Project Description

Focus   Reflections

PhotoMail is a proud media partner of the Images of Encounter photography exhibition organized by Ekalokam Trust for Photography. We will be publishing a series of papers presented as part of the Images of Encounter Talk Show Series. Worldwide, the medium of photography has metamorphosed into multiple dimensions and diverse expressions. Many theoreticians challenge the mainstream notions of photography. Specifically, the ethics of representation is an important topic that is gripping the world of photography. Many historians and academicians have different opinions and understanding of this young, versatile, and democratic medium. Each one of them has a list of supporting theories in favor of their argument. We are presenting the papers for the readers to develop their independent perceptions.

– Editor

Clowns © Cyndy Sherman

Perspectives on Contemporary Photography 

As the digital age upturned all the notions of photography, and its techniques are handy, we live in a world of manipulated imagery. In fact, there is no non-manipulated visual in these days. From the focusing points and aperture to the colours and the effects, everything is programmed! Thus, photography has become more artistic, live and produced by the masses. The incalculable images produced in every second of our daily lives make almost all the images ordinary. The progress from the camera obscura to the daguerreotype, to the mobile, the drone and the satellite cameras is not a just technological one; each of those devices stands as the signifiers of the changes happened or happening in our perspectives in seeing the world. In fact, what we should know is the answer for the question: are we nowadays seeing the world only through photography? Its omnipresence through the mobiles, televisions, computers and all kinds of screens and boards around, place us in the midst of virtual realities, and we transform ourselves into fluid, gliding, continuously changing and equivocal entities. Thus, we lose our socio-cultural and spatio-temporal grounds that delimit our existence and emotions.

Indeed, the progression of still cameras from the camera obscura to the daguerreotype and the camera lucida promoted the single-point perspective as we understood the process of our eyes and its vision. Through its analytical viewing ability and the idea of its measured distance and sharp focus, the camera created individuals by spacing out the self from the community. Such a spacing out has enabled one to see all the phenomena objectively by distancing one’s own self from what one observes. At the same time, the visible world perceived through the camera was a clearly abstracted one due to the device’s incapability to see in colour. Taking abstracted images for the real also informs us how several aspects of our vision had been valorising the obscure and the mysterious. A yearning to see, to explore, to understand the world and its phenomena in detail and in greater clarity was the natural outcome of such an abstracted vision. No wonder, the expansion of the areas of knowledge of the world, the spread of colonialism and the colour photography (autochrome process) have marched on together.

© Henri Cartier Bresson

Even one might stretch the dark room or physical manoeuvring of the photograph taken as a sign of humanity’s ambition to change the world. However, what I try to point out here is that the camera cannot be just seen as a device to capture pictures or as an equipment created out of our scientific ability. Rather, it has been a product of humanity’s expanding experiential, inquisitive and analytical mind. As the world has become more diverse with multiple viewpoints and multiple cultures [colours] connected and interactive, the photograph has to accommodate those new realities. It resulted in having images with multiple exposures, multiple images; and the use of collages and montages became essential, because the notion of the traditional single point perspective of the world does not work with the new ways of seeing.

Since the history of the camera somehow managed to promote it as a tool to capture reality along with its associated notion of seeing is believing, the new modes of the camera could anchor on the conventional belief system and project all its manoeuvred and manipulated images as documents of truth. With this popularly accepted idea in photography, the camera could easily graduate from a simple tool to a weapon of mass [image] destruction in the contemporary times. Interestingly, the camera could also serve as a storehouse of memoirs, a museum or a monument for the modern humans who have a longing for a life after death as it had been in the archaic past. From the arrested moments of life to the live documentary, the camera serves creating mausoleums of our lives.

What we normally forget is that the lens of a camera sees more than the normal human eye is capable of. The clarity and the depth in a photographic image are taken for granted as we considered the camera as an extension of our eyes though what it sees is an abstracted or unperceivable image for the naked human eye. Seeing more or seeing in detail foregrounds the notion of abstraction because the form captured by the camera is only partially visible and its comprehension, in the normal course of our ways of seeing, is difficult. In fact, what we do in front of such an abstracted image is projecting our accepted idea of a given form that is already in our mind onto the new image. By doing so, we could satiate our curiosity to understand an image or a form. For us, a detailed or abstracted image is as unreal or fantastic as anything unfamiliar. This aspect of photography shows how it has always been projecting virtual realities to our lives.

As an image manipulating device omnipresent in the form of mobiles, all kinds of surveillance systems and scanners, the camera, with the advent of artificial intelligence and its capability to analyse imagery in the name of protecting people from their enemies, diseases, and irregularities, could easily intervene and interpret all our actions. The capability of the camera to monitor, modulate and manipulate human life through controlling it by centralized powers (authoritarian/capitalistic/religious) makes us completely subservient and spineless. Additionally, the fear psychosis generated by the ever-widening presence of the cameras and the trillions of images they produce every moment in the forms of digital receivers, billboards, posters, television, cinema, computers; and all the surfaces onto images can be projected try to suppress the human imagination of freedom and generate a feeling of helplessness.

1. Aylan Kurdi © Nilüfer Demir | 2. Afghand Girl © Steve Mc Curry | 3. Qutubuddin Ansari, Godhra Riots ©  Arko Datta

That means, the camera, a mechanical translation of the eye, has moved on to become a combination of eye and the brain with the artificial intelligence system. Naturally, the scientific point of view of the camera, its power to focus on an individual or an event or its software that can analyse an arresting moment makes it a meta-realistic, meta-social and meta-political apparatus. Nothing but its ability to turn 360 degrees, to focus and capture a single image as well as a number of them by panning, and above all, its inherent sovereignty to survey from the top neglecting all the political, social, and geographical boundaries the human beings traditionally held on, elevates the device to an extra-terrestrial, extra-territorial superpower.  

On the cultural terrain, shamelessly voyeuristic we have become; as a wide range of cameras with image transmission capabilities have reached everybody’s hand. Images, that also imperishable ones, are circulating all over the world undermining all cultural, political, and geographic regulations. Coupling it with the surveillance systems used by all power centres, we are completely at the risk of losing all our privacy, including financial, political, commercial, sexual or behavioral ones that we have been keeping with us as social beings. Exposing ourselves to the public (of course, everyone does it back to us) definitely shatters all the values the human beings have cherished according to the cultural patterns imposed on them, or chosen to live. In this transformative phase of our cultural conventions due to the device called the camera, almost all societies might have been going through a very strenuous phase.

However, the camera, as a tool, has always been there in the realm of art; first as a threat, then as an aide and further on, as a medium of art itself! But the camera never treated art as a unique creative entity as it had been conventionally considered. A photograph’s ability for multiple reproductions removed the aura of uniqueness of an art work. But the artists who held on to the idea of art within the fortress of its uniqueness started to sign their photographic prints and created limited editions and tried to mimic the abstract as well as the other styles of art through the lens, and they staged people and objects to have ideal compositions to make pictures. Playing with the tonal gradations, light and darkness, focusing on the materiality and material qualities of the objects, many tried to convert photography into an established concept of art.

Whatever it might be, the traditionally cherished representational photography with its matter-of-factness, the objective truthfulness that detail having Henri-Cartier Bresson like sharp focus that awaits for a decisive moment to make the photographer’s personal view, withstood several styles and times in the history of photography. The idea of a human being behind the camera and the human ethos needed in an image as one observes in the images captured by Dorothea Lange, still continues as the most powerful image production method. With the support of the metanarratives that allow elaborating the discourse on those images, the iconic photograph on the Bhopal tragedy captured by Raghu Rai, the National Geographic image off the Afghan refugee girl Sharbat Gula and the ever haunting image of Qutubdin Ansari, a victim of the Godhra riots, and the paining picture of Aylan Kurd, the dead body on the shore of that Syrian boy, stand for the cruel mindset of our age and so on, speaks volumes as the camera transformed itself as the eye of the human conscience.

Bhopal Gas Tragedy  ©  Raghu Rai

Yet, our mainstream photography, including the journalistic and the descriptive, follow the conventions of commercial photography by giving weightage to the subject matter, making it a highly saturated and highlighted one to generate a blatantly descriptive image rather than producing a composition-oriented-frame that makes the overall photograph convincingly logical. Paradoxically, it also relies a bit on the fine art photography that explores the emotional, psychological aspects of an image or induces it with the feeling of the photographer or her personal choices of light and shade, the angle of observation and the point of view he or she tries to project. Such a photographic style, in the lines of capitalistic aesthetic imagination, objectifies the subject kindling immense desire, subjecting to the male gazes and converts it as a commercially exchangeable product. By doing so, the camera alienates human beings and its subjects from their surroundings and thrice removes them from the reality of existence to be kept on a pedestal to be viewed as an exotic object. As in the case of a capitalist, the photographer becomes the master of his or her object, and he or she decides the fate of the subjects chosen. Of course, an artist-photographer like Cyndy Sherman has tried to reverse the role by becoming the object of her own photography. Through her photographs, she turned herself be the object and the objectified and thus creating images devoid of the language of male gaze.

In these times of our lives, in this post-truth social situation, such a role reversal of the fine art photography has become more responsible and socially relevant due to its critical eye. On the other hand, the commercial and representational photography has become more creative in the sense that it tries to fictionalize the facts and misconstrue the imagery. The real is being transformed as surreal or irreal just by decontextualizing, morphing, photoshopping and many other ways of editing. Removing certain aspects or details in photography as well as videography the imagery turns to be more devised than representational. The digitally doctored photography, with its dubious authenticity of the image, becomes propagandic in the hands of the powerful. Therefore, even the most elementary political action becomes an event created for the camera.

As we are aware of, the companionship of the economic and political powers or their interspersed action works on the digital surveillance systems, either for political or for economic purposes. What we observe here is the mutually suspecting power centres, the people who suspect each other, as well as their distrust in those power centres. That means, the device that was thought as an apparatus to record the world objectively is no more considered to be so. Rather, the camera has condescended to be just another image maker.

Focus  Reflections

PhotoMail focuses on contemporary photography practitioners, their works, and its aesthetics in the broader context of photographic theory and philosophy. This paper is presented by Dr. M Ramachandran and published on 21st November 2020. Published images and texts are subject to the copyright of the author and/or PhotoMail. 

M Ramachandran holds an MFA in Art Criticism from the Faculty of Fine Arts of the M. S. University of Baroda and a postgraduate degree in the English Language and Literature from the University of Kerala. Later, he joined the Centre for Linguistics and English of Jawaharlal Nehru University for his Ph.D. (Semiotics). He has been contributing articles on art and allied subjects to various journals and newspapers published in Malayalam as well as English. He has authored the book Ritualistic Visual Cultures: Sri Lanka and Kerala. He was the Director of the Indian Cultural Centre, Colombo. Currently, he lives in Ernakulam.