“Children can feel, but they cannot analyse their feeling; and if the analysis is partially effected in thought, they know not how to express the result of the process in words”
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, 1847.
Jane Eyre complaints, when she recollects her memories as a 10 years old orphan girl living miserable with her Aunt and cousins, that her heart was full of passions, but she was not entitled to communicate them. In her view, children don’t have the authority to express their feelings: they do not participate in the language of the adults, as if they had a language of their own.
This brief sentence manifests one of the main challenges in the history of emotions. My friend and colleague Leticia Fernández Fontecha drew my attention to it for the first time almost a year ago, when we started to prepare together a presentation. How can we get the emotions of the past when the language is absent – the subject doesn’t speak, or lacks the authority of speech? How can we know how Jane Eyre was feeling if even herself didn’t know it?
This is an extremely difficult question, both theoretically and methodologically that I don’t intend to resolve here. But I think that one of the ways to approach it is photography. When we deal with historical photographic sources, we don’t usually have a diary or letters or any personal textual information together with the collection of pictures explaining what the photographer and/or photographed people was feeling at that particular moment. We are lucky if we have a legend, or a title. Then, in the absence of textual information, we cannot rely on language as the primal means to understand the emotions of the past. We have to make a detour, go around and analyse other texts, objects and images that related to that particular (set of) photograph/s. That is, we have to turn to practices.
Maybe we will never be able to affirm without hesitation what the people of the past were feeling in a particular instant. But I do think that we can, at least, understand what feelings made sense on that situation, how anger or sympathy were experienced and understood, and the role that these emotions played in social live. And the analysis of photography as a social, cultural and political practice embedded into broader norms of socialising and communication and ruled by tacit codes can provide unexpected clues.