Imagery from the Unconscious: Conveying More by Saying Less

Photograph/Mahesh Bhat

Photograph/Mahesh Bhat

This story was originally published in July 2014.

Mahesh Bhat

Mahesh Bhat

How do we think pictures? How do we make pictures and why? What do we say with our pictures? Do we have to tell stories all the time? These questions have been swirling in my mind for quite some time now. Answers peek from the horizon just enough to make their presence felt, and vanish. Meanwhile,I have also been looking through my archives of negatives and transparencies from the last 26 years of shooting. I actually really liked many images from my very early photographic days (One of which is featured on this page. A photo from Mangalore, 1985, I like the image because it represents the ephemeral nature of life itself).

Almost all those images were done without any story to tell… they were just visual notes in the diary of a teenager. Did they mean anything? Where did those images come from? I don’t know. However, when I show them now, they trigger interesting feelings in the viewer. They were done at a time when there was no internet, no prizes to win, no assignments to go after, no editor to please, no curators talk to. 95% of our mind is in the unconscious realm of which we have little awareness, but it contains riches beyond imagination, says psychiatrist MM Scott Peck. I wonder if my early imagery came from the unconscious. Will we be better off if we make images from our unconscious?

When we are young and unencumbered, our imagination is fertile and knows no bounds. As we grow up, our worlds get boxed, get weighed down by expectations—our own, but largely formed by the thoughts and words from the environs around us. Our photographs become more tactile, more of something or someone. The moment we see an image, we want to know where it was taken. Of which place is it? What is it? Who is it? Explain, explain, cries our mind. I believe that we need to learn to see images and interpret them in our own way rather than being told everything about it. Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami says that he finds the obligation of telling a story an obstacle!

In a recent talk in Bangalore, Kenya Hara, a great designer from Japan, spoke about his philosophy of emptiness, derived from the architecture of Shinto Shrine. You plant four sticks on the corners to form a square, tie a rope around, put a roof on it and you have a Shinto shrine. “God may come in. ‘May’ is a very important word here,” he said. Photographer Uta Berth says that her work is like an empty receptacle onto which viewers project themselves.

I had interviewed photographer Hans Neleman for the first issue of LIGHT, a magazine on visual thinking I used to publish in the mid nineties. Talking about the new direction he was going into, he said, “It is as if I can say more with less…make a simpler statement with less..less..less.” I had also written to the great Irving Penn requesting for an interview. The single line in the fax I got from his studio manager read, “Mr Penn has said everything he has to say in his photographs, he doesn’t give any interviews.” Great  philosophy of a great photographer.

Back in the nineties, there was a project conducted, called Picture Mumbai—Landmarks of a New Generation. Funded by Getty Conservation institute, a group of children between the age of 12–18 photographed the city, armed with nothing more than point-and-shoot cameras and some extraordinary insights. They produced brilliant images. There was an exhibition and a book was produced. The images challenge readers’ conventional notions of landmarks and at the same time, invite people to consider how they are marked by the communities in which they live. I believe that only the raw visual minds of children could have produced such unique imagery. Another example of saying less and conveying so much more.

So I wonder in this day of digital-aided explosion of visual media, should we photograph less? Should we start saying more with less? Photography will triumph when it truly gets out of technicalities and when it’s not about cameras, lenses, digital/analogue and software. It was not so for Raghubir Singh, Irving Penn, Bruce Weber, Ernst Hass, Guy Bourdin, Skrebneski and several other masters. It will triumph when it reaches out to society, at large.

Let me reiterate that photojournalism and serious documentary photography are as relevant as they have always been. There is a need to tell stories that are generally not told. In a world overflowing with ephemeral TV footage, still, images stay in our minds and make an impact. However, there is a need to say little and convey more. To borrow a line from writer Joe Queenan this may help us to escape to a more exciting, more rewarding world of images.

About Mahesh Bhat
Mahesh Bhat’s photographs are full of stories, those of the people inside them, and also those that he will narrate, of the experiences he went through while making the photos. One such book of his, ‘UNSUNG’ (, pays tribute to people who have made extraordinary contributions to society against personal odds.

Tags: Visual Musings, Mahesh Bhat, Perspectives, Opinions