Roland Barthes’ (1915-1980) essay, The Death of the Author, is about the personality and perspectives of the author as an individual getting out-of-the-way of the writing and allowing the reader to work at their interpretation of the text. So, moving away from the traditional literary criticism of ‘what the author means’ to ‘what does the reader understand by the text’. This encourages the participation of the reader in the work.
The example Barthes provides is of a Greek tragedy where all the characters speak ambiguously but do not realise their own ambiguity. It is then the audience who hear the ambiguity and understand its tragic consequences – the audience must participate in the ‘text’ to interpret what is happening. There can be more than one meaning, depending on one’s perspective. There is no single meaning, ‘a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination’ (Barthes). Hence not with the author but with the reader and therefore, ‘the death of the author’.
In photography, the understanding of the image itself is necessarily with the viewer as the image has no words to direct the viewer to the photographer’s meaning. So, the viewer must necessarily work at understanding the meaning. However, if textual context is provided this will direct the viewer and we would do well to consider careful the textual content to avoid limiting the viewer’s possibilities for interpretation and participation in the work.
Barthes R (1968). The death of the author. From Image Music Text edition (1977). London, Fontana Press.