“People are interested in photography, but do not know where to start… A photography festival gives them a place to explore these possibilities”, says Aquin Mathews, Director of the Indian Photography Festival. Now in its fourth edition, the Indian Photography Festival (IPF), is growing dramatically in scale – featuring 550 photographers from 52 nations, 50 and 12 more (respectively), from its previous edition. The current edition opened on September 6th in the State Art Gallery in Madhapur, Hyderabad. The show features 25 solo-exhibits, 10 group exhibits (of which 4 are awards), 16 digital exhibitions that present 1100+ images (in print, or digital form), and additionally hosting 8 one-off slideshow presentations and various artist talks/workshops, all spread out over 12 locations in the city, over the course of 1 month.
In the digital age, such spaces of limited exploration/exposition – I say limited, because of a photography festival’s primary focus of exhibiting artworks created using a specific medium, in a time when such puritanism has little to no merit on its own, and further that the featured works are almost exclusively shot in digital SLR cameras, and printed digitally – are becoming more and more redundant. Photography, today, is a super-saturated medium, thanks to the boom of the smartphone, and the relatively cheap technology of digital cameras. And with the additional freedom of not needing to worry about material wastage and exposure correction, as was the case with film technology, photographers today have the luxury of shooting thousands of images with much lesser effort and risk. Online magazines dedicated to photography, and mobile apps specifically designed to create, edit and share smartphone photography are a dime-a-dozen. Platforms like Instagram and Facebook provide much more comprehensive/wider and easily accessible portfolios of photographic images. So, what does a photography festival have to offer, that an average person has no access to?
An argument can be made with regards to how an exhibition is a cultural/social event, as opposed to the isolation of the viewer on online platforms. This creates a space for nurturing a culture of viewership as a collective and informing the public of the prevalent visual aesthetics of the times. This social side of exhibitions is what contemporary art festivals are based on, first and foremost. Festivals are spaces for like-minded people to come together; this applies not just to art festivals, but for all festivals. Art festivals, specifically, can be said to be the celebratory gatherings of the new crowd of art enthusiasts who have the tastes of a neoliberal society.
Photography is ultimately a print – and the trouble with the virtual world of digital photography is that the image is slightly different for each viewer on different platforms. As advanced as digital and internet technology has become, it’s still not the same as an exhibition of prints – the same way that an online image of a painting is still not the same as the real one. A photography festival can indeed offer you this opportunity to view the medium in this format. IPF’s issue, as with most exhibitions, biennales, festivals, and fairs, is that it fails to understand the qualities and boundaries of the format. This is especially evident in the enlarged prints of Nick Ut’s Vietnam War photographs (the mass delusion that a film negative has infinite resolution is simply that – a delusion), the prints of which inevitably look broken and grainy, with no scope to actually extract details to such an extent anyway.
Curation is an important aspect of contemporary art exhibitions. A curatorial theme that would tie up, and interlink the several individual narratives, to an underlying vision is something that is again mostly unseen on online platforms (more recently, individuals have made efforts in ‘curating’ online archives – based on simple but particular themes). IPF deliberately avoids working with curators, preferring to select photographers through an open call, which is then scrutinized by a jury. The selection process for this edition of IPF was overseen by a jury consisting of photographers and editors like Sudharak Olwe, Reza Deghati, Deepak John Mathew, Mags King, Alison Zavos etc. The selected exhibits are not confined to any specific genre of photography.
This is not to say that the fest operates without any amount of curation – a major point of focus seems to be women. The IPF’s decision to include female photographers in almost equal numbers to male photographers can be seen as a positive step – with a considerable section of the exhibits themselves featuring women as subjects. That’s about all that we can take home from this – the images in question have fallen into all sorts of clichés and stereotypes of the Feminist discourse. Take for example, the photographs of Prabhakar Kusuma, Benedicte Desrus, Sara Bennett, where the women are painted as an “oppressed”/“helpless” class, and on the flip side, the images of men portray them as “violent” and “oppressors”, as and when they appear (Antonio Aragon Rununcio, Gabriel Scarlett, Gilles Clarke, Mark Edward Harris).
These characteristics are reflected throughout the festival’s exhibits – be it the depiction of the Bathukamma festival as some ‘exotic ritual’ by a Canadian and a Japanese photographer (“cleverly” bringing together a photographer from the ‘far’ west and another from the ‘far’ east), or the photojournalistic images of North Korea and the war in Yemen produced by American photographers, the priority seems to be a sympathetic depiction of the issues (rather than a critical examination, and dissemination of the same). Bathukamma, declared as the state festival of Telangana (along with Bonalu), has been receiving huge fundings from the state government. Undoubtedly an old autumn-harvest festival, celebrating the fertile lands – as evidenced by the two root words that make up its name “Bathuku” (life) and “Amma” (mother), and the focus on flowers (similar to “Onam” in the state of Kerala and Pongal in Tamil Nadu) – Bathukamma has taken on several different personas in the recent past: as a celebration of kinship among women, as a state-funded festival imbued with the spirit of Telugu identity, as (an appropriated) variation of the Hindu festival of ‘Sharada Navaratri’, and a symbol of cultural legacy. The two photographers have avoided exploring these significant facets of the festival, which has created strong cultural markers in the collective psyche, and instead mostly showcase it as a female-centric ritual and a time for women to simply just let their hair down (It is conceivable that the photographers were not looking to depict such nuances, but were simply looking for images that were related to the subject of ‘femininity’ in a broad sense). The only distinguishing characteristic between the two sets of images is the Japanese photographer’s use of a flash. The trouble with such ‘clever’ commissions is that the photographers involved have very limited knowledge of the sociological and cultural significance of such traditions, and the evolution of this significance over time, and they run the risk of ending up producing amateurish travelogues (like the gazillion travel photographs on platforms like Instagram) that look exactly the same.
American Photojournalism in all its glory can be seen in the latter two exhibits – the photographs of the bleak conditions and the brutality of civil war serving as justifications for past, present, and future interventions, either directly or indirectly. It falls just short of an appeal to the benevolent empire that delivers Providence. The impacts of former western interventions that precipitated these conditions (directly or indirectly) are conveniently forgotten, with no examination of the underlying cause of these situations. The idea of ‘Barbarians’ stretches as far back as Classical era Greeks – where the people who speak a different tongue, or more precisely those who spoke improper Greek, and follow different traditions, were alienated as simpletons. This developed into a stereotype during the Hellenistic period that thought of such people as having a child-like intellect – unable to talk or reason properly, cruel, unable to govern themselves being some of the key characteristics of how they were portrayed. This archetype can be seen reflected in the colonial empires’ attitude towards all of its colonies. After the Great War ended, the middle east was ‘liberated’ from the Ottoman Empire and carved up into ‘mandates’ to be governed by European powers to ‘protect the natives from the Modern world’ – and after the end of World War II, the mandates were left to fend for themselves with the UN declaring that the newly formed nations should operate with the borders drawn by European kingdoms. These histories are never examined in tandem with the current instabilities in the middle-east, the blame laid solely on religious terrorism/dictatorships that have taken over the region. Photojournalism has had a history of misrepresentation since its apparent inception by Felice Beato – who is infamously believed to have rearranged corpses to lend more gore to his images. It’s heartening to see that the genre has kept the tradition of projecting half-truths alive, only the appeals are to an Empire of a different kind.
Not to be left behind, the ‘Indian’ part of IPF peddles the same narratives that were used by the colonial empire – that of a beautiful land worthy of investment, and that of a people still struggling with modernity – albeit this time the narration is partially to itself, specifically to the modernized urban class. The colonial archives were tailored to appeal to the British investors, merely illustrating a narrative of an exotic land – wealthy, and untarnished by the din of industrialization – and to the Royal Crown as another narrative – of its responsibility to uplift the population (the archetype of Barbarians, again). Be it travel photographs of Hyderabad or the rural portraits of the ‘common-man’, they all appear in magazines and publications that cater to urban tastes, and by extension, western tastes as well – serving the same purposes as 100 years ago. Curiously, almost all of South India is absent from any sort of representation in the festival.
The element of narration is alien to a photographic image primarily, and particularly, due its limitation in being an arrested moment – it’s a description of whatever is happening in front of the camera. This structuring is more or less imposed on photography by putting multiple images in relation to each other to produce an ‘illusion’ of a narrative. Narratives offer a flow of events or time, into which any given image can be placed; and the image itself then becomes a symbol for that narrative, and even conjures that narrative in the minds of the viewers by itself. The images produced by and of women can be viewed through the lens of populism – given the current political climate; and the already superficial renderings of these issues also do not take the audience into consideration in their attempt to communicate with them. The focus seems to be only on the production of such a ‘narrative’, and not in its significance, or clarity – an emphasis on the niche labour market that can produce such images (i.e women). This is not to be understood as a sweeping statement to undermine women photographers, but an explanation of the “category” of female photography. The medium of photography does not exclude females from its purview, since the digital technology (like most technology today) of cameras that only require a few buttons to be pressed to produce an image doesn’t really provide any arguments as to why any photographs taken by a female photographer would be any different from that of a male photographer. The images exhibited conform to this notion, having minimal to no differences between the images made by males and those by females.
Commissioned portraits have found their way into the galleries as well – an inevitable consequence of postmodernism (we have to assume), where textualization of anything renders them as legitimate artistic interventions, even retroactively. The magazine portraits evoking the same aura of court-commissioned paintings of the nobility during the Renaissance (their modern day counterparts appearing no less staged or theatrical in nature), as well as the photographs of wedding shenanigans and festivities, which quite often aspire to the level of theatre exuded by the above mentioned ‘nobility’ in their professions, have muscled their way into contemporary Indian photography.
Now we can see a broad, but clear pattern emerging in the ‘curation’ of the exhibition – the images all appeal to the urbanized audience (a product of globalisation) of a metropolis, as mythologies. Whether it be the discussion of women’s issues, where the images create a dichotomy of female oppression and male violence, or celebrity portraits that ‘narrate’ their personas, or landscapes that more or less resemble dreams (covertly or overtly) of a man who is trapped in a monotonous world. These mythologies are built using the images that evoke pre-existing archetypes that do not question the legitimacy of the discourse. As Roland Barthes explains, to read a picture as a symbol is to renounce its reality as a picture; if the ideology of the myth is obvious, then it does not work as myth. On the contrary, for the myth to work as myth it must seem entirely natural, devoid of layers, and releasing the viewer from any obligation to decipher or unravel it. The very function of myth, as proposed by Barthes, is to naturalize a concept, a belief – it doesn’t burden itself with the intention of showing or concealing truths, rather it only endeavours to deviate from reality. Here both myth and narrative participate in the propagation of ideologies – first by deviating from the reality, through repurposing signs and motifs that are linked to recognizable archetypes, and then by re-introducing them in specific contexts that would imply another story.
The nature of the photographic image lends itself to the production of such mythologies, due to its faux-reputation as a recorder of reality ( even as this nature has been subjected to scrutiny by various photographers, through their work, over the last century), when in fact it records whatever action unfolds in front of it. This is why a photograph can confidently propose a narrative about a civil war, while simultaneously pointing out the absurdity of it being able to propose any narrative (Gao Peng’s ‘Illusions’). The key here is to understand that the contents of the images have far lesser influence than the way it is presented – both the war and illusion are presented as a straightforward image that requires no ‘decoding’ for the viewer to understand. As Susan Sontag explains in her essay, In Plato’s Cave – Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But, this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say “There is the surface. Now think what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way”.
The Ideal of Art was realized in the Classical era of Greece, even as the society of the time can never be held to the same standards. Although society progressed, this early peak of art could never be surpassed, nor re-created to perfection. This in turn led to art – as a true representation of human nature – being debased into mere ‘production’ aimed to re-capture this ideal. ‘Art’ is then repurposed as a tool to point to a previous era (albeit not through exposition of facts, but through production of myths), where these ideals (more accurately, archetypes) existed. It propagates the notion of ‘golden days gone by’, feeding off of the society’s perpetual alienation from its changing surroundings. This becomes evident in the examination of production of artworks under various Art movements in history (with few exceptions), patronised by the Kings and institutions that sought to control its population.
The images selected for the 4 awards featured in the festival serve to reinforce this uncomplicated production of a fantasy (as myth) – that exist only as a means to mobilize capital, through its marketing to an increasingly disillusioned urban crowd that yearns for such fantasticality. Which underlines a very important point – it’s quite pointless to place expectations on grand festivals to create spaces for social change through art. On the other hand, it can be viewed from a distance to gain a better perspective of the nature of contemporary visual culture.