Granularity of many vs. the vantage of the few: Photography and activism today

I made this presentation at the American Centre in Colombo yesterday, at the invitation of Nooranie Muthaliph, Project Lead of the interesting Rotaract Shutterbug competition organised by the Rotaract Club of Panadura. I was asked to

  1. Create awareness of these powerful mediums used by different communities and people in bring about change and,
  2. Generate interest of people in Colombo/ Sri Lanka to explore these tools and use them for change.

I am never convinced of the civic consciousness of Sri Lankan audiences, especially when you call upon them to bear witness to, as best they can and as much as they can, structures and forms of violence, or even just examples of good governance. Nature, colours, scenery, wildlife, still-life and portraits for example remain the domains most photography in Sri Lanka reflects, sans any real connection to or interest in framing more contentious, marginalised yet critical facets of peoples, society and life beyond. This was acknowledged by a photography teacher of over 20 years present in the audience, who said that creating this bond between society and photography was both vital, yet exceedingly difficult.

I guessed the audience to be in their mid to early 20s, a time ripe for activism and mobilisation. Sadly, the largely enervated response to my own presentation, and the excellent points made by blogger and friend Dinidu de Alwis – who unlike myself, is actually a professional photographer – suggested to us both that this was not an audience who  would risk a shot that endangered their precious equipment. Though understandable (professional grade body, lens and other equipment costs are astronomical in Sri Lanka, leave aside insurance) therein lies the rub, for without a drive to bear witness, having the best equipment dangling over hip or shoulder is more fashion accessory than tool for social change.

Sri Lanka needs more look at this! photos instead of look at me! photographers.

In my submission, I traced the origins of bearing witness to social upheaval, from painting to the birth of photography. I noted that in painting historical events, much like the colour of dinosaurs, the final product on canvas did not in fact depict any real ground truth, and was often a product of many narratives, including fiction, often spun or recalled by the victors, if it was a revolution or war depicted. The primary distinction with photography was that though framed and partial, a photograph (we didn’t get into the ethics of airbrushing or digital image manipulation) did in fact depict truer colours, and with greater immediacy and veracity, events and people who weren’t always part of the winning narrative.

I showed some iconic paintings of the French revolution and the American civil war, plus one of Goya’s masterpieces on the Peninsular War, and compared these with equally iconic and moving images from this year’s uprisings in the Middle East. I then briefly looked at what’s changed in the economics of creation, the technologies used and the manner in which images were produced and disseminated.

I then posed the question, for open discussion, as to whether professional photography (e.g. war photographers) were, no pun intended, a dying breed. Flagging the courage, conviction and work of Chris Hondros, a photographer from Getty killed in Libya, I asked whether the paradigm of bearing witness through photography had now shifted radically to citizens, and within that group, activists in particular.

Anchored to a quote by the American photographer Chase Jarvis, I looked at the evolution of mobile phone based photography, and the fact that the most popular ‘camera’ on Flickr is actually the iPhone 4. Through the next series of slides I explored what this confluence of professional photography and activist photography via mobiles and other point-and-shoot cameras meant for activism. I used the example of the horrific first images of Menik Farm, Vikalpa’s photojournalism in capturing political activism, the compelling high definition productions by the photographers involved in the Moving Images initiative, the compelling use of photography to communicate poverty research in Sri Lanka,  TED Prize winner JR‘s use of photography for social and political activism and the use of Twitter in the dissemination of in situ photography.

I then touched on how in a post-PC world, mobiles and tablets were re-shaping, radically, the way photos were taken, manipulated, disseminated and consumed. The day before the presentation, I coincidentally had a great Twitter conversation with senior journalist and professional news photographer Amantha Perera. The title for this blog post comes from one of my responses to him. In my presentation I went on to show how young people, for little money, using off the shelf equipment and standard point and shoot cameras, were changing the way we saw the world, and changing how their immediate neighbours and communities engaged with their environment. I talked about the challenge of curation and sense-making when there’s a ton of photographs to sift through, and finally how tools like Microsoft Photosynth can change the way we see and engage with the world.

I ended on a non-technical note. Showcasing the iPhone app of Groundviews, I said, not without some vexation, that the greatest challenge to activism today, in Sri Lanka and many other places, was not so much the technology to bear witness, but the willingness of citizens to do so. Without that spark, that inner calling to stand up for what is right not because it is a fad, popular or because of fame, no D-SLR, smartphone or even the amazing Lytro will result in the kind of social, cultural and political reform this country so desperately needs, post-war.

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