Why Photography? Why Photograph?


A simple lesson was reiterated a few weeks ago. It wasn’t in words and it wasn’t meant to be a lesson, but I found myself thinking about it quite a lot since then. Who indeed is a photographer? And why photography, and why photograph?

For those not entrenched in deep practice, and especially for those who make a living immediately through photography, these questions come as reminders of the doubts that arise regarding the profession and the art. I have yet to come across someone who has not questioned their choices, at least a few times along the way. The pandemic and the environment it has created caused more than just the loss of business for many. There was a pervasive ambiguity and loss in value that peaked during this time. But more than this, I believe there was also a crisis of identity and faith that was long brewing for many photographers, especially for the ones who also shouldered familial responsibilities. Identity… because of a dilution or a spreading of interests among the audience, that also eventually affected incomes. There is no one single force behind this, but if one decided to study it, I believe a more ‘connected’, or rather, disconnected, screen-involved society would undoubtedly be a big factor. Faith… which conscientious, thoughtful individual (as a lot of photographers tend to be) would not question things intellectually, spiritually, even existentially these days?

This is one of the big reasons why I personally resonated with Chennai Photo Biennale’s theme for this edition, Maps of Disquiet. For those of you who have not visited the online galleries or attended the screenings of this edition’s Chennai Photo Biennale, they are on till the end of this month. The core team of CPB have done an admirable job of curation and bringing things together. To whet your appetite, to do some seeking, and as a permanent record for your collection, this issue gives a glimpse into some of the exhibits and delves into the thoughts of ten of the exhibiting photographers.

Back to the lesson. My cousin got married in the middle of January, in what was a exhilarating but hugely eventful wedding. With only close family and friends attending, the wedding was in at an almost empty resort at a beautiful, secluded hill station. A photographer with a bunch of assistants was commissioned to make the wedding photographs. I decided to make some photos too. As luck would have it, just the evening before the wedding ceremony, the bride’s older sister, my cousin, fell and broke her leg. The rural clinic there slapped on a plaster to immobilise her leg, and she decided to be brave and somehow attend the wedding ceremony the next day, despite the pain, before going back to Mumbai for surgery. Being very close to my cousin, and in the knowledge that there was, after all, other photographers to make pictures, I resigned myself to not shooting at all, and was with her almost throughout, to help her attend the wedding as comfortably as possible.

Through it all, from well before travelling to the wedding destination, my father was incessantly capturing everything on his phone. He has always been involved with photography all his life, but at 84 years, and with his eyes severely impaired with vision loss, it was difficult. Upon his request, I had put in a new memory card in his phone, to accommodate the photos, short video and audio recordings. Many times, while he was shooting, I reminded him that there were other photographers and he could enjoy the wedding instead of being so engrossed in making pictures. But he continued to photograph and record. Upon returning to Mumbai, and after my cousin was admitted into the hospital, I took a look at the photographs he made.

The images took my breath away. There were over 8000 photographs, and several hundred short videos. It was not about the quantity of it all. The photos and videos were with a cellphone and there were many blurry and grainy images. Many images were framed badly because of his vision issues. But he also captured some very precious moments with an obviously sensitive, personal eye, that made all the difference to the joy visible in each frame. He did it despite his age related difficulties and vision issues, and despite several people telling him, out of concern and with some irritation, not to take the effort. He also recorded the entire unfortunate episode with the bride’s sister. This was especially moving because the commissioned photographer, with all the photographic assistants and all that gear, for some reason, did not get a single frame to tell that part of the story.

“That’s my final wedding present,” Dad announced. One particular image shows my hand holding the makeshift dupatta sling with my cousins leg in the foreground, with the bride and groom partaking in their pheras in the background. It was a lesson in humility as much as a lesson in photography. Who indeed is a photographer? Why photograph? Why photography? The answers were all there.

This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Better Photography.