The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the advent of real-time communication networks, associated with the building of ‘nation space’, domestic and international markets. Networks such as canals, roads, electric telegraph towers, railroads and undersea cables not only became a symbol of progress for nation states but also brought speed, accessibility and organised the circulation of information in everyday life. Similarly, within visual technologies such as photography, the introduction of shorter exposure time (Kodak), 35mm film, handheld cameras and cheap printing processes, made cameras more economical and thus ubiquitous around the 1920s. This allowed practitioners to carry cameras outside the studios and capture the ‘fleeting’ moments, major events, resistance struggles in streets, cities and colonies. However, photography as a ‘network’, developed only in an around the late 20s and early 30s, when through telegraphs and wire-photo systems, the transmitting of photographs became possible. Initially, media technologies were clearly linked to colonial empires as a strategic tool for communicating information and ideological propaganda, in order to control their territories and their subjects, but with the rise of the ‘information industry’, the circulation of instantaneous, concise news along with ‘pictures’ had a profound impact on the mobilisation of anti-colonial emotions across borders.
By the turn of the century, within India, the nationalist movement was gaining momentum with Gandhi and the Congress party organising non-violent struggles and civil disobedience against colonial government across the country. It was during this period that various iconic images of movements, nationalist politicians, revolutionaries and patriots were photographed by the famous photographers like Henri-Cartier Bresson or by local press photographer like Kulwant Roy and others, which fulfilled the nation’s need for self-definition during the crisis as circulation of some of these images stood for the anti-imperial negotiations. The emergence of photography, chromolithography, communication revolution and urbanisation in the early twentieth century led to the mass growth of the national publications, dailies and magazines in India, for example The Times of India (1838), Statesman (1875), The Tribune, Anandabazaar Patrika (1922), Hindustan times (1924) and various others. High speed publishing presses, the linotype, half-tone photo and the emergence of internationally collaborated news-gathering agencies (such as the Associated Press) made newspapers the national and international carriers of the flow of information. However, in despite of the low literacy rates in India, images of nationalist icons were circulated independently of the literary sphere in the form of posters, pamphlets and banners. But largely the source of references for all these non-literary visual images were the press photographs published in newspapers. During this time, most of the photographers, along with running their studios to cater the needs of the growing middle-class clientele, were working for news agencies or magazines. Some photographers were also making a living by carrying out surveillance and documentary work for the colonial empire. It was no longer possible for the commercial photographers to work and market their prints as the nineteenth century pioneers. Royal patronage or making a living by selling picturesque landscapes became visual clichés and was declining with the times.
With the formation of the Indian National Congress, some of the first congress leaders and nationalist campaigns were photographed by Kanu Gandhi. Whereas young photographers like Shambhu Shah and Sunil Janah were commissioned by other parties to document important events and man-made atrocities such as the Bengal famine. Soon photographic images of nationalist or revolutionary heroes like Bhagat Singh, Gandhi, Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, Vallabhbhai Patel and others became dominated feature of dailies’ news and played an important role in enlarging the popular imagination. Nehru with Lady Mountbatten, Gandhi leading people during the Quit India movement, the aristocratic Jinnah sitting on stage attended by two men holding an umbrella and fan, SC Bose alighting the stairs of an aeroplane and receiving a guard of honour on his arrival to the Andamans, were some of the iconic images of official national and personal histories which recast the molds in which celebrities were made. Awareness of visuality, publicity campaigns, media savvy politicians and the desire of the national parties to communicate with wide audiences, allowed press photographers to capture candid and contemplative moments in public figures’ lives. Biographical articles accompanied with their family/personal visuals lead to the emergence of making of public personas through media/ journalistic images and public performativity in the presence of camera.
– Sameena Siddiqui