Life Writing and Visual Culture

Since time immemorial, life writers of different types have employed diverse visual texts as powerful narrative tools to inscribe the lives of their subjects. It was with the advancement of technology that the immense possibilities of photographs and other visuals like cartoons, caricatures and painting were explored by life historians. In fact, they became aware of how effectively a visual can narrate a life apart from words. However, it may be mentioned here that it was the Western life writers who initiated the trend of using visuals in life texts and in due course it was emulated by writers in various countries including India.1 Let us familiarise with some of the common visual texts seen in/ as life narratives.

Photographs are included in life narratives, particularly in autobiographies as powerful narratives and they have an added advantage when they are placed in specific contexts, which can evoking the memories they crystallise. In family histories, photographs and illustrations are used as indispensable narrative tools capturing the genealogy, tradition and legacy of various families. Family albums are kept as valuable documents in many families and occasional encounter with lost souls helps the present generation to temporarily establish a link with the forgotten past. It is possible to narrate a life through photographs. At the same time the story which a photograph narrative may contradict the version of the verbal text (Smith 76). Photographs of dear ones in family albums trigger the process of mourning as they continually reproduce the past. As relics of the past, they reinforce the myths associated with a family (Oksman. 236). According to Roland Barthes, “what the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once. The Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially” (4).

In due course, biopics or biographical films gained popularity and they narrated the lives of real persons or people with real names, claiming historical authenticity. We are reminded of Attenborough’s biopic, Gandhi (1982) which visualises some of the key episodes in the eventful life of Mahatma Gandhi. Biopics are not free from accusations of deception and fabrication; some events in the hero’s life are more dramatically represented while some controversial situations are deliberately wrapped under carpet. Very often, biopics function as powerful apparatus and narrates a nation as such.2

Though rarely discussed, portraits and paintings may also be considered as life narratives, but in different ways. Realism is the hallmark of a portrait and it gives importance to a figure who is easily identifiable and through this process, memories surrounding a subject are localised and evoked. Every portrait may be taken as a biography and it is a mechanism through which the authority and power of a person is officially attested with the support of the state. Thus, we may argue that portraits function as a state apparatus through which power and authority are exercised. In fact, a portrait demands a subject ‘out there’ as the centre of all meanings and the viewer’s freedom of interpretation is limited; criticisms are not always welcome. The portrait artists do focus on their subjects in the heights of their glory and thus, their pasts are glorified and present is interpreted. Family portraits narrate the collective identity and inscribe the collective memory of a shared past. On the other hand, paintings as life narratives offer enough freedom to artists to improvise opening opportunities for the viewer to give his own interpretation. Often, we can see meanings/interpretations frequently shifting in a painting and no reading is considered final. In painting, the figure of a subject is not important and a painter can give some deft touches of his brush to imply deeper layers of meaning. Realism is the casualty in painting and the figure of a subject is not mandatory. Thus, every painting becomes open-ended.

The section “Life writing and Visual Culture” begins with “Visualising Trauma: A Photo Essay of Endosulphan Victims” by Harinarayanan who brings home a very important and persistent social issue – the victimisation of people in the endosulphan -affected areas, particularly in Kasaragode, Kerala. It may be added here that the author has succeeded not only in collecting some original and unpublished photographs but also in proving how visuals speak louder than words. In the second article, “Sculpting Lives: A Reading of the Life Narration of Adi Shankara’s at Kalady,” Philip Jose and Rajesh V. Nair look at another interesting dimension of life writing, ie, telling life through Sculpture and the ideology embedded in it. The section ends with a painting by Swapna Murali which transmits the most unfortunate tragedy in Delhi recently, ie. the rape and murder of an unfortunate girl. However, the painting which acts as the life narrative of that victim throws open further possibilities for the viewer to construct more meanings and readings. Surrealistic in nature, the visual text highlights the victimisation and helplessness of the girl and presents her as a sacrificial figure.


1. Family albums: Family albums present slices of personal history as they help in recapturing the past in the present. The present generation has the psychological urge, the quest for continuity and the act of remembering becomes possible through family albums which almost become a ritual. Albums crystallise memory which is otherwise elusive and abstract.

2. Gandhi: Gandhi is a 1982 biographical film which dramatises the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the leader of India’s independence movement. Directed by Richard Attenborough, Ben Kingsley performed the title role. The film depicts Gandhi’s life from 1893, the crucial year in which he was thrown off a train in South Africa for being in a whites-only compartment and concludes with his assassination and funeral in 1948. Gandhi was released in India on 30 November 1982, in the United Kingdom on 3 December, and in the United States on 6 December. It was nominated for Academy Awards in eleven categories, winning eight, including Best Picture. Richard Attenborough won for Best Director and Ben Kingsley for Best Actor.


Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980. Print.

Oksman, Tahneer. “Mourning the Family Album.” a/b:Auto/Biography Studies, 24.2 (Winter 2010). Web.

Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography : A Guide for interpreting Life Narratives. London : U of Minnesota, P, 2001. Print.

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