On Photography

By Namit Arora | Nov 2006 | Comments

Which Thousand Words?

If a picture says a thousand words, which thousand words does it say to whom? If we all wrote down what we hear, no two accounts would be the same. A picture of an antelope can tickle a palate, provoke wonder in the Lord’s creation, convey a medical factoid, illustrate the photographer’s technique, bore a teenager, etc. A picture of a destitute woman with child may provoke sympathy, wonder, or contempt (if she is seen as lazy, irresponsible with pregnancy, parasitic on society, etc.). The more "abstract" a photo, the wider its range of interpretations. So the question is: can a photographer convey a controlled moral message at all?

On the art of photography, we'll do well to recall Wittgenstein: "What can be shown, cannot be said." What a picture conveys, he suggests, cannot be fixed by words. Words are a subjective proxy for a picture, a separate creation with a life of its own.

In matters of appreciation, photography may well be closer to music. As forms of art, both are more abstract than, say, novels and films, which at least have words and ideas to latch on to. But novels and films are already notoriously subjective. The best writers know how hard it is to control interpretation. "The stories we write," says JM Coetzee, "sometimes begin to write themselves, after which their truth or falsehood is out of our hands and declarations of authorial intent carry no weight. Furthermore, once a book is launched into the world it becomes the property of its readers, who, given half a chance, will twist its meaning in accord with their own preconceptions and desires."*

So what hope is there for photography? One answer is that its subjectivity is no worse than other art forms. As a mirror to our protean soul, all art is radically subjective, making it impossible to convey a controlled moral message. But radical subjectivity doesn't mean that a practical convergence in appreciation is impossible. We still produce art, judge it, discuss and debate it, buy and sell it, all while relying on a shared cultural sensibility to give it meaning (i.e., a language game). Pictures, like music, can also establish broad appeal by tapping into many universal human archetypes such as joy and sorrow, wonder and delight, fear and revulsion, etc.

Truth, Lies, and Photos

Deformitynainital Many urban middleclass Indians I know are peeved by what they see as a staple of photography on India: squalor, poverty, lepers, fakirs, the deformed. Their India is not like that, and they harbor a knee-jerk hostility to such images. There are so many more suitable subjects of photography, they say, this isn't the full story (what is?). One cousin was more articulate: the West, he said, has employed such a lens for decades to perpetuate negative stereotypes of India. It is an act of power. The white man came, and still comes, with little love in his heart. His jaundiced eye only sees the exotic and the grimy, making India seem primitive and medieval.

This may well be true but my cousin's stance also reveals his inferiority complex. It is conditioned by what he imagines as the colonizer's gaze, scarcely a better tribute to it. His insecure pride is tinged with nationalism. He despises a whole class of portrayals of his country , including scenes so ubiquitous that they can perhaps be ignored only as a survival tactic. Because he turns defensive and shuts off upfront, he doesn't find in such images a universal human drama beyond nations and states. He neither sees in them our common humanity, nor its astonishing diversity.

I present this example to suggest that the motivations we ascribe to a photographer usually have more to do with us than with the photographer. To be sure, fresh new pictures can challenge stereotypes, forcing us to examine our received ideas. They can be a mirror to our inner selves; they can reflect the very depth of our being and experience, individual and collective. They can certainly evoke in us joy and sorrow, wonder and delight, but can a picture by itself increase self-knowledge? One answer is that it helps only those who are ready to be helped by it. It may well confound others, or reinforce their stereotypes. Like all works of art, a picture's contribution to self-knowledge is therefore indeterminate.

Workingwomannainital_1 It is often said that a photo doesn't lie, since it records something real in the world. But what's behind this laboring woman's smile for the camera ? Is it even a smile or is she reacting to the load?  A smile absolves us from further concern or involvement. It lulls us into imagining that all is well in her life, despite her innocence of dentists and sturdier equipment. Our ignorance and our need for solace can even make her charming. Is the deformed man begging for alms, yawning, or singing? There are many other interpretations but they all share one thing: what we make of them has little to do with their self-image or reality, a lot with ours. So photos can lie, and generally because we let them.

On Shooting People

Shooting with a camera, that is. Most regular visitors to shunya.net are probably aware of my large collection of travel photos. Not long ago, a man from Germany emailed me this note:

May I just politely ask you who gave you permission to post the images of all these people on the web? Have you ever asked them for their consent—some of your pictures really look like they were snapshots or secretly taken—even of people in the most miserable situations.

How can you bear people praising your photographic "skills"—when you just took from poor people what others would never yield: their very sphere of privacy and personality. I am sure you want to do only good by exposing the world to what is going on in disadvantaged places. It might however be worth reconsidering if you are not mostly just benefiting yourself.

This is how I replied to him (with minor edits):

Bathingpilgrims15You raise some interesting points. First, let me just say that I photograph people mainly to please myself. I would do it even without the web. It is my attempt to remember sights and faces that made a mark on me. Travelers have long used words and sketches to record their observations. I am adding the element of photography to it. My photos, then, are a modern aid to my memory. Nothing objectionable so far, right?

But what can justify my posting them on the web? There are two kinds of objections to consider here: legal and moral, both of which are more relevant where consent of the subject is not taken.

People59 On the legal front, nearly all of my people pictures are in public places: markets, fairs, river banks, bus/train stations, temple precincts, festival sites, town squares, streets, parks, etc. What does privacy mean in such public spaces? Google now has street view, so does Microsoft. Documentary filmmakers have long done it, as have photojournalists, reporters, and videographers (esp. with celebrities). What gives a photographer the right to shoot horrifying images of suffering in a war zone or a drought hit area? What laws help us decide, or grant permission?

StreetsleeperOn the moral front, the question to ask is: am I causing my photographic subjects any harm? In general, my impoverished subjects are not easily traceable or identified in any way. Most of them don't know or care about the web, nor do others in their circle. The probability of harm coming to them due to their photos being on a website is so small that it's pointless worrying about it. In my mind, just the wider educational benefits of posting such photos on the web outweigh the downsides.

You make an odd argument—that photos take away from poor people their sphere of personality. I disagree. This is a sentimental idea without merit. Photos do not destroy personality, not of the poor, nor of the rich. I won't hesitate taking people photos even at Oktoberfest or a Gay-Lesbian parade in San Francisco. Photos of the poor are represented in my work to the extent they are part of the world. And they are arguably revealed in a fuller range, from joyful to ordinary to miserable states.

Haridwar68 Praise for my "skills" is irrelevant to this discussion, as is the point that I donate, or negotiate on-the-spot payments to those whose photos I take, when applicable. But this has nothing to do with your main concern.

What do you think?

He never replied. (Read an exchange on this last topic on Shunya's Notes.)

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