My last minute search for a lens hood for an upcoming photo shoot took me to Bombay’s famous Photo galli just off VT station. The smells get seedier and the scene grittier the moment you leave behind the big shops of the main road and enter the narrow lane.
If you’re willing to overlook the olfactory assault, then it is always worth visiting this busy photo bazaar. Gujarati shopkeepers selling photographic gear by the kilo and photographers from Maharashtra’s hinterland buying the latest plasticky equipment for their studios; glimpses of an industry that we may otherwise ignore in the big cities. But even in the mad bustle of Bombay a DVD cover with images of headless women, children and men is definitely attention-grabbing.
They were, as the shopkeeper explained, meant for use in small town photo studios, where because of extreme poverty it was easier and cheaper to photograph only the face and photoshop it on to a digital body.
Only too happy to digress from my search for a lens hood, I was already aware of how much these defaced images resonated with my project Send Some Candids. For that project, I had compiled found photos from the Web shot by voyeurs on Indian streets, and in order not to be caught, they would often very creatively remove the faces of their subjects.
Over time, my fledgling collection of found vernacular photographs had begun to get stranger. Or at least more curious.
Like so much else, these images slipped through the cracks in my memory. A chance encounter with Olivier Cullman’s work brought them rushing back to mind. Ever fascinated by the Indian vernacular visual lingo, he had curated faceless photos in the 2011 Photoquai group show in Paris. Immediately after, I pulled out my copy of Christopher Pinney’s Camera Indica; a re-read later I was ready to face the headless bodies again. After all, small town Indian studio photography hasn’t changed drastically, it has just evolved and adapted to new technologies.
What appears radical and kitsch has history and social meaning. We can discern the inter-ocularity (the visual inter-referencing described by Christopher), at play when saas-bahu backdrops replace the earlier more popular Bollywood decor and when the iconography of the cheap Chinese lenticular posters finds its place among more religious symbols. And yesteryear artistry in the black and white darkroom has its match with the contemporary photoshop expertise necessary to create the final elaborate photomontage. In fact, mirroring the book, I even spotted DG Phalke’s Krishna among the images but of course it’s without the face of his daughter who played the part in Shri Krishna Janma. There is a passage in the book where Christopher describes how the photograph in the village semiotic system is able to reveal only the vyaktitva (personality) but not the charitra (moral character), this description resonates and interestingly gets amplified when one has the choice to cut out one’s body and paste it on someone’s else.
As Pinney states: “Because the visible is not deemed to be anchored by an invisible realm of a character, the external body is freed from the constraints with which it is shackled in the Western tradition of painted portraiture”. The fact that the body of another does not seem to impede the depiction of the vyaktitva in the imagination of those who bring their heads to it, adds a new layer to Pinney’s research.
In his book, Christopher also dwells on the play of costumes; significantly this play is more or less absent in the clutch of images that serve as my point of departure. A couple of decades ago, regional, caste and class identities appeared to be the aspiration “du jour”, in contrast, their contemporary digital avatars aspire to be more global and plain.
Over-the-top opulence is easily generated via computers, we live, after all, in a visually augmented society. Consequently, the most striking feature of this series is not its headless-ness but rather its modest-ness.
– Fabien Charuau