Thomas Balmès: An Education in Images

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Thomas Balmès (12 minutes, 6 mb mp3)

Director Thomas Balmès on location in Mongolia filming “Babies” [Focus Features photo]

Thomas Balmès, the French film documentarian, had a worldwide hit last year with Babies. The movie was all pictures, no dialog. No text, no voice-over. No argument, no “cause.” Just irresistibly patient long shots of newborns and their parents in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and San Francisco, provoking wry comparisons and conversations (speak for yourselves) but mostly questions.

Is this the man to tune up — maybe redesign — the education of kids, and college kids, who already learn more from images and screens than they do from sentences and books? Thomas Balmès is saying that an education system that neglects to teach its students to participate in making the images they so readily consume is collapsing all around us, not least at Brown, where he was Artist-in-Residence last week. Academics (like his father, a Lacan scholar) write impenetrable texts for a closed circle of friends and rivals; students lean on screens, even in class, and learn by images without acknowledging their adopted language. The students who hovered with him all week arrive typically with ambitious and original film projects to save the world but very little idea, he said, of the how — or of craft, form and story-telling. Among the 10 “rules” that Thomas Balmes has adapted from the great Victor Kossakovsky, one suggests that while it would be nice to save the world, better perhaps for a filmmaker on a project to think of saving herself. It is part of academia’s duty, in Balmes’ view, to create at least a part of its product in today’s vernacular, a language defined overwhelmingly by images.

Today there was a survey published saying an average American child watches on average 7.5 hours of images per day — on phones, iPads, computers, TV. This is insane: to have so little concern about images in places like this to me is criminal. You need to participate in the making of these images, to be thinking about images and not learning how to communicate only through writing. It’s time that academics really taking this seriously. This is crucial. …

Students should participate in the creation of images, and not give it up to Murdoch, and others. You have people here in academia who are working in a kind of closed circle and not caring about what is going on outside. People do read, but writing cannot be the only mode of creation in the academic world. Academics must take and grasp, very rapidly, moving images, and participate in the production of these images… In France every child before 18 spends one year studying philosophy. You don’t become a philosopher, but you study. This is crucial. Reading images, understanding images, semantics, semiotics, whatever, is absolutely crucial and must be implemented at every age in the school system…

Thomas Balmès with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, April 8, 2011.

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  • Comment on April 8 ROS interview with Thomas Balmes:
    Two dimensions of a Thomas Balmes-type education in images come to mind:
    The one logical-deductive (Peirce), the other painterly-iconic (Barthes):
    Around the corner a bit from the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Cambridge is the birthplace of the great philosopher-semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce (September 10, 1839 – April 19, 1914).
    He spent his life trying to pin down the latent relationships between images, icons, signs, things, symbols:
    Signs and objects
    Peirce concluded that there are three ways in which signs represent objects. They underlie his most widely known trichotomy of signs:
    • Icon
    • Index
    • Symbol
    This term refers to signs that represent by resemblance, such as portraits and some paintings though they can also be natural or mathematical. Iconicity is independent of actual connection, even if it occurs because of actual connection. An icon is or embodies a possibility, insofar as its object need not actually exist. A photograph is regarded as an icon because of its resemblance to its object, but is regarded as an index (with icon attached) because of its actual connection to its object. Likewise with a portrait painted from life. An icon’s resemblance is objective and independent of interpretation, but is relative to some mode of apprehension such as sight. An icon need not be sensory; anything can serve as an icon, for example a streamlined argument (itself a complex symbol) is often used as an icon for an argument (another symbol) bristling with particulars.
    Peirce explains that an index is a sign that compels attention through a connection of fact, often through cause and effect. For example, if we see smoke we conclude that it is the effect of a cause – fire.. It is an index if the connection is factual regardless of resemblance or interpretation. Peirce usually considered personal names and demonstratives such as the word “this” to be indices, for although as words they depend on interpretation, they are indices in depending on the requisite factual relation to their individual objects. A personal name has an actual historical connection, often recorded on a birth certificate, to its named object; the word “this” is like the pointing of a finger.
    Peirce treats symbols as habits or norms of reference and meaning. Symbols can be natural, cultural, or abstract and logical. They depend as signs on how they will be interpreted, and lack or have lost dependence on resemblance and actual, indexical connection to their represented objects, though the symbol’s individual embodiment is an index to your experience of its represented object. Conventional symbols such as “horse” and caballo, which prescribe qualities of sound or appearance for their instances (for example, individual instances of the word “horse” on the page) are based on what amounts to arbitrary stipulation. Such a symbol uses what is already known and accepted within our society to give meaning. This can be both in spoken and written language.
    For example, we can call a large metal object with four wheels, four doors, an engine and seats a “car” because such a term is agreed upon within our culture and it allows us to communicate. In much the same way, as a society with a common set of understandings regarding language and signs, we can also write the word “car” and in the context of Australia and other English speaking nations, know what it symbolizes and is trying to represent.
    See also:
    Roland Barthes and Photographic images
    When his mother, Henriette Barthes, died in 1977, Roland Barthes began writing Camera Lucida as an attempt to explain the unique significance a picture of her as a child carried for him, reflecting on the relationship between the obvious symbolic meaning of a photograph (which he called the studium) and that which is purely personal and dependent on the individual, that which ‘pierces the viewer’ (which he called the punctum).
    Camera Lucida (in French, La Chambre claire) is a short book published in 1980 by the French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes. It is simultaneously an inquiry into the nature and essence of photography and a eulogy to Barthes’ late mother. The book investigates the effects of photography on the spectator (as distinct from the photographer, and also from the object photographed, which Barthes calls the “spectrum”).
    In a deeply personal discussion of the lasting emotional effect of certain photographs, Barthes considers photography as asymbolic, irreducible to the codes of language or culture, acting on the body as much as on the mind. The book develops the twin concepts of studium and punctum: studium denoting the cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph, punctum denoting the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it.
    Camera Lucida, along with Susan Sontag’s On Photography, was one of the most important early academic books of criticism and theorization on photography. Neither writer was a photographer, however, and both works have been much criticised since the 1990s. Nevertheless, it was by no means Barthes’ earliest approach to the subject. Barthes mentions photography in one of his ‘little mythologies’—articles published in the journal Les Lettres Nouvelles starting in 1954 and gathered in Mythologies, published untranslated in 1957. The article “Photography and Electoral Appeal” is more obviously political than Camera Lucida. In the 1960s and entering the next decade, Barthes’ analysis of photography develops more detail and insight through a structuralist approach; Mythologies ‘s treatment of photography is by comparison tangential and simple. There is still in this structural phase a strong political impulse and background to his theorizing of photography; Barthes connects photography’s ability to represent without style (a ‘perfect analagon’: “The Photographic Message”, 1961) to its tendency to naturalise what are in fact invented and highly structured meanings. His examples deal with press photographs and advertising, which make good use of this property (or bad use of it, as the case may be). Published two months prior to his death in 1980, Camera Lucida is Barthes’ first and only book devoted to photography. However, the ideas about photography in Camera Lucida are certainly prepared in essays like “The Photographic Message”, “Rhetoric of the Image” (1964), and “The Third Meaning” (1971). There is a movement through these three pieces of which Camera Lucida can be seen as the culmination. With “The Third Meaning” there is the suggestion that the photograph’s reality, aside from all the messages it can be loaded with, might constitute an avant-garde value: not a message as such, aimed at the viewer/reader, but another kind of meaning that arises almost accidentally yet without being simply ‘the material’ or ‘the accidental’; this is the eponymous third meaning.
    (see also his Japan-iconography book, “Empire of Signs”)

  • nother

    Thank you for this conversation. Mr. Balmes tells us: “Students should participate in the creation of images, and not give it up to Murdoch, and others.” Presently I’m doing a documentary on a high school English teacher who happens to be engaged in what Mr. Balmes recommends, making the teaching of images a fundamental part of his curriculum. What makes this teacher unique however, is not just that he has embraced the teaching of images more than the average high school teacher, it’s that he’s been blind since birth, and the students are blind. His name is Jeff Migliozzi and he teaches at Perkins School for the Blind. Jeff told me that through the years people would stop by with cameras to film his students, and the students would often ask Jeff how they were being portrayed. Jeff realized that he must teach these students about moving images, thus giving these student more power over their own images. Now he teaches a class a film class in which they break down the visual imagery of classic movies, and he’s started (together with Kevin Bright, the creator of “Friends”) a video workshop, in which the students produce their own images.

    I should point out (and I think this is a vital lesson for all teachers) that in conjunction with his teaching of images, Jeff gives his students a strong foundation in all of the humanities, thus instilling a power to question. While it’s true that we are inundated with images, it’s also true that many if not most of those images are unproductive and even deceiving. Teaching images is great but the necessity is to discern, and that’s a tool that is taught from the inside out, not the other way around.

  • occurs to me that if one’s father is a Lacan scholar, one might turn away from words. I agree that giving kids a grip on the images that now flood us (by learning to make them) seems a necessary part of “new” education, yet surely language must be the basis of deep thought. And of human sharing (see the twin babies on the now-famous YouTube clip (
    By the way, this is my first comment on the program. I listen to Open Source regularly and love it. It’s pitched at a very high level intellectually, often deals with novel subjects and is always civilized even when dealing with controversial issues. Christopher Lydon is a terrific interviewer. As an American who lives in Europe (Portugal) I have practically no other “input” of spoken English of this sophistication in my day to day. Viva language!
    So, this is a vote of gratitude for stimulating talk that keeps me in touch with the best in conversation!

  • chris

    Thank you, Ms Fonseca for your generous and stylish comment. May the tribe of Euro Open Sourcerers increase. Viva language and listeners far and wide.

  • Potter

    Three separate thoughts but related:

    After learning of the death of Israeli Palestinian filmmaker Juliano Mer-Khamis a couple of weeks ago I watched his documentary “Arna’s Children” a nine-parter available thankfully on Youtube. Talk about images! This was very powerful, not the “usual documentary”.. in fact. a work of art. So I thought to mention it as you are talking about the power of images.

    As a student of art history it was evident that images, paintings, sculpture, have had a very strong effect on human emotions throughout history.

    Our little grandchildren, under 3, even with TV not allowed, do get images coming at them… already at 2 years, they know how to work an iphone and they get mesmerized.

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