Layers of Meaning
This article was originally published in September 2014.
Imagine receiving a special gift from someone close to you… not as a present for a certain occasion, just something that someone decided to give you, out of the blue. These sort of gifts are truly enjoyable because the intent, if there is one, is to simply make the giver happy.
So you receive the gift and open it forthwith, because you are curious. After all, someone who gives you such a gift knows you well, and therefore, would put some thought into it. Or it could be that you want to show your gratitude by being immediately appreciative. On the other hand, you may decide to prolong the anticipation and open it later, in a quieter moment, and introspect.
Opening a gift begins with the manner of its presentation. The packaging may be gracious in its plainness, or complicated, gaudy and rich. It may consist of several layers—with string or ribbon instead of Sellotape, a wrapping made of coarse brown paper or glazed marble sheets with perfectly sharp creases, a box within it, and inside the box, a tracing paper or a polythene bag or a Styrofoam mould containing your gift. If you think about it, the joy of a gift is not merely about the object in the centre of the packaging, but also about the understanding and effort with which the giver has presented it.
Now, think of the giver as the photographer, the gift as the moment, with you as the viewer. Photography is a beautiful art. Regardless of how technically inept a photographer may be, the motives for making pictures are rarely questionable. But yet, what counts is the sentiment behind an image, and the layers of meaning that a photographer is able to instill, just like a gift.
For instance, take the ‘Afghan Girl’ photograph by Steve McCurry. What is the very first thing that draws your attention? Her eyes? What do they convey? Apprehension? Surprise? A hint of anger at being intruded upon? Look at her for a little longer. She is a very pretty girl. But why is her head covering ragged and torn? Why is her hair unkempt? When was the picture taken? Who is she? Where is she? What is her story? Look longer. Notice the economy of colour, exposure, gradation, contrast, and sharpness.
Now… close your eyes and imagine the photograph. Do you remember the colour of her eyes?
— K Madhavan Pillai
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