Examining Perspective & History of the Photograph
This story was originally published in March 2013.
Around Christmas Eve, last year, similar photographs surfaced in newspapers and magazines across the country. Most captions read as ‘Anti-rape protest turns violent, police forces attacked’ / ‘Protesters turn violent, police forces attacked’. As the author of the above photograph and a witness to the events that unfolded on the 22nd and the 23rd in Delhi, here is my caption—‘A protester hurls back a teargas shell thrown at him’.
Do the captions evoke a similar response or do they build upon distinct perspectives? More importantly, which is the one you trust?
Putting ‘Perspective’ in Perspective!
Simply put, perspective means a view, which is an integral part of a photo. Trouble starts brewing when perspective becomes the photograph itself. Every now and then, at exhibitions and slideshows, I hear photographers say this is my perspective, my way of looking at things. Mostly, they evoke this argument when they wish to conveniently bow out of debates and discussions probing the nature of their works.
A more rigorous examination of the statement reveals a disregard for visual reciprocity, hence undermining the role of the viewer. This power struggle results in a bipolar reading of a photograph – either it is met with great distrust and cynicism or is accepted as an absolute truth. In both scenarios, there is no space left for the multiplicity of viewpoint—the notion that no single point of view is the complete truth. A viewpoint accepts its specific spatial and temporal nature and acknowledges the possibility of other opinions existing simultaneously; thereby creating space for dissent and dialogue, rebellion and reconciliation.
Whose History is it Anyway?
In 2011, at a slideshow in Delhi, a respected photojournalist shared his documentation of the Maoist insurgency in Central India. In the tightly packed room, I was standing next to the two attendants responsible for managing the logistics. My weakness for whispers and murmurs led me to eavesdrop on their conversation. “He is talking about the armed forces and the Maoists, but why isn’t he talking about us? The common man who inadvertently becomes a victim of this power struggle; do we not exist?” The photographer was speaking in English, a language that these two men from Chhattisgarh did not understand. But they understood the language of his photographs, the slant in his work. They could not locate themselves in the history that he was etching with his images.
A photograph is an object of the past that is rooted in the present and projects itself onto the future. The being of a photograph encompasses all the three tenses, thereby making it both powerful and problematic. With every photograph that we make in the present, we etch a certain past, from the reading of which, a certain future will evolve. What we need to realise is that this past is, but a selective recollection of what occurred. It is a part/fragment (of a larger whole) that survived. It is not the whole in itself.
Let us ponder over the visual archives of the Indian Independence Struggle—most photographs that one can recall are of stalwarts like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel. But what about the common man who rallied behind them? The countless freedom fighters whose stories went untold? These courageous men and women came from different walks of life—they were farmers, carpenters, milkmen, maids, homemakers, students, unemployed youth etc. By overlooking their role, these celebrated archives etch a history that is no less than a spectacle for the common man who will always locate himself outside this illustrious past. And people who find themselves excluded from history, have no say in the present. They are the unknown citizens who are reduced to statistics in government records, who perish on the fringes.
Let’s Accept our Limitations
We need to realise that for every story that is told, countless go untold. They existed, but we lost them to the limitation of the medium and the very paradigm of storytelling. Let us be careful of the words we chose – an expression like ‘unique perspective’ is not only misleading, it is divisive and undemocratic. As John Berger lucidly puts it, “To whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong? To those who can apply it to their own lives or to a cultural hierarchy of relic specialists?” The next time you go to an opening, look into the eyes of the men who serve you with wine and cheese. And in them, you may see how vulnerable, how left out they feel in a space reeking with freedom of expression.
Freedom is not a right, it is a responsibility. Create with empathy, as your freedom can infringe upon someone else’s liberty.
About Chandan Gomes
Chandan Gomes makes photos for a living. At 23, he became the youngest recipient of the prestigious India Habitat Centre Fellowship for Photography in 2011. A philosophy student, he enjoys writing on the medium. He lives in an eclectic Old Delhi neighbourhood, nestled in Mughal garden built by Aurangzeb’s sister, Roshanara.