Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 6, 2015

Sensational Snippets: Charades, by Janette Turner Hospital

Over the past few months, I have been making a scrapbook about what my mother means to me, and as scrapbookers know, the art of scrapbooking involves the careful selection, cropping, placement and embellishment of photographs, many of which are merely snapshots taken a long time ago.  The curating of a life like this is, yes, an artifice, one which is designed to showcase what we choose to remember.

So I was quite taken by this excerpt when I came across it in Janette Turner Hospital’s novel Charades, just recently reissued by UQP in its Modern Classics series.  This book was first published in 1988, long before any of us even dreamed of digital photography and all the photoshopping and other wizardry that goes on today…

CharadesSometimes, Charade says, I think of the droplets of stopped time in photographs, oceans and oceans of it, in all the albums and wallets and attics of the world.  Lies, all lies.

Because the camera falsifies everything, doesn’t Koenig agree?  There’s the picking and choosing, the arbitrary framing, the whole dishonest bag of photographer’s tricks, that’s for starters; and then there’s the self-consciousness of the photographer – even, or maybe especially, in the candid shot.

Do we look like that? she asks him – you know, startled, sheepish, dramatic – when no one’s watching?  It’s all a sort of untruth; a composed – or discomposed – artifice.

What’s interesting about a photograph, she says, is what isn’t in the picture.

(Charades (UQP Modern Classics), by Janette Turner Hospital, UQP, 2015, ISBN 9870702253850, p. 74)



  1. I made a photo book after my parents died, trying to create some sort of order and significance from the boxes full of un-named photos – not scrapbooking, but quite a difficult (and emotional) process. And I agree with Hospital’s words; it was quite artificial, but worthwhile nevertheless. I loved ‘Charades’ when I first read it and some of her other books, but the later ones are rather dark.


    • Even when we are documenting something joyful in a photo-book, like my son’s wedding, it is the process that is, as you say, emotional, but very worthwhile. I wonder, sometimes, about how people who keep their photos only on phones, get by. For me, it’s what I write that records the journey, even if only I know about the words unwritten. But how can anyone do that with a photo on a phone?


  2. Lisa this reminds me of reading Roland Barthes for my masters – Camera Lucida a book I actually liked and understood and wished I’d read first because some of his other work was rather heavy going!

    I loved the questions he posed about photographs, especially concerning his mother when he was grieving her death and how it leads into all those philosophical questions that are not just about photography.

    “It is said that mourning, by its gradual labour, slowly erases pain; I could not, I cannot believe this; because for me, Time eliminates the emotion of loss (I do note weep), that is all. For the rest, everything has remained motionless. For what I have lost is not a Figure (the Mother), but a being; and not a being, but a quality (a soul): not the indispensable, but the irreplaceable.”
    ― Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography

    (Another photograph and question sticks in my mind – a young man lies dead in a Nicaraguan street, shot I think. His mother had run out of the house weeping and carrying a sheet. he’s already been covered and Barthes asks of her – why this sheet?)

    For me photographs help trigger memories and depending how many photos you have and when they were taken it is possible to document a journey or life but it is the act of doing (or wanting to do) that’s emotionally important and, significant, not the actual photographs themselves, which may not be an honest interpretation of events. But family photographs, comparing generations and pondering lineage and the future very interesting.

    And they do say a photograph is worth a 1000 words!

    Here is another aspect of photographs Barthes brings up, which I love:

    “One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: ‘I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.’ Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of solitude), I forgot about it.”


    • Surely only a man would ask ‘why this sheet?’ A woman would know that it is a mother’s role to shroud her own son…


  3. I love that last line: “What’s interesting about a photograph, she says, is what isn’t in the picture.” I think it’s fascinating to consider what photography is about.

    But, I can totally understand the job of creating a scrapbook, though I’ve never really done it besides a bit of a scrapbook style album of our first Japan trip. I enjoyed that, but I don’t print photos anymore – one bit of the process towards decluttering.I look at my online photos (on our personal home network) a lot, but I almost never look at my albums anymore.


    • I suppose most people do that these days, Sue, but I like the process as much as the product, and I love looking through my travel albums:)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know what you are saying, Lisa … the process IS very enjoyable. I did love doing the Japan albums I did, and it does create a place for all those interesting tickets and other little bits you pick up and would like to keep doesn’t it.


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