Are photographs by the visually impaired a floundering paradox or a staggering achievement, asks Aditi Saxton
EVERY TIME I look at art that doesn’t flaunt its technical virtuosity, the first flutter of the gut has to be quelled, a niggardly instinct claiming, well, I could do that. Because, of course, I didn’t do it. There’s also a belated recognition that this isn’t the affirming rally cry of the “Yes, We Can” variety, of collective goodwill which spirals out. Rather, it funnels in till my every potentially perfect self reflects benign and beatific in facing mirrors, till the whole crinkled and coruscated world can fit in the folds of my navel. So when Partho Bhowmick mounts Wide Eye Open, an exhibition of photographs taken by the visually impaired, the first inversion is of the id-enabled premise. Not one of these photographers set out thinking they could. That they each did, that they had the strength to force a moment to its crisis, is heady stuff.
At the Alliance Française de Delhi gallery, where the photographs are on display, the muted but repeated response is “this is actually, quite good.” As an aggregate reaction to the 50 odd pictures, made by perhaps 15 contributors over half a dozen years, it could be interpreted in two ways. The singularly judgemental read, even without the qualifiers, is that it’s a placidly patronising knee-jerk, the Oscar Pistorius-conditioned reflex. In that diminished Weltanschauung if a man racing without legs can compete in the Olympics then no one needs any special dispensations. With camera subbed in as a high-tech prosthesis (incidentally, also Iron Man’s description of his superhero suit) the photographs should achieve something, demonstrate their capability. The kicker about disability though, is that it isn’t exactly a golf handicap assessable with a set of convoluted but strict rules. It can’t necessarily be levelled on the playing field by some superlative exertion of willpower or as the able-bodied sometimes glibly assume, by a compensatory attribute; heightened hearing, say, to offset an absence of vision.
A more charitable explanation for the notbad/ quite-nice reception is that it’s rote for amateur work. After reading about blind French photographer Evgen Bavcar, Bhowmick had his aha moment and since 2006 has helmed the organisation Blind with Camera (blindwithcamera.org), which runs workshops across the country. While many of his students have persisted with photography and some, like the Mumbai solicitor Kanchan Pamanani, evinced an interest that predates the classes, theirs is not yet an effort sustained over a lifetime of learning. Because it’s not a solo show, presented solely as art, the weight of the work shifts squarely to the viewer. The so-called sensitised response to photographs conceived and executed sight unseen could be the attempt to see them as they were made — with four fully functioning senses instead of five.
A viewer undirected by signposts, in spirit, gropes for modicums of meaning as the photographer looks for expression
As visually obsessed primates who make series of cognitive decisions, often only on optical cues, this is tougher than it appears. In the anchoring photo of the exhibition, a boy rides a bicycle blithely down Mumbai’s Marine Drive embankment. The sea and skyscrapers beyond are shrouded in their urban haze and his slight figure, bony brown arms, bright blue shirt and shorts freewheel against the filmy gray. The photographer Ravi Thakur, we learn from the accompanying legend, was born blind, and “followed the direction of the sound of a cycle in motion but initially… was confused by the sound of the sea.” If intended as a feat, the incredible perspicacity of gauging movement minus sight, it is successful even in freeze frame. That a splash of waves and a swish of wheels are hard to tell apart is an enclosed poetic nugget. Why then does colour dominate a photograph determined audibly?
It’s one conundrum of a complicated set. A grouping of work under the umbrella of ‘visually-impaired’ clumps distinctions between born blind, late blind and partially sighted. Even those are unspecific, subtly hierarchical categories. As a curatorial attempt, the exhibition fumbles awkwardly for a coherent statement, settling finally on the basest of formulae — academic jargon. “By demystifying the polarity between blindness and visual expression, it interrupts the monocular perception and point of view of the sight and enriches photography by another approach, another gaze.” Which is a lot of sound without fury, signifying less.
This is actually, quite good. Viewers undirected by signposts are, in spirit, groping for modicums of meaning as the photographers look for expression. Then, a photo of a louvred door by Mahesh Umrannia (who lost his vision completely at the age of nine), bolted and padlocked and in tight close-up so that the hinges and jambs aren’t visible, needn’t be squeezed into a metonym for blindness. The black and white image, barely leavened by a spill of sepia stains like a faint memory running down the slats, isn’t a comment on his condition. The three inch black border with a net area larger than the inset photo doesn’t have to be a band of mourning. It can be any and all of these things. Or it could be a small staged rebellion against modern conventions which deem that photos shouldn’t be so very literal.
THE PHOTOS aren’t effective as acts of resistance, they seem glad to stay within NGO parameters of empowerment. The happy coincidence is that wearily familiar photogenic scenes improve in context — a kit of pigeons fluttering at dusk isn’t a cacophony of the rats of the sky, moss growing on schist isn’t scummy like stock photographs are. Bhowmick’s project transpired from Evgen Bavcar’s work but it isn’t really inspired by Bavcar’s constructed and controlled exposures, where every shade of light has the significance it would in a Vermeer painting. Even the evident tribute, hands pressed up against a wall montage of negatives, the reverse images themselves of hands manipulating negatives through a darkroom alchemy, has the scaffolding without the structure. Ultimately, as an exhibition it’s a worthy attempt, heroic even. As art, it is what you make of it.
Wide Eye Open is on view at the Galerie Romain Rolland, Alliance Française de Delhi till October 18, 2012
Aditi Saxton is Features Editor, Tehelka.