What, then, is the premise from which the critics are speaking? Is ‘Dreaming Food’ being addressed as a photojournalistic work that depicted reality through fabricated means, or a conceptual work that didn’t communicate? The former charge implies that photojournalistic works have so far stuck to reality, and not romanticized it or marketed it; and the latter would simply make it a badly executed artwork. Clearly, neither charge by themselves hold enough weight to warrant such a public outrage, even if one takes into account the mob-like nature of social media reactions.
The larger issue in the debate, one that everybody seem to be ignoring, is that of the photojournalism itself. Photojournalists have acquired a burden of walking a line which must weave in and out through both Truth and Art, and in most cases including this one, do not have a theoretical explanation of what makes photojournalism either of those. This confusion seems to be the reason why the eruption happened only after the Instagram posts, and it must be noted that no real discussion about why such a form was chosen, and what is “conceptual” about it, has taken place. Interestingly, the whole event follows the pattern of “political correctness” discourses, which get stuck on endless debates about how to represent without offending certain sensibilities, that the core issues get buried without even a mention – the criticisms haven’t touched on important questions such as whether all staged photos qualify as conceptual, how far one can take staging, how staging affects the truthfulness of the photograph, how photography does not seem to be able to depict the global market relations in a nuanced manner, and why such depictions of “real” poverty continue to be marketable. The very imagination that considers Indian people to be dreaming about a Western, aristocratic dinner is a major problem, and this political aspect of imagination does not seem to have been questioned; nor are there mentions of the resemblance with advertisements of food products.
Married to the ignorance in these areas is the inability of photojournalists to create something “new”; desperate in their effort to be artists, are photojournalists falsely propagating themselves to express some moral or message to society? Isn’t photojournalism a job, undertaken according to the agenda of some magazine or political party? In this photoshop era, is there anything in photographs that is real? The last question would seem silly and rhetoric, yet the outrage over the food that was used for the shoot being fake shows that it is not – how ridiculous is it to claim that using real food would somehow have made the images any different, or that since fake food was used, the children would not have been provided food prior to or after the photograph was taken?2 This particular line of attack can only be attributed to a misunderstanding of the medium.
Here, we touch on one of the many undisclosed reasons behind the reactions. While it is a welcome sign that discussions regarding inappropriate representations in Indian photography are happening, narrowing it down to one person and ignoring all the other representations is deeply problematic.
Another issue pulsating in the background seem to be the market itself and a competition to grab the same. It has to be admitted that there is a growing market for and in India with its population of 1.3 billion people, most of whom are untapped either as resources or as potential consumers, and there is funding available for exploring this market. There has been a pronounced request for Indian photographers to depict India – what is this but an eerie ghost of the Nationalist view of post-colonialism? Is the fight between Indian and International photographers over who gets to photograph the helpless people, or is it of the medium itself and its expression5? What precedent do we have to believe that Indians representing India will make any difference, even if we ignore the fact that the Indian market is dependent on the global economy in all spheres including arts?3 Unless this is dealt with honestly, we will end up continuing the same trend, maybe in a slightly subtler way.
Indian photography, and photography in India, has rarely broken away from strict formal traditions and formats, and if not either of these, from its stereotypes. While a few artists have been experimenting with the medium, most of the works which gain exposure are ones which follow established Modernist schools of the West and are limited to a few urban practitioners and their circles. The spectres of a few master photojournalists haunts the Indian photography scenario, and we have rarely thought of photography in a manner which bypasses the crude symbolism utilized by photojournalism. It needs to be stressed that all the celebrated photographers in India are photojournalists and commercial photographers, and none of whom can claim to have developed an original interpretation of the medium.
India should have a greater claim in the history of the medium than it is afforded, since it was introduced here immediately after its invention. However, sadly, we have contributed very little to explore its unlimited potential, whether creative and documentary. There are countless other ways to express poverty or social issues at large, apart from putting people who look physically weak alongside a table of expensive food. And, there are countless other creative expressions possible through this medium. There has not been a single concerted movement within the medium in India, compared to the various schools of thought in Western photography – the masters who curtailed the medium within the chains of colonial expression should be held accountable for this. Divisions within the photography community and a sectarian attitude have ensured that there is little study as to the history of the medium, with true originality being ignored and fresh theorizations being discouraged, while those rehashing old content are being promoted according to the whims of commerce and galleries/museums. Photo festivals and other major events get their funding from foreign sources, who would naturally be keen on promoting the styles and works of their own photographers and, in the process, deride the efforts and expressions of others.
Why are photographers silent about these burning issues? Is it that when one’s own interests are at stake, people begin to talk, but then become silent when the medium suffers? Alessio Mamo’s work needs to be placed against this backdrop, and understood as one which somehow fell onto the firing line whereas numerous others escaped. The deeper rot is yet to be addressed, and it definitely cannot be rectified simply through voicing opinions.