Photography, Development and Cultural Power

Culture glides through peoples' consciousness, breaking along its banks, accumulating and depositing silt, meandering through paths of least resistance, changing route, drying up, spilling its banks, forever flowing like a great river. Islands form and are washed away. Isolated pockets get left behind. It nurtures, nourishes and destroys. Ideas move with the wind and the currents and the countercurrents. Trends change, flowing mostly with the current of dominant culture. A few swim against this current, while others get trapped in ox-bow lakes, isolated from the mainstream.

Photography, more than any other media or art form has influenced culture. Photographs in particular take on the dual responsibility of being bearers of evidence and conveyers of passion. The irrelevant discussion of whether photography is art, has sidelined the debate from the more crucial one of its power to validate history and to create a powerful emotional response, thereby influencing public opinion. The more recent discussions, and fears, have centred around the computer's ability to manipulate images, subsuming the more important realisation that photographs largely are manufactured by the image industry. One that is increasingly owned by a corporate world. The implied veracity of the still image and its perceived ability to represent the truth, hides the ubiquitous, and less perceptible manipulation enabled by photographic and editorial viewpoint. Not only can we no longer believe that the photograph cannot lie, we now need to contend with the situation that liars may own television channels and newspapers and be the leaders of nations. Given the enormous visual reach that the new technology provides, the ability to lie, is far greater than has ever been before. Photography has become the most powerful tool in the manufacturing of consent, and it remains to be seen whether photographers can rise above the role of being cogs in this propaganda machine and become the voice for the voiceless.

The birth of photography parallels a move by colonizers to dominate the globe and the colonisers used photography extensively to reinforce this new world order. The colonisation of our visual space has since become merged with two words; Development and Civilization, while a new word is pushing to join the ranks, 'Globalisation'. Photography is particularly relevant to this understanding, as globalisation's reach allows photography to manifest itself. As consumers of images, we become the human carriers of culture, inevitably shaped by those who control the world of images.

Wide angle b/w shots, grainy, high contrast images characterize the typical majority world helpless victim. Huge billboards with a dying malnourished child in a corner with outstretched arms. A clear message in polished bold font in the top left corner cleverly left blank. The message reads, "We shall always be there." A reality constructed for and by those who want us to forget the implications. That "you (the majority world) shall always be there."

On the other hand, the orient and its misery has been romanticised. Typecasting in Algerian postcards required little more than swapping captions under the photographs of the same model. She was after all, what you wanted her to be. Voluptuous, exotic, demure, enticing, above all she was there as a still life, ready to be consumed. Much like the rest of the 'orient'.

Photographers in the majority world, and those in Drik and Pathshala in particular, have used the same medium to try and turn this process around. They have shown "The Pleasure of Life" of people whom a materialist world would consider to be incapable of experiencing joy. They have looked at water, not as a source of floods and disasters, but as a source of life. They have celebrated the craft of the artisan and rejoiced in the music of the Bauls. Through photography, they have re-appropriated their cultural heritage.

By : Shahidul Alam, Drik, 18 July 2002


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