This myth of the human ‘condition’ rests on a very old mystification, which always consists in placing Nature at the bottom of History.
Barthes’s essay serves as a critique of Steichen’s “Family of Man” exhibition on the grounds of naturalizing elements of life under capitalist ideology instead of placing them within their historical context. The “Family of Man” exhibition used hundreds of photographers to attempt to erase the differences between cultures, regions, and ideologies to show that humanity faces the same universal challenges and discovers the same universal truths. Barthes challenges the concept of the universal and criticizes Steichen for ignoring (or forgetting) the fact that many of the events presented as “universal” are in fact cultural constructs.
The only way that the photographs function to communicate “universality” are through the textual cues that are given with the pictures. By using truisms and scriptures, the photographs are then placed within the realm of wisdom and knowledge that has survived through time, and that are still true. But they tell the viewer very little about what it means to live in the twentieth century, when facts that had been “known” to be true were changing because of advances in industry and technology. The attempt to erase difference and speak to the “human condition” is rather insulting, I would argue, because it also erases the struggles that people in non-industrialized parts of the world may face as a result of the progress of the west.