playing with memories

facts, fiction, and somewhere in between

Elemental Shift: socially-conscious collaborative craft project

‘Elemental Shift’ is a socially-conscious collaborative craft project by led Devina Salarpuria (StudioModa) which explores using ‘sheetal patti’ as a possible textile material for apparel / fashion.

Sheetal patti is made from grass/reed commonly found in marshes in the Tropics and used in crafting mats by rural artisans. These mats are, typically, used as heavy curtains to keep rooms cool during summer. In Hindi, ‘sheetal’ means cool and ‘patti’ stands for a strip of material.

‘Elemental Shift’ – the exhibition – at the Kolkata Centre for Creativity (KCC) is quite fabulous. The exhibits are produced by artisans from Cooch Behar, West Bengal, India.

Ms Salarpuria also asks ‘enquiring / introspective’ questions on ‘materiality’, with a focus on textiles, covering topics such as materials, designs, processes of creation and production, the creators (artisans), the heritage, lifestyles, technology, systems… with a keen mind’s eye on the future. Her collaborators include Emami Art, Kadam Haat, and The Space At 9/2.

More images on Instagram @socialmantraa.

A thousand words

If a picture is worth a thousand words, could photographs create a language of their own?

Photographic images are everywhere: photo albums at home, in our laptops and mobilephones; photos in newspapers and magazines and on websites; advertisements, posters and display material in stores, on the streets and elsewhere. They are on television and on the internet. They are in our text books, and on our social media profiles, passports, driver’s license and other documents that prove our identity.

A photograph is essentially a record of a (past) moment in reality, and is often stored for its ‘documentation’ and ‘recollection’ value. It also has value as evidence to prove authenticity, validity, genuineness, legitimacy, and remove ambiguity and doubt. It’s a representation of life, a thing, a thought, a place, a face, an idea, a happening or an event. I guess you get the picture!

Whether we look at a photograph as a mere objective record, or subjectively from a photographer’s point of view, we can’t deny the fact that a photograph carries meaning. It lends credibility to our memories. It speaks to us – often in a personal manner – and contributes significantly to our feelings, and to our perceptions of people, objects and the world around us.

Photographs are an essential part of our culture and they fascinate us. Many of us have produced – or continue to produce – photos of our own with our own cameras. These days, our smartphones with cameras make this act of photographing something or someone a lot easier. Photographs taken at intervals in our lives can be pieced together to tell us an entire story of a person, a place or an object – giving visual meaning to the words we read.

But, what about the actual act of photography? Why do we take photos? Why do we look at photos? Why do we share and discuss photographs or the photographers who have taken those photos? Why do we nurture our love for photos and photography in our minds and our hearts? Is it to fill in the missing pieces in our lives; to relive the joys, ecstasies, hurts, humour, happiness, anger, sadness… the feelings and sentiments of the original experience?

I don’t have answers to these questions. But, I believe there are personal, emotional, social, cultural and historical values to photographic images. We even attach these values to the photographs to make personal connections. So that every picture’s worth becomes a thousand words.

Objectivity and ethics

Objectivity is valued by photojournalists, but nothing replaces the ecstasy of an attention-grabbing, technically-pleasing photograph. It might even win an award – and fame for the photojournalist. Sometimes, this feeling can go to the head, and a photojournalist may adopt unethical means to get that “one brilliant shot” and catch the limelight.

That’s where the question of objectivity and ethics arises.

How cool, detached and objective should a photographer be to let a situation become visually dramatic, and not help a subject in physical trouble? Or, in an extreme case, should a photographer encourage subjects to become more violent during a demonstration so that a dramatic picture can be taken?

How far should a photographer go to take a memorable photo? How involved should a photojournalist be to bring to us truths we love to see in our newspapers and magazines?

Here are some examples from Paul Martin Lester’s Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach:

Let’s take the question of misrepresentation. Lewis Hine, at the turn of the century, posing as a company man, sneaked into a factory and took photographs of young, tired children working with dangerous machinery. When questioned for his actions, Hine replied, although it may be wrong to falsely represent himself, the greater injustice was the exploitation of children. And, he wanted the whole world to see that.

J Ross Baughman’s photographs of Rhodesian soldiers torturing their victims were withdrawn from the Overseas Press Club competition because of “so many unresolved questions about their authenticity.” Baughman, apparently, had worn a Rhodesian soldier’s uniform, carried a gun and joined a Rhodesian cavalry patrol for two weeks in order to get the pictures.

One school of thought suggests, “When a photographer misrepresents him- or herself and becomes a participant to violent actions, credibility should be severely questioned.”

Then there’s involvement. Bill Murphy took photographs of a man jumping to his death. He was criticised by readers for not helping to convince the man not to jump instead of taking photographs. Stormi Greene, while doing a story on families near the edge of serious abuse, was criticised for taking photographs of a mother spanking her child when she could have easily helped the mother with her work or by giving money. “The mother needed some help… not the documentation of her treatment of those poor kids on film.”

Is this what objectivity and ethics are all about? When taking that memorable shot, are news photographers completely without compassion?

When questioned, Murphy had confessed, “I did all I could” to persuade the man from jumping, and had to live in agony for years for this decision to shoot the pictures. Even Greener explained, “I was guilt-ridden and frustrated with the ethics that I had to live with, [but] the first rule of journalism is to divorce yourself from your subject… and do nothing but document and record…”

Would Greener have dropped her objectivity if the mother had severely beaten her child? Greener had asserted that, had the mother abused the child, she would have intervened.

Where does objectivity end and ethics take over? When does compassion override objectivity? There are limits to interpretations of objectivity and ethics. Photojournalists – and editors – ought to know that.

Lewis Hine child labour photographs can be found here.

J Ross Baughman Rhodesia photographs can be found here.

[Citation: Photojournalism: An Ethical Approach by Paul Martin Lester, originally published in 1991.]

Real or manufactured?

Many photojournalists ‘cross the line’ in order to get a great shot. They exaggerate or romanticise scenes and subjects to create a greater impact for their audience. When they should ‘capture’ the scene and report it as it is, sometimes, they go as far as to ‘create’ it, specifically asking subjects to pose for a picture… or allowing themselves to be manipulated by the subjects, who pose for the camera to justify their means.

If photojournalism is about finding and reporting the truth, then a posed picture – or one that exaggerates a scene or emotion – is a lie.

When we see a photograph on the front page of our morning newspaper, how can we be sure that the photograph is an accurate image of the event or scene being reported? How do we know if it is real, or manufactured? Does photojournalism correspond to the same standards of objectivity that guide news reports? Or does the medium, by its very nature, require artistic influence?

Some authorities say, for news photographs, photographers should abide by strict standards to ensure objectivity: there should be no intentional blurring or unusual composition or framing. Any scene that misleads the news consumer is a violation of photojournalistic ethics.

The New York Times, for example, had set its standard for the integrity of news photos: “Images in our pages that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene… Pictures of news situations must not be posed… And it also means that the journalism we practice daily must be beyond reproach.”

Of course, in these days of digital culture, with the internet, photoshopped images, edited videos and deepfakes, much of what I’ve written here has little meaning.

Restricted space

A photograph is also news. When it appears in newspapers and magazines, a photograph can have tremendous impact in shaping our views. Perhaps more impact than even words on headlines. And, by doing so, a photograph can influence our decisions, leaving lasting impressions of world or local events.

Yet, in many cases, a photographer as a journalist doesn’t have the freedom to place his or her photograph on the pages of newspapers and magazines. Is it an editorial decision that blocks the way? Sometimes yes; but not always so. There are other forces that determine which photographs end up on the covers of our newspapers and magazines.

Here are excerpts from war photography from an article ‘Calling the Shots’ by Paul Woolf:

“After Vietnam, the American government accused the media of causing it to lose not only the war itself but, perhaps more importantly, public support for the war. As far as the American government was concerned, photographs of Vietnamese children in agony, their skin flayed off by American napalm, were rather unhelpful.”

“The British were aware of this. When the Falklands War came along in 1982, Mrs Thatcher was keen not to make the same mistake that the Americans had made. So, she introduced the ‘pool system’. This saw the military choose – officially, at random – just a few journalists and photographers to be granted access to operations. These few then supplied all media organisations with their words and pictures.”

“In Gulf War Two, a new element was added to the ‘pool system’: the concept of ‘embedding’ selected journalists with the armed forces. While on the surface ‘embedding’ appears to give greater and closer access to what’s ‘really’ going on, in reality it gives the military an even greater control over what journalists and photojournalists can see and say. Any deviation from the official line, and the photographer or journalist is sent back to HQ.”

The concept: the government controls what’s ‘allowed out’. The result: fewer photographic viewpoints on an event.

Woolf says, “most photojournalists have not welcomed the ‘pool system’, nor the ‘embedding’. They feel that these systems curb their freedom to take photographs that, they believe, uncover the truth of a news story or an event.”

In fact, Woolf talks about Peter Turnley, an American photojournalist, who has broken away from this ‘restricted space’ to create his own. With help from www.digitaljournalist.org, Turnley has been able to showcase some of his outstanding photographs from the Iraq War. You can see these photographs here. To see more of Peter Turnley’s work visit his website.

These are uncertain times

“The consequences of our actions are always so complicated, so diverse, that predicting the future is a very difficult business indeed.”
– Professor Albus Dumbledore, speaking to Harry Potter about the Time-Turner at the end of J K Rowling’s book ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’

These are uncertain times in India. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes a hard stance against farmer protests in India and completely ignores the threat of the coronavirus pandemic and the failing economy, Indian citizens are turning to each other to borrow money in order to reduce their family’s suffering. Unemployment is high; micro-and-small businesses have collapsed; office workers have to contend with pay cuts or the loss of their jobs; and work-from-home executives have begun to feel trapped in a digital surreal world.

For those who can afford them, mobilephones, computers and TV screens are a constant in their lives. It’s like ‘Black Mirror’ – Charlie Brooker’s dystopian TV series from nine years ago. As usual, the poor in India and their needs are ignored; they are made invisible by the choices we are making collectively. We can’t believe the hype about India’s digital citizens – half the population of India doesn’t have internet connectivity. In the rural hinterland, many don’t have electricity either. There are other more serious problems the government is oblivious of: poverty, hunger, income equality.

Business organisations are busy dodging in and out of various corporate ‘measures’ to meet the needs of their future. Restructuring, reorganising, rebuilding and rationalising have been in full swing for the past few months, since the economy started reopening in August last year. A friend in a senior position in a blue chip company called to reiterate that the economic downturn has come down hard on his company. Existing clients have delayed their renewals or renewed their contracts at substantially lower fees; prospects have either walked away or are delaying their decisions to purchase; and a few projects have been abandoned under a credit squeeze.

The demand for, and hence the value of, every type of asset (including intellectual property) is falling and it is uncertain if this trend will be reversed soon. This fall in demand is creating a downward pressure on incomes from those assets, leading to losses in businesses, jobs and demand for talent. An artist I met recently is selling her paintings at one-third of what similar paintings have fetched her two years ago. These trends are steering economies towards a world of unhappy minds and empty stomachs. The heartbreak for most people is the fact that nobody seems to be able to predict an accurate picture of what lies ahead.

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