During a discussion with a friend and a colleague who has repeated expressed concern about my refusal to exhibit, or promote, or otherwise perform critical acts necessary for a ‘successful’ career as a documentary photographer. I did not have good answers for him, but later that night I happened to pick up a copy of Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual – a book I have read and re-read dozens of times, and came across notes I had scribbled on the back pages back in 2003 when I carried that book into South Waziristan while working on a story there. These notes helped clarify things, and in a later discussion, I was able to offer something like this:
The reason why I so avoid, or stand apart, from participating in the institutions of Western photojournalism and documentary photography is because these institutions are – much like other fields of social theory and practice, infused with racial, colonial and Orientalist cliches and prejudices. Standing and listening to the who’s who of the craft is simply an exercise in dismay, if not outright embarrassment. For someone from outside the Western social tradition, it is also quite humiliating.
However, unlike other fields of social theory where new perspectives, ideas, voices and dissenting discourses have emerged in recent decades, photojournalism and documentary photography has remained entirely ignorant of even the basic need to do this. Hence, its entrenched anti-intellectualism, self-congratulatory delusion, and repeated annual celebratory affirmation of its right to simply remain unchanged, makes its a seriously problematic space for me personally. That is, I am embarrassed to be associated with these institutions, and the bias and infantile perspectives, they voice with such conviction and confidence.
The challenge then is to continue to pursue a personal practice that does not have to bend to these institutional prejudices and proclivities. This isn’t easy of course. There are days and months when it appears near impossible. But it is essential. There have been rich projects – in arts, poetry, literature, social sciences, political studies, history and more, that have focused on decolonising these arenas. Journals like Souffles-Anfas to name just one, were repositories of alternative ideas and arguments, and of speaking out in new ways. Photography lacks any such outlets, and any such institutional support. Its institutions, at least the most influential ones, are not even aware of the need for such an exercise.
Avoid exhibition spaces, mainstream publications, seminars and competitions, then becomes an exercise in speaking out. It is a rejection of the known and the predictable. It is a rejection of an entire framework of thought and bias that infects these institutional spaces, and the hierarchies of political, imperial and colonial power that they continue to represent. It becomes, for a South Asian, an act of resistance and dignity. The consequences are difficult, no doubt, as the alternatives are few, if at all.
The questions that have been raised in other human endeavours – questions that have enriched those fields and bought forward voices of previously marginalised or erased peoples, their histories, voices, perspectives and demand for rights, are not raised in the world of documentary photography. Perhaps in some academic spaces, but certainly not in practice. So much remains to be done. And indeed, there remains a tremendous opportunity for a new kind of documentary photography, photographic publications, and photographic practice, that examines the hierarchies of power and culture that we carry forward unexamined, and then works to break these apart to reveal a new world of ideas and stories.