Wow! Yuck! Butt Why?
The yoga guru turned upside down, and with it, so did social media. But how does one even react to a photograph like this? The photographer Bandeep Singh offers his perspective on the image he shot.
The dharma of imagemaking is to pierce the eye. To perforate all the information that blinds our response to visual stimuli. A magazine cover image has to go a bit further. It has to also trigger the brain to reach out for the wallet and buy that issue. My arrowhead, in this instance, was the face of Baba Ramdev. Now when your cover portrait subject is not only one of India’s most well known celebrities but also one of the most distinct and the most visible ones, you start off with a disadvantage—a very heavy arrow! How do you show him differently in order to get people to open their mouth in surprise and not to yawn? My move was to place the face of Baba Ramdev in an unusual anatomical arrangement. His profession and expertise as a yoga guru permits that ‘stance’ logically as well as physiologically. That he has turned norms of both business and spirituality upside down, was the larger concept. The image appeared on the cover of India Today last week. The deluge of reactions on social media suggests that the arrow did hit home. Or did it? And what home?
The gamut of reactions include a flood of memes, witty satirical humor, gushing kudos, loud disgust , downright ridicule, a conspicuous silence from many of my photographic kin, compliments, appreciation and also indignation. All this happened in such high pitched amplification—on Twitter timelines, Facebook threads, online content sites, TV news, public discussions, Whatsapp shares and so on. It was like sending your child to school and finding out when you go to pick him back, that he has performed some act of monumental notoriety—kissed the head girl or something like that. The volume and the kind of reactions have diminished my connect with the image, to the point of giving it a life of its own. First, this hits you like a shock (what the #@$%!) , which turns to gratification (my image…!!!!). And when gratification brims over the size of your ego (what the hell?), it turns into reflection. This is the point from where I am writing right now.
Looking at the flood of response from this slightly distant perspective throws up some interesting observations. The cover photo is largely precipitating reactions against Baba Ramdev rather than evoking Bandeep Singh comments on the image itself. If we follow the trolls, they are originating from three trigger points: the surprising posture, the body hair of Baba Ramdev and most strongly, Baba Ramdev’s butt.
The picture is composed with the idea to lead the eye directly towards the face. The head is placed at the locus of the geometric as well as the perspective centre of the image. The lighting is optimised for the face looking through the legs. The halo on the dark background is also centred behind the head. I was aware that the ‘in-your-face’ butt could get too much attention—to diminish that, I cut the lighting to create a shadow on it and also cut the saffron of the loincloth. But I have to admit that all my compositional attempts were clearly defeated by the mass national obsession with the posterior. In the image of a fifty year old man’s skill of creating perfect geometry in a yogic posture, what most people just saw was Baba Ramdev’s butt…
But then… these people have seen the naked Naga Sadhus, Digambar monks and more commonly the akhara pehelwans in their langots. So what is it about Baba Ramdev that invokes this disgust? Is it that he does not remain in the quarter that we wish to confine and label him? Disgust, then, becomes a mechanism to create a distance with him. He is, in many ways, ‘not so cool’—a giggly, winky, Haryanvi-accented straight talker who comes across even more abrasive because of his strong views especially on issues like homosexuality , sex education and his often impulsive political comments. Add to that the Vedic idealisation, the saffron garb of the sadhu and he begins to appear a poster figure for the right wing. As that, he occupies a radical position which has its own army of haters—the ‘cringe’ brigade. This group is most offended by this image because it compels the eye to look at its subject. The more the eye lingers on the image, the more is the cringe. A journalist friend’s reaction to the image on Facebook sums up this reaction in just two words—“Wow… yuck.”
And then the subtext kicks in. The photograph is on the cover of the latest issue of India Today magazine, with a headline that says ‘Power Yogi’! It is about his achievement— the phenomenal rise of Patanjali— being seen as the success story of the decade. That is certainly not Yuck! … but how to distance oneself from that… oh “the Butt!” that’s disgusting!
Bandeep Singh is a reputed editorial photographer known for his impactful portraits and concept-driven photographs. He is currently working as the Group Photo Editor of India Today Group. A recipient of the Charles Wallace Trust Award in photography, he was formerly the Photo Editor of Fortune India.
August 2016, Baba Ramdev, Bandeep Singh, Cover, india today, Perspectives, Visual Musings