By Harleen Kaur Bagga
Edited by Sanchita Malhotra, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
Invented in 1839, photography revolutionized the documentation of visual history, more or less replacing the hitherto employed sketches and watercolours for recording subjects. The eye of the camera seduced spectators into believing that the captured was a reflection of the truth – time and space coalescing to reveal in a frozen frame an evidence, a testament to a particular moment. However, the mere idea of selection – of singling out a particular context, a particular story, leaving behind a stream of alternatives – along with numerous variable technical factors soon highlighted the power of photography as a means of constructing an image of reality authored by the photographer and his technology.
We all possess our own personal archives, manifested in the family albums, chronicling beach-trips, first schools, birthdays, graduations. The photograph plays an enormous role in your lives – conferring importance to certain moments and immortalizing them forever. They affect your life-style – you look at the image of a cheesecake and you want to eat it, you look at the coral-reefs and you wish to visit them, you look at a person fishing, a little part of you wants to indulge in the activity. Images also change perspectives about the world you inhabit – mobilizing change through highlighting poverty, climate-change, racial discrimination, sexual exploitation, the plight of labourers, drug addiction and numerous others.
This “visual construction of the social” as W.J.T Mitchell calls it, has been gaining momentum increasingly, through people engaging with photographs in a discursive sphere, bringing to the fore their own narratives and defining their subjectivities through the medium of photography. Genital art, post-pregnancy bodies, post-mastectomy bodies are sharing digital spaces with people raising awareness about issues previously avoided. The ballooning Humans of New York, which documents not only portraits of people, but an essence of their being through powerful snippets of conversations has achieved tremendous popularity, triggering a variety of spin-offs with other spatial locations adopting the ritual of capturing their populations. An image of a woman who became a mother at sixteen, and got kicked out of school but still became the controller of a company, all without a college degree, received incredible waves of attention, with the woman claiming, “Honestly, I’ve been waiting to tell that story for so long”.
This process of narrativization, which evolves when people engage with the photo, comment, empathize, like, and share, leads us to raise the question of representations – the value of simple depictions of ordinary people who share their bit of self with the world, engendering a community which actively participates and creates a dialogue to realize change. However, the formation of these pictorial vocabularies, when juxtaposed with images of diverse people from around the world, aimed at raising awareness, reveals a deep fissure – a gap in the “objective” photographic process. When the National Geographic or any other organization , sends photojournalists to document the local populations and tribes of Asia and Africa, there is Orientalism revealed in photography. Even though these images are primarily created to increase awareness, the photographer, usually the white man, cannot be ignored.
The image formation reflects an exoticisation on the part of the photographer, where the camera clicks away the “other”, assuming the burden of enlightenment – the creation of knowledge revolving around this particular subject. The camera’s gaze captures the subject, who either stares off into the distance or confronts the camera, staring back into it. Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins highlight the use of mirrors and camera within the frame of National Geographic’s photographs of non-Westerners. This “refracted gaze” signifies the Lacanian identity-formation, where the mirror functions as a means to attain self-awareness, denoting cognitive-immaturity in “natives”.
After its inception, the camera was initially employed to visually record and appropriate unknown lands and architecture, later migrating to the sphere of portraits. Early documentation of natives in colonized lands classified them through certain attributes, such as occupations and tribes. Ethnographic and anthropometric studies conducted to literally measure-out and map the bodies of the natives abounded, with this “study” aiming to facilitate the colonial administration’s inventories of the people under its control. However, even after 170 years, there exists an objectification, a fetishization, a romanticisation of the non-Western subject, with a significant lack of the photographed’s voice. The missing story dehumanizes the asetheticized subject, lending awareness without a narrative.
The photograph, an eternizing tool, holds an immense power to represent the self. It captures a person’s “likeness”, creating a mirror with the potential to incite change. However, the eye behind the camera cannot be disconnected from the photographed product, transforming the contraption into an ambivalent resource instead of a revolutionary agent, with the power to create as well as to contort identities.Harleen is an Art and Literature enthusiast, currently studying English lit at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. She lives in a world of hyperbole and Homeric similes and is irrevocably in love with descriptive words. Quite fond of stationery, the smell of old books, and the Harry Potter fandom, she most unfortunately possesses a traitorous mouth and a natural propensity to fall into embarrassing situations. You can reach her at [email protected].