On photography

Granularity of many vs. the vantage of the few: Photography and activism today was the title of a lecture I delivered recently at the American Centre, and in a slightly revised form, at the Fulbright Commission. The preparation for the lectures reminded me of my experience with photography. I first handled Thaththa’s Minolta when I was a small child, shooting all manner of domestic drama without any film in it. However, we weren’t a family that celebrated or used photography to any great degree. Happy events that I now see other families have captured on film – a party, the first day at school, family holidays, the naughty pet moments, good times with close family friends, candid photos, the company of grandparents – were experiences I grew up with as well, but can now only recall through vague memories and recounted stories. Growing up, I was made to feel that photographs were an impolite intrusion into events better preserved through memory. To sling a camera and take shots was certainly not encouraged, and in family circles, not seeing any adults who did it, I grew up with feeling ambivalent about photography, never at ease as subject, too fearful of intruding into another’s space, hesitant to capture that which I wanted to but, as I grew up, increasingly feeling compelled to do so.

Thaththa’s subscription to National Geographic kindled this interest, vicariously at first. From its pages another world opened up – the power of photography to move the imagination, grab attention, capture the ephemeral and frame what would otherwise have been marginal, or forgotten. The incredible range of regions, issues, subjects, contexts and processes National Geographic covers is a testimony to the power of an image. During my undergraduate years in Delhi – a city that is a feast for any lens – I shot with abandon with Thaththa’s old Minolta, trying to satiate a pent up need to capture as much as possible with, at the time, little care for precision focussing or the politics of what I chose to focus on or included in my frame. I couldn’t afford a camera myself till much later, and in the years since I got my first digital camera, I’ve tried to learn the art of photography by observing the work of others.

Years later, admittedly I still can’t generally take a really good shot. It’s not the equipment. Too much of the inhibition to seize the moment, ingrained in childhood, remains. Good photographers, I’ve observed, are at once part of and separate from a moment. The greatest locate themselves in a photo even when it is only the subject that is seen. They are self-effacing, but in and through their focus, the politics of position, choice and framing is revealed. And so while a lack of confidence dogs my own photographic development, my appreciation of and belief in the power of photography to bear witness has grown. By bearing witness I do not mean only a record of what is wrong and corrupt, but also what’s worth celebrating, preserving and nurturing. It came home, literally, when I was emailed seven images of the conditions in Menik Farm on 15 August 2009. The photos were taken from a mobile phone. I received them on my Blackberry. I was in between meetings, but recognised their power. Though small, they showed conditions on the ground, after a day of incessant rain, that were, in the fullest sense of the word, hellish. This was at a time the Sri Lankan government proclaimed to the world and us that those interned in the camp were well looked after. The stark realities on the ground were largely unknown, because journalists weren’t allowed into the camp at the time. The photos were too powerful to not release. I asked the help of a trusted friend, now a professional photographer and journalist, to blow them up to a size suitable for the web. When I published them, I did so knowing that the immediate and vicious response from self-styled patriots would be that they were doctored. This accusation was as expected levelled, but the beauty of the web is that such claims can be easily verified, and if they aren’t, summarily dismissed. The images of completely waterlogged flimsy tents and shelters (with, lest we forget, thousands of Tamil citizens traumatised by unimaginable violence and had lost almost everything in life, other than their own) and of a little boy outside a makeshift toilet wallowing in mud and faecal matter were soon picked up by international media, and forced government to confront an ugly, inconvenient truth.

At both the American Centre and the Fulbright Centre, professional Sri Lankan photographers complemented what I noted in my own presentation, which looked at how a combination of technological development and increasing access to and ownership of cameras was changing how we see our world. I can and will never be a professional photographer. Few of us can. But my son, who will soon turn five, has already taken more photos than his grandparents could or would in their lifetime. He is already comfortable with taking a shot through an iPhone, and looking at him do this, it’s almost like this skill is hardcoded in the DNA of a generation called ‘digital natives’. In a single day, more photos are uploaded to the web than can be seen by anyone in their lifetime. How we capture, what we choose to capture, how we enhance, distribute, comment on, redistribute and archive photography is in flux, and there are hard questions to each aspect that we don’t even have answers to yet. For example, while papyri from antiquity are still preserved and legible, there is no one who can guarantee the existence and accessibility of photos taken today even a few decades hence (a problem of storage as well as archival format).

For a while, I have been interested in locating these larger questions in a country that’s post-war, but beneath the veneer of an enforced peace, still holds and encourages a lot of violence. As a parent, I don’t want to stifle the innate confidence of a five year old to go up to anyone, anywhere, and hold up a device that captures that moment. As he grows up, I also want to, along with his mother, talk through what he takes, to hone technical skill as well as a sensibility conscious of photography’s power in the use and abuse of image. Personally, I am fascinated on the one hand by technological developments like the recently developed Lytro camera, which takes images that after downloaded to a computer, can be refocused at will. But the geek tendency aside and more politically, I am on the other hand interested in digital photography’s use in social unrest and dissent. I celebrate the camera phone as a device that has allowed, for example, the capture of street and village level dissent through the eyes of women, who as subject have often been portrayed to lack agency, and as photographers have often not had access to cameras. There is of course room for a lot of academic debate here, but I’m far more interested in what’s now called ‘sousveillence’ – understood as an idea that reflects an increasing number citizens, not all of whom are political activists or human rights defenders, who take photos that as single shots or as part of a larger mosaic, threaten violent authority, question propaganda and hold those in and with power accountable. It’s not unlike a repressive government’s use of CCTV to monitor and quell dissent, but in the hands of millions of citizens used to nurture and strengthen democracy. The hardest challenge isn’t technical. That hurdle’s already crossed, with an incessant local and global demand for digital cameras as well as mobile phones with built-in cameras (increasingly rivalling in terms of quality high-end cameras used by professionals). The challenge is fostering a citizenry that, despite attendant dangers, uses photography to capture facets of and moments in life around them. I believe that the resulting photos, when disseminated amongst, observed and used by a larger public, help in democratic reform and dissent.

It’s an interesting time for photography. Unlike my own childhood, my son’s generation will associate photography with language, as just another medium to communicate. Twitter and Facebook are leading this revolution of photography as a social conversation, which in turns fuels a new appreciation of how we frame our world, and how ill-equipped an older generation is to deal with a tsunami of visuals that capture much of what they would like hidden and out of sight. Along with this comes, obviously, more sophisticated propaganda and digital manipulation. I am not for a moment suggesting that this new age of photography is an automatic guarantee of a stronger democracy. But with more women, children, youth and men using thumb or index finger to snap a shot of what they are moved by, we are inhabiting a country and world that is a living and evolving geography of perspectives.

We are only just beginning to realise what this means and how it will play out in our fragile society.

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Published in The Nation on 4 December 2011.

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