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- The delicate balance of power between photographer and subject

One of the significant changes that the ownership of brownie cameras brought was the growth of on-location photography by amateurs. While, by the 1860s, the more affluent had been able to afford the services of photographers to shoot domestic scenes and family events as well as picnics, shikars and important institutional events, there was a major difference between these carefully arranged occasions and the wanderings of shutter-happy non-professionals. Apart from differences in quality and composition of images, the emerging genre of tourist photographs paid scant heed to the sentiments of subjects. This was not the case of commissioned images, where there was precise negotiation between the photographic establishment and the client. On the other hand, when those commissioning were in positions of power, anonymity or even effacement of identity were hardly issues worth bothering about. A case in point is the People of India series initiated by Lord Canning in the 1860s: subjects were typecast by occupation — washerman, ayah and so on — rather than by name. Some, though unwilling, shy or frightened, had little option but to comply. The ethnographic photograph became a part of the colonial apparatus of classification and categorization.

Here, indifference to the subject’s feelings found reflection in the amateur who proudly showcased her or his booty of people and places, rarely pausing to ask for permission or names. This trend continued well into the 20th century — and not among amateurs alone.

In the late 1930s, the anthropologists, Margaret Mead, Geoffrey Bateson and other members of their team, conducted a massive study based in and around Bali, their fieldwork notes and analyses matched by thousands of feet of film and 38,000 photographs. Of these, 759 were selected for Balinese Character (1942), a joint study by the husband-wife duo. Clearly, the publication introduced a unique dimension, that of the visual in the recording and presentation of ethnological data. Although other anthropologists had started using the camera, Mead and her team were far ahead. Not long before she died in 1978, she regretted that field workers continued to rely on “the hopelessly inadequate note-taking of an earlier generation of an earlier age” with “no equipment beyond a pencil and a notebook”. For Mead, arguments that photography required a certain artistic skill and that the process of filming was expensive were specious and she added quite unequivocally, “I think that we must squarely face the fact that we, as a discipline, have only ourselves to blame for our gross and dreadful negligence.” Imagine, she wrote that film could have “caught and preserved for centuries” dances, a ritual performed perhaps for the last time, animal sacrifices and so on. These would be “for the illumination of future generations of human scientists”, memorialized on film, before it all “disappears — disappears in front of everybody’s eyes. Why? What has gone wrong?” she asked accusingly. Margaret Mead obviously did not think it was necessary to deal with the ethical issues of photographing those who had little interest or stake in a project in which their ‘participation’ as subjects was vital.

A decade or so later, the subject-object divide was to become a live and tendentious issue. Recently, the social anthropologist, Christopher Pinney, well-known for his prodigious and unique work with the colonial photograph, pointed out that Mead and Bateson had used the camera without asking for permission from their subjects, often using “an angular viewfinder to record their subjects unaware”. In his Photography and Anthropology, while he encourages the reader to view the camera not as an invasive instrument of oppression, his description of the early anthropological photograph provides insights into how closely linked the new technology was to colonial practice. The first men in the field (Mead was the earliest woman in a male-dominated area) were primarily concerned with the physiognomy of those deemed to be savages, there being a not-so-subtle congruence between their interest and that of colonizing powers. A fundamental belief in difference influenced the ideology of both, the Lamprey’s grid being a suitable invention to bear out the physical difference between races. Subjects were made to stand before a large frame from which hung silk threads formed into 2-inch squares, and then photographed, often in profile. Comparisons were made between these images and that of strapping six-foot models from the land of the rulers.

However, writes Pinney, a self-conscious shift was around the corner: when anthropology came to be known as E. B. Tylor’s science in the late 19th century, he was enthusiastically applauding the camera’s role, writing that photographs were not “mere book decorations” but rather “object lessons”. Earlier, Sir Everard im Thurn had imperiously declared that he had little time for the mug shot genre so popular then — humans were not to be photographed in a manner not dissimilar to “badly stuffed birds and animals” — but rather they were to be represented as active, working bodies. His photographs have a certain dynamism, unlike the huge corpus of material developed in the closing years of the century by that hard-working administrator-cum-amateur anthropologist in the Andamans, M.V. Portman. Portman’s photographs (incidentally, many of the albums are available in the Anthropological Survey of India’s office in Calcutta) reflected what Pinney calls “an austere colonial sensibility”, represented in an ‘objective’ representation of the subject people.

Three decades later, Malinowski — regarded as the founder of modern British anthropology — was clearly sensitive to the subject-viewer divide and sought to fracture it by asking the reader to ‘imagine’ being on distant islands amidst Trobrianders. He used the camera extensively, often inserting himself into images as the “self-mythologizing perfector of ‘participant-observation’” that has influenced generations of fieldwork-based researchers; he had to be seen to be ‘there’. Yet, even his best attempts could not do away with the divide implicit in the colonial enterprise. There is a deftly composed photograph of Malinowski, the white male ethnographer standing with his hands on his hips — a favourite posture with countless colonial administrators — his head just that bit tilted downwards as he looks imperiously at the ‘man in a wig’, a sorcerer of repute. The colour of an over-clad Malinowski’s skin, his clothes and even his boots is in direct contrast to the natives, their ‘undress’ and the bored look of some. The photograph has the quality of a theatrical scene, and that clearly was the intention: the outsider engages with the insiders and tries hard to be no longer the superior observer and recorder alone. But his body language and choice of white clothes heighten differentness, a power relationship inherent in the engagement.

Such interpretations have to contend with the criticism that it is not altogether fair to judge early photographers and recorders of people from a post-modern perspective. Even if this caveat is kept in mind, it is interesting to see the extent to which the colonial photographer would go. Pinney discusses at some length that being photographed was not only not always readily accepted by the subject/‘native’, but that recording his/her discomfiture also became almost a genre in the photography of the times. That coercive techniques were not unknown have engaged contemporary anthropological practice which quickly seeks to distance itself from this lack of sensitivity of its forebears. Sometimes, the results are quite startling. In this photograph, the Australian anthropologist, Nicolas Peterson, censors an early 20th-century image of photographers avidly zeroing in on a secret aboriginal men’s ceremony with a black rectangle. Thus we see a group of hungry, paparazzi-like photographers — but are no long privy to the focus of their interest. The ‘doctored’ image reflects an acceptance of what Peterson calls a “changing photographic contract” where deference to aboriginal sensibilities replaces an earlier autocratic regimen.

One wonders how Margaret Mead would have responded to Peterson. It is likely that she would have regarded his action as defacement, tampering with reality. However, one need not go as far back as Mead’s Balinese days: how many present-day photographers, amateurs and otherwise, take into consideration the emotions of their subjects? It is true that a few might ask permission and some have been known to pay in kind if not with hard cash. Others might indeed have willing subjects, giggling youngsters happy to be photographed. Yet there are situations where subjects are preoccupied, such as at festivals or political meetings or contending with tragedy during disasters. Opportunities for engagement are clearly limited on such occasions. But this does not mean that issues of privacy and the right to refuse do not exist. Many of us who use cameras get carried away with a compelling image, hardly stopping to think of whether the subject of our enthusiasm shares this euphoria. The work of generations of colonial photographers might have predated the Barthesian notion of the disturbance caused by the photograph. In the present mobile phone photo and social media age, ignoring the reverberations of such disturbances must surely remain a moot point.