As eager consumers of a domineering visual culture, we run the risk of being saturated by images. But some photographs manage to leave a mark, such as the two here that were published in the media even as citizens took to the streets spontaneously to protest against the spiralling, and unchecked, violence against women.
On the left is the photograph of the police unleashing water cannons on the protesters near the India Gate in New Delhi. The magnificent edifice looms, dwarfing the securitymen while street lights flicker under a gloomy sky. The power of the image lies in its ability to weave a narrative that remains independent of the immediate context. Symbolically, the photograph records the disturbing chronicle of a democratic State resorting to violent means to disperse citizen-protesters. Undoubtedly, it is the politics of the narrative that lends to the photograph its universal appeal. This, in turn, makes the geographical setting redundant. This photograph could thus be a record of events not just in Delhi, but also in Cairo, Damascus or Wall Street.
The other photograph shows five young men relaxing on a patch of grass. In front of them is the hunched figure of a young woman who — she has her back to the men — seems to be viewing something intently that lies at a distance. Two of the men seem to be following the woman’s gaze but the other three are watching her closely. Their gaze appears to be suggestive and predatory, thereby making the setting — an anti-rape demonstration in the capital — richly ironic.
Photo-journalism is supposed to be divested of either imagination or intent. It is perceived to be a visual archive representing hard facts. But what makes these two vignettes compelling is the embedded element of fantasy. It is this quality that gives the narrative of the first photograph the potential to transcend the strictures of space and time.
But, in the case of the photograph featuring the girl and the men, fantasy also reveals the complicatedness of the exchange between a viewer and a photograph. The power of projection is such that it entails the filtering of alternative narratives so as to make the viewer see what he expects to see. This particular image undoubtedly plants a seed of doubt in the mind of the viewer about the nature of the male gaze. But it could also be that in this instance the photograph merely acts as a catalyst to fan the imagination. Walter Benjamin’s comparison of photography with the notion of the “optical unconscious” — essentially a tool to illuminate elements that elude human sensory abilities — is challenged here by the fact that the space that remains out of the purview of sight is equally susceptible to the powers of imagination and association.
This tension also reveals a dilemma within photo-journalism itself. Given the pressure exercised on photo-journalism to be recognized as a form of art — thereby accommodating such dimensions as aesthetics and subjectivity — should this strand of photography renege on its claim of neutrality?