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Rain © Victor George

The meaning of Photography, and, therefore, of Victor George

The short and oft-repeated biography of Victor George sounds something like a parable.

Victor George was a photojournalist who worked for Malayala Manorama, a leading daily in Malayalam. Born in Kanakkary, Kottayam, he was known for his humanist approach towards photography and equally popular for his photographs of landscapes, especially those that are part of his unfinished series on rain. Victor George was caught in a landslide following heavy rains in Idukki, while photographing his own favourite subject.

The posthumous book of his photographs of the rain titled “It’s raining…” captures the above paragraph, in slightly different words. Ingrained in this short biography, in each of its sentences, are ideals – of the dedicated worker, the sympathetic and humble person, the village-dweller who is close to nature, and the passionate artist who pursued his art to his death; “artist” because what Victor George did was not a mechanical recording of reality, but meaningful constructions of a rationalized reality. The foreword by photographer Paul Liebhardt mentions this fact, and contends that photojournalists do not actually capture reality, but simply communicate ideas with the viewer through their photographs, and by extension, a meaning must be sought for by the photographer and the viewer, a meaning which walks a thin line between an idea and its linguistic articulation.

As a photojournalist, Victor George’s work was mostly routine and involved covering events and stories of interest for his publication, but a few of his published images have attained cult status, much like the photographer himself has on a regional level – the discussion here is to be placed against the popularity of the person and his images among the regional photographers, amateur and professional; it is to be noted that very little of his influence is seen on Malayali photographers who address or have addressed a larger viewership. The images available from his photojournalistic assignments fit in with most of the observations made below, but the point to remember here is that Victor spent his entire photojournalistic career at one organization, and had been chief photographer at the Kottayam bureau for 11 years prior to his demise. He had worked in the Delhi bureau, from where he was sent to cover conflicts in Punjab in the 80s, and apart from that, does not seem travelled far. His educational background in English literature seems to have brought about some awareness of literature from around the world, but contemporary criticisms on photography have definitely eluded him. His series on rain was the first project that he seems to have significantly worked on that was unrelated to his photojournalistic career; the series itself reflects the format of human interest stories and its related photographs in many instances.

Victor George looked for meaning in rain, not formal beauty or abstraction. Instances of abstraction are sporadically seen in his photographs – such as a massive raincloud which looks like a wash of purple-grey – but are always marred by a concrete, meaningful, identifiable figure – in the aforementioned case, a flying bird occupies the centre of attention of the image, and discernible clouds are seen in the background, giving the image concreteness. In another photograph, a dense mass of rain becomes a setting for a couple to cycle through. Such curious inclusions of identifiable figures (identifiable to a native of Kerala, at least) are so consistent that many images accidentally slip into repetitiveness and lose their meaning. However, the compositional choices made here are far from accidental, but perhaps are unconscious. The rain is continuously conceived as a terrifying and overbearing presence (probably because of the relentless and unforgiving nature of rains along the Western Ghats), and the many subjects of Victor’s photographs are continuously trying to overcome this presence through a struggle, quietly referring to the recurring image of Man’s eternal struggle derived from The Bible and its connected sources. Victor’s photographs are replete with this allegory, and even when he photographs blossomed flowers, the subject of the photograph remains the reward (the quality of perceivable beauty that is literally associated with the image of a blossoming flower) that follows the successful passing of the test (the rains).

Rain © Victor George

The Biblical influences do not end there. There is a Christ-like sympathy for the poor, the old, the young and the diseased, a frequent presence of a protective father-figure,and a manifestation of light itself as a symbol of the divine. The former two constitute the humanism of his photographs, and some are explicitly influenced by Semitic images such as the Hand of God. The latter results in silhouettes of human figures in photographs which look something like a deliverance. Of course, divine figures have been depicted as emanating light from their body across many cultures, and it is in this capacity that Victor George views light, especially sunset. Across his photographs, there is almost no presence of lights which serve to embellish figures. In fact, contrast as employed by Victor George is not tonal or of lines, but only of ideas and ideals; and the contrast is almost always polar, often reflecting the heavy contrasts used in parables. The old and young, the static and the moving, gazes and motions in opposite directions and so on are juxtaposed within the same frame, and the conflict of the opposites becomes a running theme that is difficult to miss.

It is necessary to digress here in order to firmly establish what has been argued so far, and this digression will have to pass through other art forms. The first place to look is the art form that perhaps most thrives on contemporary urban myths – the cinema. Among Malayalam films of recent times, two are particularly relevant here, മഹേഷിന്റെ പ്രതികാരം (Maheshinte Prathikaram/Mahesh’s Revenge), and C/O Saira Banu.

The place occupied by photography, which is integral to the characters’ growth in the two films, structures of both the films is almost exactly the same. In മഹേഷിന്റെ പ്രതികാരം (Mahesh’s Revenge) (2016, dir. Dileesh Pothen), photography becomes a means for the protagonist to symbolically discover himself and therefore overcome the recent failures he had suffered. In a single scene in which the protagonist’s father points him towards what is seemingly the “essence” of photography, a guidance delivered through a cryptic line that suggests that photography is to be “discovered,”the protagonist seems to be able to correct his substandard photography into what is deemed “great photography” and thereafter sets all his other mistakes straight one after another. The individualist arguments that all problems are born only from within the individual, and that the individual only needs to correct himself/herself for life to correct itself are reiterated here, with ample support provided by the cultural role of photography as an act. Photography here is intricately linked, not with reality, but a rational view of reality.

This link goes even further in C/O Saira Banu (2017, dir. Antony Sony), a film that subtly but strongly pushes Christian propaganda throughout its length. It makes a quite blatant attempt at portraying an idealized version of Victor George, whose background and life is conveniently altered to make him a combination of the protective but invisible father-figure and an embodiment of Christ’s wisdom and sympathy (the character in the film is named Peter George, after St. Peter who is said to have walked on water on the strength of his faith and saved by God from drowning; Peter George himself expounds on faith in a letter to his adopted daughter, Saira Banu). The film claims that Peter George’s photographs had a Touch of God, and this was because he saw with his heart and not with his eyes, and that this was why he could capture “life” and “magical moments” – a not-very-subtle way of glorifying Christianity. The development of the character of Peter George’s son, before the film’s main action begins, reaches a climactic point when, suddenly experiencing a “revelation”, he photographs Saira Banu’s outstretched hand, as an overt reference to the Hand of God.

While neither of the two films are directly the result of Victor George’s efforts, they provide an insight into how the Malayalam world think of photography and Victor George himself. Both these ideas, of photography and of Victor George, are propped up by the meaning created by his photographs.

That is not the whole story, however. There are undeniable political connotations, apart from the internal politics of Christianity, to the choice of images made by Victor George. The image of humans taking shelter from the rain, for instance, can be traced back to Hiroshige Utagawa’s prints, coming in a period of Japanese art which dealt primarily with the quotidian – many images with humans performing an activity in the foreground a landscape in the background can be found in his prints. This image seems to have been imbibed by pictorialists, and more significantly here by Nandalal Bose, who recast the format of Hiroshige’s image to represent the vitality and beauty of the rural peasant (this vitality was later a major part of Ramkinkar Baij’s representations of Santhals) against the background of the rural landscape. The rise of Nationalist thought meant that the Bengal school’s idea of aesthetics gained influence all over the country, and this image seems to have been transmitted around the country, and today, children are taught to draw something in its mould in the early stages of their training in painting. Victor George utilizes this compositional format in many of photographs, but it is quite clear that vitality is not his concern, nor is the figure addressed or encountered in any significant manner. The background, usually of rain, is there and the humans are foregrounded or middle-grounded, but there is no discernible “meaning” in the juxtaposition of the two, other than that of the struggle to overcome – but then again, the struggle of the human subject in the foreground is not always obvious and in many photographs, are a stretch of imagination. Yet, the unflinching fidelity to this compositional format and its subsequent merging with the literary form of parable to create meaning betrays the two chief sources from which Victor George derives his worldview – the National identity and the Church. The recurring stereotypical image of the “rural beauty” is indeed attributed to him being born in a rural location, thereby stripped of its political context, whereas the allegories are attributed an absoluteness that have slowly pushed back the photographs into being thought of as real. The influence of the Church on south-central Kerala is well documented and well visible politically, sociologically and aesthetically.

This has been followed by a legitimization by leading Malayalam dailies and weeklies, complete with their own pseudo-poetic captions that have accompanied and “explained” photographs, causing at least a part of its readership to accept this standard alone for “explaining” and “understanding” photographs. “Art” photographs only get published in regional publications if they work in the exact aesthetic that Victor George worked in, and this legitimization has served to make contemporary regional amateur and professional photographers mindlessly copy Victor George’s work, irrespective of the fact that photography has moved far ahead of photojournalism even in India itself, challenging most of the presumptions on which the idea of photojournalism is built.

An analysis of this sort would be impossible in the case of the photographers who follow Victor’s path, since none of their identity truly reflects in their work. This loss of identity of the photographer, and further, the erasure of political content of photographs and the subsequent conflation of the Photographic with the Real are dangerous trends that have actually started much before Victor George, but seem to be gaining speed now. And the true tragedy is that Victor George, the middle-class man with his own political and professional inclinations, is getting lost in this myriad of cultural constructions and semi-canonizations.

Arjun Ramachandran

Arjun Ramachandran is a visual communication student and photographer, with interests in cinema and literature.

Published on April 2, 2018


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