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WANDERER AMONG PICTURES

- Questions of visual illiteracy

As early as the 1920s, László Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian painter and photographer as well as professor at the Bauhaus school warned against visual analphabetism — or visual illiteracy. Moholy-Nagy famously said that “the illiteracy of the future will be ignorance not of reading and writing but of photography”. What did he mean by this and would he say the same today? How do people become visually illiterate in a world bombarded with imagery from a range of sources? At one level, it is difficult to understand. At another, over abundance leads to a ‘lazy eye’ or the tendency to gloss over all that is being presented at every moment of the day.

An exhibition of photographs is an apt place to check or rein in one’s analphabetism, particularly as one has made a definite choice in visiting the display; it also helps the observer think of many questions — just as she would after reading a written text — such as the aim of the photographer, the audience for whom the photograph was intended, and whether the person behind the lens was a participant in the scene being photographed or merely an observer. In February this year, at a talk at the second Congress of the International Photography Museum and Gallery Alliance held in Calcutta, the Chinese photographer and administrator, Fu Weixin, had an interesting take on those of his ilk: a photographer was either a hunter or a farmer. As a hunter, he wandered far and wide with a camera slung around his neck and ‘shot’ whatever came before him. The farmer-photographer, on the other hand, spent time working out what he was going to shoot, where and under what conditions. There was no serendipity or randomness in his work. Clearly, the two approaches were quite different and, as a consequence, so were the end products. The hunter-photographer was a peripatetic observer, a wanderer in search of a subject. If cast more in the paparazzi mode, such a person could be a bit of a predator. However, while Fu Weixin’s notion of the hunter-photographer would indicate a certain aggression, this is perhaps not what he had in mind. It was more the randomness of a hunter out in the open that he was thinking of rather than a hunter violently overwhelming the subject. The farmer-photographer, on the other hand, had everything worked out, leaving little to chance or ‘destiny’.

The exhibition of well over a hundred photographs contributed by members of IPMGA ranging from Bangladesh to Belgium and several others from invited artists encouraged discussions and introspection on focus, technique, composition and on the role of the predator/farmer photographer. The entertaining portraits of the Frenchman, Pierre Delaunay, relied on black and white, while Myanmarese photographers invited us to follow Aung San Suu Kyi in colour, the white of the men’s shirts in striking contrast to the bright red flag of the National League for Democracy. Expectedly, in terms of numbers, Indian and Chinese photographers dominated the show. China took the team award, photographs from its members focusing on the ethereal — lotus in the fog, terraces in the morning, the split second recording of a stone hitting the water — to the quotidian or even vaguely surreal.

If visitors to an exhibition of photographs hover on the margins of visual illiteracy, their wanderings through the galleries help them overcome analphabetism. The comments of the Belgian, Isabelle Corthier, after receiving the award for individual excellence from an IPMGA member country seemed to be geared to those who might be on the verge of a slight analphabetic proclivity. Right at the start of her presentation, she shared her reasons for a shift in interest: to become a humanitarian worker had been a conscious choice — “I was no longer interested in photographing weddings and social events in my own country,” she admitted. Although Corthier would be more of a hunter out on a search, there was clearly nothing predatory in what she shot. Her searing black and white rendering of the South Sudanese whom she met “on the dirt tracks of Sudan” were the outcome of encounters, not premeditated meetings. She preferred to not call her images portraits as to her a portrait involved a two-way involvement between the subject and the photographer. While Corthier was quick to add that she sought the permission of those whom she had photographed, they had clearly not commissioned her to photograph them. They were in no position to do so.

The photographer’s images were the result of eight months of living in Gogrial, a small town on the banks of the river Jur. A logistician with MSF — Médecins Sans Frontières — a large international organization providing humanitarian aid, she takes care of the water supply as well as helping with waste and sanitation management. Many who came to the hospital run by the MSF walked for days before reaching it. Apart from other ailments, those in search of medical attention are severely malnourished at the end of the dry season. Forty years of war have not made it easy for the inhabitants of this inhospitable region — and this was evident in Corthier’s portraits of sunken eyes peering out of gaunt faces, a child’s protuberant belly or of scarification to the point where facial features have almost vanished. A number of her subjects engaged with the camera — but only a few, like the “agro pastoralist”, smiled.

In spite of her being a part of the MSF, as a Belgian woman, Corthier was acutely aware of her outsider status. She knew that it was important to respect another culture and did not want to be seen as one showcasing its poverty. Her admission raises an interesting question: does one have to be an outsider to be mindful of other people’s sensitivities? If one is from the same culture as the subject, is there some kind of immunity to shoot at will, so to say? What about the power play involved when a photographer — no matter where she is from — with state-of-the-art expensive equipment zooms in on those in poverty and despair? With these questions in mind, it is worth looking at the kinds of images other photographers from less privileged cultures took of their own people. There were Shahidul Alam’s brilliant compositions from Bangladesh that captured the right emotive moment; a visual story-teller, his images narrate the life of a newly-born land through the almost cadaver-like face of a prisoner or the sinuous outline of a woman as she bends over a ballot box. A makeshift booth with gunny sacking as walls leads the viewer to pause for a moment as she wonders about the photograph. It could have been a bathing area, the well-timed photographic moment leading to a dilemma in interpretation. The woman’s hands hover over the box — but she could have been as well untying her sari.

If this image led to a quandary, it clearly was an appropriate foil to analphabetism. For in a world of visual plenty if not vulgar surfeit, it is such images that force the viewer to think beyond what is ostensibly on offer that ultimately ensure a visually literate viewership. Thus, the patina on Mala Mukherjee’s skilful near-abstractions and Joydeep Mukherjee’s juxtaposition of the despondent man seated before the larger than life reproduction of Salvador Dali’s (see photograph) young woman looking out to sea, her body language wistful but certainly not unhappy, must surely challenge notions of visual fatigue. Everydayness acquires a certain significance in Chinmoy Banerjee’s black and white portrayal of hawkers jostling at a crowded train window and in Bijoy Chowdhury’s animated photograph of an old man and a child; but it is Avinash Pasricha’s brilliant caught-in-mid air colour photograph of two Manipuri pung cholom dancers that imperceptibly leads the viewer to the debate of photography as art. It also encourages one to question the supposed insouciance that results from overuse of the visual medium. Overabundance may lead to nonchalance — but if he lived in today’s overcrowded world, would Moholy-Nagy say that this was analphabetism? Or merely another symptom of a culture of over abundance?