Caravaggio’s Narcissus

The Delhi Photo Festival’s, with its inaugural theme of ‘Affinity’, features a number of works that deal with questions of the personal. The festival contains a number of projects that focus on family, friendships, and individuals exploring personal issues with life and love. And much of the work is fascinating, creative and expressive. The personal and private works add an exciting counter point to some of the other exhibitions which reflect a more socially and public engagement. By and large however the festival has kept its feet firmly in the classic concerns of photojournalism even while exhibiting works that are more individual, and experimental. In this regard, the festival has already distinguished itself from many other such photo festivals happening around the world and is off to a wonderful start.

But what has caught my attention and raised concerns is that some (and by this I mean at least two) ‘creative/avante garde’ photographers who have been given a public platform at the festival have been justifying their individual retreat into the inner, their obsessive explorations of the personal, as some sort of inevitable evolution of South Asian photography and a necessary path to its future. Furthermore, these photographers are denigrating the broader, more complex engagement of the more publicly engaged, socially concerned photographer, as something naive and somehow misguided and old-fashioned. They are doing this while celebrating their ego-centric, their frequent self-indulgent surrender to the banal as something interesting. Celebrating their retreat into their inner as some form of higher consciousness, they have condescendingly encouraged others ‘braver them themselves’ to  hold on to their ‘naive’ convictions that photography is a method relevant to the issues of our times and our society. And whereas I am willing to accept the individual’s right to pursue creative and personal works, I find their conviction of the superiority of their ‘experiments’ questionable if not outright misguided.

This attitude has concerned me because I believe that it would be a tragedy for photography in South Asia if young photographers listening to these individuals were also convinced to retreat into their inner, navel-gazing, narcissistic eye.

These self-proclaimed avante-gardist photographers justify their decision to turn away from the world and into the personal by offering anecdotes of their first hand experiences working on social issues where they quickly faced disillusionment with photography’s ability to create real ‘change’. Stories of their journey to a blighted region, in the service of an appropriately blighted people, are offered as evidence. Their shocking experiences of reality trumping idealism is explained and then offered as a moment of clarity about photography’s irrelevance and lack of impact. The turn to the inner then stands justified as the only avenue remaining.

So where does all this denigration of the engaged, the social, the worldly come from? If you simply listen to these photographers you also hear the answer.

What becomes apparent from their explanations is that what has failed them is their own Messiah complex which they carried with when they set out to ‘change’ the world. When inevitably confronted with reality, they realized that they – who had begun the journey with the belief that their presence, voice and photographs alone were going to be the crucial difference between barbarism and civilization, backwardness and modernity, marginalization and relevance, are in fact merely one of many actors, and agents engaged with the social and cultural questions at hand. Reality also reveals to them that a vast set of institutional and individual agents and actors are also involved in addressing the issues at hand, and that these must be engaged and negotiated with. What disappoints them is their inability to be at the center of the change, to be the focus of everyone’s attention, and be seen as the most important contributor to the questions at hand. What defeats them is the realization that a picture alone will not make a difference, but that in fact social, economic, cultural and political change requires serious, grass roots engagement and a willingness to work patiently and with conviction alongside the many others involved.

With their ego now in tatters, they are faced with only two options. One, to either subsume their ego and join the broader struggle to address the issue, hence engaging with the social and other complexities that inform it. Or two, simply appease the hungry and hurt ego and travel where it can be stroked. I fear that many young photographers may chose the latter. (See the life and story of Letizia Battaglia for an example of a photographer who chose the former i.e. refused to walk away)

The belief that by simply turning up, shooting a few images, and offering them for publication in a magazine or hanging them in a gallery, or worse in the village or rural area that was the focus of their attention, would radically transform a social, political, economic or cultural pathology that may have existed for years, if not generations is in fact the real naivete. To say nothing about the myriads of complex social, political and economic reasons for the pathologies existence. It is a naivete that has tripped up hundreds of well meaning Western photographers who have made their careers trawling the pathologies of the post-colonial world in the hope of saving it. Reducing complex human and cultural issues and struggles to merely a matter of ‘revealing’ or ‘documenting’, while persistently ignoring the political, economic and social factors and structural inequities that underpin and sustain them, photographers have proceeded down a path of their own making only to arrive at a dead end.

With their capitulation now complete, the avante gardist’s self-absorption becomes in danger of being recast as a choice, as a personal decision that is in path towards a higher insight and individual creativity. They are then forced to veil their surrender behind a language of realism, cynicism and curatorial mumbo-jumbo. They strive to be…lords of [their] own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. (David Foster Wallace) Convinced of the value and relevance of their own lives, and its universal appeal, they proceed to construct arenas of ‘inner explorations’ where nothing much has to be said, but where they always return to their principal motivation: the appeasement of the ego, the veneration of the self.

Narcissus’ pool reflects the perfect image…

Photographers in Asia have for many years unthinkingly copied the discourse of power and domination that they inherited from Western photojournalism’s obsessions in the Orient and its pathologies. That ‘white man’s burden’ with which so many photojournalists stepped out into the world, has now become the method of so many of South Asia’s new generation of photographers. Without considering the specific historical and cultural trajectory informing Western photojournalism, South Asian photographed grabbed for the format, but failed to understand the underlying colonial and hegemonic (knowledge, power, domination) framework that defined how social, political and economic issues were depicted, explained and rationalized. To say nothing about how they were used to justify war, conquest, exploitation and imperial politics. Mimicking the frameworks, many works produced by South Asian journalists also mimicked the prejudices, misunderstandings and misrepresentations.

And now, a new generation of ‘creative’ photographers is susceptible to unthinkingly adopting the methods and modes of a narcissistic European photography that emerged some two decades ago as a result of an intellectual, and moral numbness bought about by the security of a coddling European social and political welfare state. Their works – empty of meaning, but heavy on aesthetics and style, were welcomed into European galleries and museums, and garlanded with the most obfuscating and meaningless curatorial language that combined silly mysticism with straightforward postmodernist gibberish.

That this European photography’s spiral towards ennui is now being mirrored in some of the photography emerging in South Asia is actually amusing to see. Its modes and postures transported whole sale from Europe to South Asia, it wears itself like an ill-fitting suit the likes of which I often see on the bodies of recently minted MBAs rushing to their corporate offices on Delhi’s ecologic buses. The photo projects exploring ‘angst’ or ‘consciousness’ are largely specious, desperately self indulgent and advertise their disconnect from the realities and ethos of a country that has serious social, political and economic issues, and whose society, and democratic polity is in severe need to engagement, articulation and struggle. They carry the same disconnect of an elite class that Arundhati Roy once said had……seceded into outer space…to have lost the ability to understand those who have been left behind on earth.

There is just something too cynically calculating about these so-called ‘inner’ explorations, something too hollow and self-indulgent. Carrying within them a rather churlish petulance, they work to construct personal traumas and then display these traumas to the public as works of art. The fad of working with blurry, underexposed, dark, ‘edgy’ and ‘angst’ ridden images – a fad so boring that I can’t believe anyone actually wants to see this work, is now all over the region. Mimicking the Michael Ackerman’s, Antoine D’agata’s and countless others of the same ilk, it revels in its copy-cat look, even going so far as to adopt the language and language of trauma borrowed from the mentioned ‘greats’. Claiming to be ‘unique’ and individual, these works are often anything but that. In fact, their overt and extensive presence in galleries, shows and magazines is a testament to their commodity nature, their deeply mass.-market sensibility and capitulation to consumerist priorities.

The stuff basically sells well.

I am reminded of something that Edward Said said in his work Representations Of The Intellectual where he argued that:

The…artist and intellectual are among the few remaining personalities equipped to resist and to fight the stereotyping and consequent death of genuinely living things. Fresh perception now involves the capacity to continually unmask and to smash the stereotypes of vision and intellect with which modern communications (that is, modern systems of representation) swamp us. These worlds of mass-art and mass-thought are increasingly geared to the demands of politics. That is why it is in politics that intellectual solidarity and effort must be centered. If the thinker does not relate himself to the value of truth in political struggle, he cannot responsibly cope with the whole of live experience.’

Changing a world, or transforming a life, requires commitment, engagement and a willingness to see complexity. It requires courage and a sense of humility. And this requires relinquishing the greedy demands of your ego, the incessant wants of your narcissistic need to see yourself in everything you do. It requires a love of the story not the self. It requires a willingness to fail, but to not stop trying. It requires a pessimism of the intellect, but the determined optimism of the spirit. (Antonio Gramsci)

Unless a photographer understands the broader socio-economic factors that contribute to the issue she will not know where to begin, and where her contributions are needed. A photographer has to accept that change requires patience, engagement, commitment and collaboration. More importantly, she has to see that a whole host of agents, and agencies are involved in addressing most any issue that she may be working on. Finally, she have to understand that there are deeply entrenched institutional, political and economic factors that sustain a pathology and that she must understand them to even begin to imagine how she may transform them. A photographer is simply one of many agents, and her impact and relevance is determined by where she chooses to focus her work, and how she chooses to engage with the issue. The picture alone will do nothing.

It is not enough to question child labor by photographing children at labor. Instead the photographer must turn her eye towards understanding and highlighting the factors that create the demand for child labor i.e. the social, cultural, economic, political factors that trap families into making their children work. Such socio-economic factors are where she will have to begin to produce new and complex works. Most importantly, this shift in focus away from the purely obvious and material phenomenon (poverty, misery, deprivation etc.) to the deeper, entrenched foundational issues, allows her to not only produce new works, but also find a way to remain engaged, focused and real.

I can’t help but think that it is this more difficult path that defeated some of those who today reposition themselves as the avante-garde, and claim to dismiss the photograph, or its place in the conversations of the community.

What I have loved most at the festival are the works that confront our world and are not afraid to do it creatively and in new ways. Laura el-Tantawy’s work on farmer suicides, Bharat Choudary’s work on Muslims in Europe, Lana Slezic’s work on the condition and struggle of Afghani women, Sanjeev Saith’s work about his parents, Selvaprakash Lakshmanan’s work on rural migration to name a few, are all works that transcend the small and express ideas with a clear and honest commitment to the issues of our times. They remind us that photography, particularly engaged photographers, whether art, documentary or whatever label they want to carry, are a voice speaking for something, and speaking back to power. It is this voice that makes photography, or a photographic project, something worthy of respect. It is this voice which lifts a photo from mere decoration to something relevant. And it has the power to inspire and to provoke thought, two crucial requirements to broader impact  and influence.

So when I hear voices denigrating the social and public place of photography, that too at a time when so much is happening in South Asia and so much demands out attention and concern, I am dismayed and concerned. I understand that individuals will pursue individual goals with photography, that many will produce creative works that are deeply personal and inward looking. This post is not about lecturing anyone on how or why they should do what. But I do believe that these individuals must resist the temptation to offer their personal choices as universal lessons. Rather than denigrate those who choose to step out and engage the world, they should simply pursue their individual visions and accept their individual choices as nothing more than that: individual.

Presenting themselves as bearers of a superior photographic sensibility, a more nuanced visual language and a more exciting creative instinct is simply wrong if not outright delusional. They should instead respect the complexity and difficulty, both creative and emotional, of works of those who aim to engage society, confront polity and transform sensibility. Luckily the Delhi Photo Festival seems not to have forgotten this insight and this is something that the hundreds of photographers now viewing the works being exhibited, and listening to the photographers giving talks, will do well to remember.