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The Great Upheaval

Can the digital revolution potentially shift the power dynamic in photography?

‘Toda H-26’, performance photograph from The Ethnographic Series, 2004, by Pushpamala N in collaboration with Clare Arni; from the project Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs

In the 178 years since the invention of photography—thought to have begun with Louis Daguerre’s daguerreotype process circa 1839—the medium has catapulted from one form to the next, forcing those who engage with it to sprint in order to keep pace with the developments. With all the technology at our disposal today, which enables us to churn out images through microchips embedded in devices whose primary function may not even be photography, the process of making images is far removed from the several-minute-long intimate experience between the photographer and the sitter in the early years of the camera.

What has this digital ‘revolution’ done to the reading of images and how has it affected access, agency and representation within photography?

Given that the physicality of the process of making the image has undergone such a multidimensional shift, it seems timely to ask at this moment: what impact has the juggernaut of technological progress had on the creator of the image? But perhaps the more important question is, what has this digital ‘revolution’ done to the reading of images and how has it affected access, agency and representation within photography?

In India, photography made an appearance around the 1840s, about the same time as it was introduced in Europe. Colonial British officers doubled up as cameramen in order to document the resources—natural, architectural and human—under the purview of the Queen and the British Government. Given that the introduction of photography to the country and its application over the next century hinged on this colonial heritage, the representation of India was largely from the perspective of the outsider looking in—an outsider relatively blind to the nuances at play, constructing an image of the country and its people through an inherently western and, inevitably male, gaze.

At various junctures in the history of the medium, at least in India, as photographic equipment became progressively more accessible than before, a new crop of photographers joined the milieu. Until very recently, this remained restricted to a group of privileged individuals who could afford to self-sustain their practices. A large part of this sustenance came from a western audience—societies where photography and visual art had already been assigned a monetary value. Since Indian print media was not able to sustain a large crop of photographers, many funded their practice by catering to foreign clients, clients who were usually hungry for simplified images of India, or unable to empathize with nuanced narratives that spoke of the complexities that fundamentally define this country at a local level. More nuanced narratives did find resonance with local audiences, but for photographers to sustain this work, they needed either support from a patron or their own resources—circumstances highly unusual on a broad scale.

The industry, which has long sustained itself largely on representation of the other, has suddenly been given a jolt, since this proverbial other is not such a distant or voiceless entity anymore.

The technological advances in recent times that have led to the democratization of the medium, on both the production and consumption ends, have no doubt opened a space for all of us to be authors of our own stories. The industry, which has long sustained itself largely on representation of the other, has suddenly been given a jolt, since this proverbial other is not such a distant or voiceless entity anymore. The politics of representation that have been at play for hundreds of years, especially in the postcolonial world, stand to be drastically shifted and even turned on their head, given that the internet affords a space for anyone to put forth an opinion, and the algorithms for dissemination are markedly different from those of art galleries or print media. This is not the first time that photography has undergone a shift—it took many changes from Louis Daguerre’s path-breaking invention to arrive where we are today. However, this appears to be a unique moment, where photographers have the opportunity to reach out to a wider audience than ever before: an audience that is not primarily defined by the traditional gatekeepers of the industry. The internet as a virtual space provides a mechanism that enables people to connect and communicate with a world that may be distant physically, but with similar ideologies and political notions. Similarly, photographers, armed with even a mobile phone, can use this alternate system to influence perspectives and dispel beliefs that may have been propagated over time about their own cultures and homelands. If one is to look beyond traditional media, avenues that never existed before have opened up to allow for alternate circles of discourse, amongst people separated by geography but united by ideology.

If we are all to be authors, how do photographers escape the seemingly imminent redundancy of their expertise?

However, this influx of digital technology and its ability to make the camera accessible to all is a double-edged sword: if we are all to be authors, how do photographers escape the seemingly imminent redundancy of their expertise? For me, the answer to having a distinct voice, above the din of the mainstream, largely lies in the politics—the ethics of representation that a photographer espouses while pursuing stories on people that are, more often than not, at a lesser level of privilege than herself. As a discipline, photography does not mandate a degree or even any formal level of training, unlike other fields with experts who may be engaged in analyzing human behavior, such as anthropologists, psychologists or human rights activists. Practitioners in these fields put a great deal of rigorous research into their practice, sometimes taking years to reach conclusions about individuals/communities that are not native to them. Then what is it that affords the photographer the right to thrust a seemingly intrusive device into people’s lives and claim to be able to tell their stories on their behalf, very often in surprisingly short spans of time?

Given that there are no institutional checks in place governing the practice of photographers, similar to, say, licenses accorded to other professionals, which may be rescinded owing to any ethical misconduct, the photography community relies very often on a ‘collective conscience’ to reflect upon issues of representation. In today’s digital age, when the production and dissemination of imagery is more accessible than ever before, it is important to constantly question our intentions, be cognizant of our privilege and ascertain whether the work gives agency to the subject. Given that so much photographic work is about representation—much of it (perhaps idealistically) seeking to bring change to society—and the fact that most issues of socio-political relevance have already been explored in one way or another, a refreshing way out of this massive sea of imagery may be to think about narratives that overturn long-accepted power structures and are within the purview of these subjective ethical guidelines. It is imperative that the dynamics of privilege at play in the production of images through the colonial or western gaze, do not repeat themselves today in the interaction between the photographer and the subject.

Some questions to ask ourselves would be that if in the majority of cases it is not the subjects that approach the photographer, but the other way around, what makes the photographer assume that the subjects are seeking representation, and that making images of them would elevate their voices to the world? How do we decipher whether the desire for representation on the part of the photographer is motivated not by her own gain of cultural and/or intellectual capital, but in the honest belief that her form will privilege their story?

With the state of the world today, how is it possible not to be moved?

For me, it is potentially dangerous to be apolitical—to stand on the fence and not take a position—in the world we live in today. Politics of identity and representation are more important than ever, given that a large part of the world seems to be moving towards a regressive political ideology, which is polarizing and divisive. There is no more time for photographers to strive to be objective. With the state of the world today, how is it possible not to be moved? Not to be affected? And, not to react? For an industry that prides itself on empathy, both for the subject and her context, how can we expect the photographer to engage with social issues and at the same time, be removed from the mayhem taking place around us? With the bombardment of images on our senses practically every waking moment of our day, photographers may need to consider more deeply their motivation and modes of representation in telling stories about a group of people, who with mobile phones and access to the internet are now equally armed to put their own voices out into the world.

In many ways, the digital revolution has been the great equalizer. This can either be a moment of great insecurity, where a photographer may find her role redundant, or a moment of great celebration: suddenly there are so many more users of the medium, which means more people to communicate with, to ideate with and to listen to. To draw a parallel with the written word: in its inception it presented an advantage over the spoken word, allowing communication to travel wider than previously possible. However, as language became more refined, there was a clear distinction between one who was literate and one who could pen literature. As the community of those engaging with the visual medium grows, the photographer—in order to remain distinct—must speak verse that is more nuanced and perhaps even more lyrical.

By virtue of photography’s position as a niche craft, until very recently, those engaged with the medium contributed to creating isolated intellectual bubbles, privileging form and aesthetic, many a time above content and subject. It is perplexing to see that even though many photographers concern themselves with universal social issues in their practice, the work circulates in the same echo chambers within the fraternity—the self-published photo book, the photo festival, online award platforms etc. In the ‘real’ world—the one where photography is not absorbed in isolation but alongside and in conjunction with sound, text, illustration, video and a multitude of other forms—the image forms a single, though important, trigger to one of our five senses. If we are to speak to the world beyond our comfortable circles of the photography industry, we must recognize the value of the other senses and other media. Democracy, in its ideal form, could imply a structure where the power dynamic between the governing agencies and the governed is greatly reduced. If we are to truly appreciate the democratization of the medium, we must not impose our understanding of images as binding and absolute. If we are to allow other interpretations, emanating from outside the photo-world chambers to influence and inform us, this could present exciting new avenues for collaboration amongst like-minded individuals with similar ethical concerns. If we are to join forces towards honest, accurate and non-fetishized representation, radically different perspectives may open up the possibility of a new way of looking at the world.

In many ways, the digital revolution has been the great equalizer.

It appears then that the distinctions we impose upon ourselves as artists—between still and moving image, art and photography, traditional documentary or avant-garde contemporary—all seem to dwarf in relevance when we consider the grave realities that surround us in the world today. If photographers are to be agents of change, if they intend their images to have a resonance among large groups of people, the power to change perspectives and belief systems, and the ability to speak to a mass audience, they must allow their work to resonate with their politics, and join forces with others who wish to empower the same ideals. With so many exponents of the photographic language, our community is much wider than we currently acknowledge and consumers of this craft many more than we can fathom.

by Tanvi Mishra