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Pensive Pictures in the Age of the Digital Dazzle
by Manjari Kaul

 Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes but when it is pensive, when it thinks.                      

-Roland Barthes

While the print exhibitions at the Delhi Photo Festival 2011 presented several interpretations of the idea of ‘affinity’ (the theme of the exhibition), the digital exhibitions, slideshows and interactive talks spurred on a dialogue between the socio-political implication and the practice of photography. In these discussions photography was viewed through the lenses of craft, archive, evidence, memory, document, representation, witness, chronicle, medium, mediator and a means to evaluate the world around oneself. An interesting interlocution between the realm of technique and the field of meaning generated in the production of a photograph was witnessed in the multimedia projects curated by Mansi Midha. Her choice of projects, each a photojournalistic piece, analyses, through its subject matter, life on the edge and the imperative of a tip-over.

Photography, since its inception, has long been burdened by its complex relationship to truth and objectivity.  Photographs have understandably played a dominant role in reporting.  Yet the media-saturated age where everyone has a camera as an essential gadget or at least as a device on their phones, has made the definition of photojournalism a bit foggy. Photographs in their abundance have ceased to make a camera seem like a neutral chronicler. This does not mean photojournalism now runs into jeopardized territory; instead, photojournalism must be seen as a critical intervention, a choice of frame that the journalist makes. There is no one comprehensive truth that a photograph can tell you, as the way an image would rightfully be interpreted depends on several initial conditions such as lighting, camera angle, printing, style, retouching, cropping and labeling. Furthermore, photojournalism has the power not just to emotionally stir people but to cause political agitation and make history. Nick Ut’s photograph of the scared naked girl running on the road with other children in the Vietnam War, and those from the Abu Ghraib prison are an example of photographs posing as documentary evidence that succeed in galvanizing political and legal intervention.

At the Delhi Photo Festival, Mansi Midha presented a collation of four multimedia projects.  Three of them were focused on the issue of workers and their hazardous working conditions and the last was an autoethnographic study of sorts that portrayed the relationship of the artist with her mother as the latter gradually slips into dementia.

The first photojournalist Midha exhibited was Michael Robinson Chavez. Chavez sets up his tripod at 5400 meters above sea level in Rinconada, Peru, the site of a gold mine situated amid steep mountains and shifting glaciers. Dangers lurk both outside and inside the mines (cave-ins, deadly gases and drunken brawls) yet the number of people seeking jobs in the mines are only increasing with every passing year. Few cities in Peru offer such good earnings, which has led doctors and engineers to leave their job and toil at the mines in Rinconada. Chavez's multimedia report, La Rinconada strikes a delicate balance between what is known as journalistic objectivity and a humane artistic involvement in his subject. His monochrome pictures speak subtly and sum up profound complexities in a frame - long shots of people visible as little specks, undertaking perilous journeys on the monstrous mountains; miners with the beams of their helmet-lights crisscrossing, eating a meal within the suffocatingly black walls of the mine; children in school uniform, raising a solemn concern about how the next generation will manage to rise from this mire. The soggy, polluted roads and cramped living spaces form a sordid picture of what is a promise of riches in Peru. In this piece, Chavez includes interviews with a wide range of people, ranging from an old worker in the mines to the manager of the only school in the city.  There is a dreariness in each subject’s outlook which Chavez threads together to evoke a sense of place.

Henrik Kastenskov tells a similar story in his multimedia project. His is based in the Maldives, one of the most popular holiday spots for the wealthy.  In Postcard from Paradise, Kastenskov investigates the failed garbage management system in the Maldives that is adversely affecting not just the marine life but those workers who clear that garbage. Inhaling toxic gases produced from the garbage leaves the garbage cleaners sick with hardly any respite. This poisonous side to luxury is created by Kastenskov carefully as he juxtaposes the picturesque tourist haven with the trash underbelly that never finds its way into postcards from the Maldives. 

Sayan Dutta's piece, For my children, tells the poignant tale of the construction workers who lay down the brick and mortar for a building yet never get to partake in the credit of building it. He captures their aspirations, their experiences of migrating away from their homelands, their daily toil, even the ring of their mobile phones. The artist compels his audience to look at the often silenced side of 'development' and 'progress.'  Shots of buildings under construction, their makeshift shacks, cement sacks and other construction material, express the sweat and travails of the workers who live among them. Dutta attempts no romanticism, instead his images are grimy like the working conditions of his subjects. For my children raises questions around home and livelihood for the migrant worker, the urban poor who are shoved into invisible corners of the city so they don't muck up the perfect story of progress.

The last multimedia piece incorporated by Midha is called Madge has Dementia. The work, by Maggie Steber, draws on the paradoxical coexistence of memory and forgetting that is linked to photography. Steber says, 'Memories are like the fireflies that I used to catch in a jar on a summer's evening as a kid. They made a bright lantern I used to find my way home.' The artist takes pictures of her aging mother as she slips into schizophrenia. Her pictures play the role of preserving and embalming the past and also create new memories. As she takes pictures of her mother doing different things and in different moods, she creates a commentary on not only her mother finding a new identity but on how photographs of oneself and those close to you can function as autoethnography.

Paul Lester, in Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach, noted about photojournalism that, 'The taking of images is much more than F stops, shutter speeds. The printing of pictures is much more than chemical temperatures and contrast grades. The publishing of pictures is much more than cropping and size decisions.' Mansi Midha puts together multimedia works that are not sensational journalistic pieces but works that think, critique and question. These artists  create a dialogue between the subject and the medium. They diverge from the beaten path of journalists who aim to inspire shock and awe. Instead, they bring forth their own subjectivity and style in an attempt to use photography as an instrument of social critique and change, a revival of humanness.

-- Manjari Kaul, a writer living in New Delhi.

Posted by Manjari Kaul on 11/13/11 | tags: photography

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