Does Originality Exist Today?


The photographs that we make are a concoction of the things that we see, the things that we hear, and the things that we feel. Every time that we pause to make a picture, it is because something in the scene has triggered us to photograph the moment. Even while deciding whether to step in closer to the scene or be a distant spectator is an outcome of the experiences that we’ve had; For instance, the way we’ve been nurtured or the variety of photographs that we’ve been exposed to. However, does this imply that the images we make of our personal experiences are original, either in thought or approach? Shouldn’t it be though, since each of us tread through life at a different pace? However, if our experiences are so different, then how come there is a barrage of similar visual styles and subject matter that continues to populate the world of imagery?

I am particularly quite saturated looking at the lack of variety in the street photographs I see on my Instagram feed. It’s almost always a black and white, high contrast picture. There’s always a lone figure either entering or exiting the frame. Sometimes the figure sports a fedora or a cowboy hat, and is often photographed in a bent, slouching posture… It goes on. We don’t have men walking around in fedoras in India, but we have our own versions of these familiar subjects, like the sadhus in Varanasi, and the way we’ve been visually interpreting issues like poverty. The narrative has always been the same—photograph subjects as objects to be gawked at, or make pictures that induce sympathy in the eyes of the viewer. We’ve been doing it largely because of the images that have been fed to us in the past, which then become benchmarks. I am in no way implying that we must stop photographing sadhus or issues like poverty, but what new are we bringing to the narrative and documentation of them?

What gives birth to originality anyway? Is it born out of a dearth of something? Or, is it a result of necessity, dictated by the changing social or political backdrop in the world? Think about it, there are more stories today based on identity and gender and mental health than ever before. However, not all of them are ‘original’. With the exception of the first individuals who brought the issue to the forefront, most of the ensuing stories are either similar in approach, or are renditions of the original. This brings me to my next point—The act of borrowing. We’ve been borrowing for centuries. It’s become an inevitable action. In fact, on account of the sheer volume of imagery that we are being exposed to today, the borrowing happens subconsciously. But there’s nothing wrong in borrowing. “We all owe something to Kertész,” Henri Cartier-Bresson had said of the prolific photographer who inspired several generations that came after him. The same can be said of Eugène Atget, and several other pioneers. What would street or documentary photography be without the two.

How much do we borrow though, and what extent of improvisation is enough to render a body of work original? How do you successfully make it your own? There isn’t one definite answer to this. However, a good place to start is looking at the intent behind wanting to create something new from something borrowed. How else do you think we progressed technologically? Because there were pioneers who constantly worked at improvising the camera and what it could and couldn’t do. The cellphone is its latest rendition, and the goal right now is to make it as proficient as a DSLR. So the process continues. “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to,” Jean-Luc Godard, the famed French-Swiss filmmaker had said.

I’d like to conclude with something that I had read in The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer. “Photographers sometimes take pictures of each other; occasionally they take pictures of each other at work; more usually they take photos or versions of each other’s work. Consciously or not, they are constantly in dialogue with their contemporaries and predecessors.”