I visited Yangon in the summer of 2014. There, at the Dargah of Bahadur Shah Zafar, I discovered that he was the only Mughal Emperor ever to be photographed. Upon reflection, I realized that in this present age of visual dominance, many cultural and historical icons, such as Zafar, are presented to us through the chronology of the photograph.
In today’s world we can purchase a slot of time to meet and greet and take a photograph with a celebrity. Time is set aside at premieres, concerts, book launches, fashion shows, and festivals to enable visitors to acquire their desired photographs with their favourite luminaries. Taking photographs are marked social events.
There was an era when the sharing of photographs were marked social events. Before the onset of the digital age, we would set aside time to invite or visit family and friends in order to display or see the printed photographs of special occasions or holidays.
Currently, our own digital images and the images of those in our social networks, are occupying our time thanks to smart phones and social media. Social events are now signified by the particular photographs they engender, than by any other aspect. We now converse through the medium of photographs, instead of directly engaging with people.
And when we do engage with others, be it face to face or through telephone conversations or messages, we invariably discuss a photograph (or several) that we feel is significant, that we react to, or one that we feel warrants a reaction, given our social, cultural, religious, and political environment. We love photographs, we hate photographs, we gossip about photographs.
Whether we realize it or not, each and every time we post a photograph or an album, view it, or refer to it, be it positively or negatively, we effectively create or immerse ourselves as both participants and observers of socio-cultural debates.
Social events are now signified by the particular photographs they engender, than by any other aspect
One of the recurring themes of the debates is that of privacy. When a photograph or an album is shared on a digital platform, our privacy settings are of no consequence, because any person we have given access to, to view our pictures, can copy, save, or screenshot them, and forward to others.
Therefore we have no control over the number of people who can receive our personal images. And therefore we have no control over how our personal images can be altered or photo - shopped and used for objectionable purposes. This begs the questions: are privacy settings redundant?
Another theme is that of photo - shop. Photographs of ourselves are images of ourselves via interventions, and therefore they are not exact representations, even though we consider them true likenesses. All photographs are altered images to some extent, and photo shopped ones are deliberately altered images.
When a photograph or an album is shared on a digital platform, our privacy settings are of no consequence
Even if our own images remain within the parameters we have set for them, we have no control over how people will react to them. We often respond negatively to people who we feel have excessively photo-shopped their images, possibly because we feel they are misrepresentations.
If that is the case, then I wonder, can we not accept them as creative interventions or artistic self - expressions instead of misrepresentations? After all we fete painters for their varied self-portraits. Is there an authority which determines whether it is appropriate to photo-shop and by how much?
We also react negatively if we feel that a photo or an album has been posted or shared at an inappropriate moment, therefore timing is another debate. For example, if there is a terrorist incident or a building collapse, and if we see photographs of social events in their immediate aftermath, we feel that that such photographs are insensitive, that those posting them are showing disrespect to the victims of the attack or the collapse. The photograph then becomes a space of contention. Who decides when is the ideal moment to post photographs?
How many photographs is too many? How many times a day is it correct to upload? Which occasions should be shared and which ones not? What are the appropriate ensembles to be in? Should we object if photographs of ourselves have been posted without our permission? Should we be offended if we feel someone has copied our ideas from our shared photographs? When is the appropriate time to post photographs after a personal tragedy? And I could go on and on and on ….
The shared photograph has pervaded into every aspect of our lives. The shared photograph, be it a memory, memento, communication, text, context, or archive, is never neutral, whether it has a small, large, or infinite audience, as it connotes an intent. Not every person in the audience will realize or comprehend our intent behind sharing a photograph or an album, as looking at and through photographs is a subjective experience.
My thoughts on photographs are rather fragmented, and I do not have the answers to any of the questions I have raised. I only have more questions. Who was the first member of my family to have his/her photograph taken? Where is that photograph?
Chintamoni grew up in Dhaka, where she will always belong, but never quite fit in. She is an enthusiastic traveller, a compulsive procrastinator, and a contumelious raconteur.