What is the ultimate purpose of documentary photography? It is to substitute the lived experience. ‘Too bad you couldn’t be there, but there are these pictures.’ It is the best we have for now until the time machine is invented. Scams. National outrage. Nationalistic pride. Fear. Hope. Despair. Black money. White lies. A Lost Decade riddled by grand-scale political chutiyapa. None of these readily lend themselves to photographic documentary. That is why we have elections.
We in India have just concluded the most significant general elections since 1951, ’65, ’71, ’77, ’84, ’99, or ’04 (depending on what your political affiliations are). It used to be that the Maha Kumbh Mela was the largest gathering of humanity for a singular purpose. With over 500 million voters showing up at the polls, the Indian elections beats that five times over. Who do we trust with making our history images?
Mainstream media in India tends to use photography as a dog uses a lamppost: for relief rather than illumination. Our media has been preoccupied with a losing battle to prove their relevance and credibility. Staff photojournalists are primarily concerned with showing the surface of what someone or something or some place looked like. This is the lowest form of photography ever possible, going against the very grain of that oft-quoted plea: “Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like.” (David Alan Harvey)
Within weeks of the announcement of results, photographer Raghu Rai rushed to release his new self-published photobook, The Tale of Two. He was referring to the two prime ministers, one outgoing and the other incoming. But he could well have been referring to the two party conferences he attended earlier this year (from 9:30am to 1:30pm, as Outlook magazine helpfully highlights) where all the images were made.
Rai said in an interview to Tehelka on the lines of his previous book launch, “…in this quick-fix solution to everything there is a certain lack of depth and tapasya (meditation or introspection). Tapasya is something that the younger generation doesn’t have as self-discipline.” One does tend to wonder whether enough tapasya has been performed when commentary on a subject as complex as Indian politics is derived from two sittings. Reading one glorious tribute after another splashed across newspapers, not a single critique is forthcoming. Therefore one has to buy the book to find out for oneself.
Scoring even lower on the tapasya scale was the adventure embarked on by Scroll.in, a recently launched online news portal. They hired over a dozen freelance photographers to file their momentary musings from the fringes of Elections 2014 using nothing more than their mobile phones. The daily haul of images was centrally edited and shared on the portal’s Instagram feed. The choice of this technology, medium, and process was ostensibly meant to ‘democratise’ political photojournalism. To their credit, the photographers managed to cover the vast ground that is India to bring us a general overview of the country during these mad times.
Having said that, one measure by which to judge a body of documentary photography work is by the quality of debate it provokes. The only semblance of debate in this case was centered around the novelty of the documentation process. Beyond that, there was scant little to suggest any remarkable point of view or risk taken by the photographers in drawing out stories.Without a sense of visual purpose or direction, the photographers seem to have unwittingly discovered a new definition for trope – something that looks like art but is, in reality, nothing more than a bicycle or a plastic chair.
Was there a pertinence to adopt this curious medium known for its use-and-throw imagery, and is it fair to criticise that choice at all? The problem, as so often is the case these days, is that form follows Finance. The project was sponsored by Instagram, and so the decision to use it was more corporate than editorial. The question of personal discretion or artistic choice did not arise.
In this context, it is worthy to note yet another project inspired by the elections, loksabhaindia.org, funded by Fabrica (Italy) and curated by Manik Katyal. Ten emerging photographers across the country were given the space to explore varied themes and execute it according to their vision and motivation. One of the participants, Karthik Subramanian, examined the history of visual propaganda in Tamil Nadu. Another, Arko Datto (not to be confused with his namesake, Arko Datta the conflict photographer) came up with an amusing photo essay about election sops. Gitartha Goswami seized the opportunity to study party offices in Kolkata.
If a story’s worth lies in its telling, the storytellers and their individual perspectives are as valuable as the story itself. This is evidenced by some of the brightest spots on the landscape of contemporary political photography in recent times. Consider the following examples of political photography that has deviated from more traditional photojournalism:
Indian politics is a rich, vibrant, infinite mine of stories. There are a million narratives breaking amidst a billion people everyday. The world is hungry to see more of what we’re up to. If Indian photography is to see its achche din, it had better find its feet, hold itself to a higher standard, and connect with the global discourse.
Mahesh Shantaram is an independent photographer from Bangalore. Excerpts from two of his major projects, ‘Matrimania’ and ‘Performing Politics’ can be seen on the Tasveer Journal, and more information on his work can be found at www.thecontrarian.in