bjørgo, Oslo: Tano, 1996: 31

Thera Mjaaland worked as Assistant Professor in the Section for Photography at the Bergen Academy of Art and Design - Kunst- og designhøgskolen i Bergen (1996/1999), where she also held the position of Dean for the Department of Specialised Arts for two years (1999/2000). During this period the institution was sharpening its focus on research and artistic development. A program was initiated to encourage and investigate research practice across the fields of Fine Art, Design and Applied Arts. Through a series of publications the Bergen Academy of Art and Design intended to contribute to the debate and development of research in contemporary visual arts practice and arts education. Houses/Homes (2000) was part of this still ongoing research and development program.

The photographs