The untimely wind and rain that swept through the opening week of the Delhi Photo Festival this year suddenly brought into the midst of all its bonhomie and camaraderie something difficult and unexpected. In a digital age, it is easy to forget that photography could be made of fragile stuff — paper and ink, for instance. Those defiantly beautiful men and women shot by the late Prabuddha Dasgupta — installed alfresco at the heart of the festival to embody this year’s theme, Grace — began to look exposed in quite another sense.
Yet, how does one bring a vital difficulty back into the heart of a medium as naturally contemporary, democratic and ubiquitous as photography? All of us can do it, more and more easily, and it is everywhere around us. So, how can standards of photographic excellence be created, taught and maintained in today’s visually saturated world? This is a question that should continue to haunt events like this, especially because photographers — unlike writers or philosophers — tend to hang out together, only to realise at some point that collectivity cannot replace the solitude demanded by the pursuit of excellence. In the course of the opening week, as I met young people drawn to the infectious energy of the festival, I saw this fact dawning on some of them with an unsettling inevitability.
It was especially during the day-long portfolio review that I realised where most of the work needed to be done, in order to change certain habits of behaviour and thought. For most young people who have taught themselves to use a camera, photography still means, and often stops at, taking lots of impressive pictures. (“Happy Clicking!” wished the editorial of an art magazine’s special photography issue launched at the festival.) So, once the clicking is over, there arises the problem of what to do with the abundant fruits of one’s clicking — how to put it all together into coherent and meaningful bodies of work. And the answers do not come out of an expensive camera or clever software.
Most photographers depend, therefore, on their gallerists or publishers to edit their work, and do not see the work of editing as integral to their own creative, documentary or archival practice. Yet, sitting down with one’s images, sifting through them, thinking into and around them, should really form the bulk of a photographer’s work. It is this process that requires all the resources of the eye, mind and heart. It is at this stage that the photographer’s interior worlds of intuition, thought and feeling have to push the limits of the medium through continual self-invention.
A sharp little twist was given to this problem by the historian of photography, Sabeena Gadihoke, during the launch of Nony Singh: The Archivist at the festival. “Men photograph, and women edit,” she said to the audience, subtly prodding them to reflect on the intellectual limits of photography’s unquestioned machismo. The cultivation of introspection and subjectivity was also at the core of the inaugural lecture delivered by Urs Stahel, founder and former director of the Fotomuseum at Winterthur in Switzerland. “Radicalise your shyness instead of trying to cover it up with confidence,” I overheard Urs saying to a young photographer while reviewing his portfolio, “let your work emanate from that shyness, so that what you are fighting against turns into an advantage.”
It was, however, far away from the buzz of the main festival, at a ‘partner exhibition’ in a beautifully dated gallery at the Jamia Millia Islamia, that I found myself being brought back to the roots of photography, in all its richly moving ordinariness: the pathos and strangeness of Time, in which looking, thinking and feeling come together in a myriad arrangement of images.
Photography as Archive: A Student Perspective — curated by Sohail Akbar and Gadihoke — brought together, in finely edited panels, the family albums and neighbourhood studio archives of some of the students at Jamia’s AJK Mass Communication Research Centre. It reminded me of what photography must hold on to, in spite of the pulls and pressures of technology, theory and art — the slow time of a secret life, which fuses fiction, fantasy and truth, and where all the ladders start.