Considered the largest election in the world, India’s sixteenth Lok Sabha elections saw more than a long campaign, a seven-stage polling schedule and blistering heat, it saw what is possibly the first comprehensive body of political photographs shot entirely with mobile phones.
Subverting the traditional visual narratives of sensational politics and its players, a group of fifteen photographers ranging in age and experience attempted to produce images of the election from a politically unbiased voter’s point of view. The brainchild of Samir Patil, founder of the Bombay based online webzine Scroll.in who wanted to break barriers in the nature of political coverage, the project was initially conceptualised as an Instagram feed that would be flooded with images of all kinds produced by a core team of photographers from all over the country. This method however was proving to be problematic; the feed functioning more like a landfill where images were dumped, and the good photographs being drowned out in the clutter and sheer numbers produced.
Though the agenda was narrowed down to photographs only produced with a mobile phone camera, the team found itself having to edit the feed and constantly remove redundant and clichéd images. The need for a clear curatorial plan was further sharpened by criticism that began to manifest from other photographers on social media, claiming that it was essentially, “frivolous pics by trend-aping time wasters”. The project was mocked primarily for choosing to use a certain networked digital imaging device and application, but as Ritesh Uttamchandani, photographer and curator of the project retaliates, “It’s just a tool, like old cameras where everything worked on estimates. In the case of the phone, the estimate calculation is by a software, built by a human who has probably put a tonne of thought into it. A phone demands intimacy and participation from the subject and photographer… in fact, it’s liberating, for it makes you record and pick up subtleties, which sometimes our visually desensitised eyes may not notice.”¹
As he points out, using a camera-phone to take photographs generates a particular framing, enabling a certain access (limiting one from some others), and producing the intimacy of an instantaneous impulse. One needs to modify not just one’s perspective with regard to shooting with a square format, but also one’s approach to the subject at such close quarters. Intelligently using this, the curatorial team came up with a plan to eschew the big faces, focusing instead on smaller regional candidates, the labor of the electoral process, and the effect of the democratic machinery on everyday social existence. Consensually deciding to limit the use of Instagram filters and produce detailed captions, the project developed a more coherent narrative by using Whatsapp as a communicative tool where the photographers and curators, most of whom had never met, began to discuss approaches and stories, invite opinions, and upload and vote on photos before a final edit was transferred to Instagram.
Uttamchandani states, “I told photographers on the team that the best photographs are not inside rallies, but on its peripheries. It is pointless to take photographs of Sonia Gandhi’s face, because everyone gets those. It’s about the little dots you connect to each other to get a larger idea of how the elections really work.” This is amply reflected in a whole stream of images focusing on what essentially goes on behind the scenes: images of sound technicians who provide and control sound at election rallies, stage performers, stilt walkers, band players. Other narratives of remnants and waste can be traced in images that foreground spaces devoid of people, in contrast to the general images of crowds, such as a rose-petalled ground in which all that can be seen are crushed empty plastic bottles. The industry of politics is further symbolised through the common trope of empty chairs, an effective image repeated in different situations, by different photographers.
Photographs of sleepy journalists, cameramen squeezing themselves through spaces for a good vantage point, close-ups of microphones produce a third narrative of the journalistic process. The image of two reporters sitting by the side of the road typing up their reports, is an appropriate empathetic comment on the nature of pressures that media persons need to navigate in their official documentation of the same political moment.
The phone-camera as a tool also provides a certain sense of mobility, allowing for certain points of view not accessible to bulkier SLRs or professional equipment, resulting in photographs of the people in crowds – where individuals peering between the legs of others, atop trees and crates, wearing masks or garbed in political statements – are the focus, rather than a multitude in a sea of faces. The photographs of people watching television, waiting for the election results on counting day function almost as studies in suspense and audiences, and are also enabled by the ability of mobile phone cameras to capture unguarded and vulnerable moments.
The debate on phone cameras as an appropriate medium for serious photography is not new; in 2010 when Joel Sternfeld released his series titled iDubai, a set of photographs taken with an iphone at Dubai addressing the context of a global consumerist economy and society, much confusion arose on the place of medium in fine art photography. Sternfeld defended his choice by claiming that in his opinion, the highest ideal art could achieve was the syncing of form and content, and that by using a very product of the consumerist world that was his subject, it was what he meant to achieve with his work. In the context of Scroll.in’s venture, a similar and significantly nuanced argument regarding the relationship between form and content can be constructed.
Utilising the democratic potential of photography and the internet, the project not only produces a participative process of cultural production, but also a diffusive environment for the circulation of images and the generation of information. As Ritesh Uttamchandani phrases it, “Simply put, the feed could be explained as a circle, where a common tool is used for the documentation of a common exercise, the images recorded are disseminated over a commonly available platform and can be viewed by the common folk over a common instrument, their phones!”²