18 Mar 2019 19:26 IST

The power of images

When we take pictures, do we see what there is or what we think there is? What stories do photos tell?

For a whole month now, the city of Chennai has been home to an amazing visual experience: the Chennai Photo Biennale

Look at these photographs of photographs. They are from the second edition of the Chennai Photo Biennale that’s been on in the city since February 23. Those living in Chennai may have noticed some bright yellow posters in English and in Tamil advertising this event, although it would seem they are not visible enough.

I nearly missed the event, mostly due to lethargy. My friend Padmini had suggested we go and we made tentative plans. Besides, she was excited that pictures taken by some of the kids from the school she heads were also on display. The CPB had selected some 25 children from local schools to participate in a residential workshop in Cholamandal, then given each of them an iPhone and told them to go take pictures. But it was only when a cousin visiting Bengaluru from the US, where she lives, called up out of the blue to say she, her niece, and a friend were coming to Chennai for a day in order to take in the Biennale that I sat up. It was a combination of second chance and coincy-doincy. So, on a hot and humid Saturday, we set out to see what we could see.

Thought-provoking, engaging


What we saw thoughtfully displayed at various well-chosen venues was mindblowing, thought-provoking and, more than that, engaging and accessible. “I’m so pleased to hear that,” responded the artistic director of the Biennale, Pushpamala N, when we told her this as she sat with us on the steps of the Madras Literary Society on College Road that afternoon. This sculptor and photographer is often described as “the most entertaining artist-iconoclast of contemporary Indian art”, and her work is referred to as performance photography.

One of the reasons why she felt reassured was that typically, ‘ordinary folk’ feel intimidated by ‘art’. “Oh, I don’t understand it” is a comment commonly made by ‘us’ when it comes to paintings and sculptures and other visual arts. While the pictures we see in newspapers and news magazines might not draw such a reaction, we tend to allow ourselves to be confounded by most anything else photographic. I believe that, when we think this way, we grossly underestimate our ability to ‘see’, as making the rounds of the Biennale clearly established.

Looking over at the photos of photos now stored on my phone, and thinking about the exhibits and ruminating on photography itself, and of course browsing the internet, I came across the following, attributed to an unknown source and quoted by Rick Garlikov in an article titled, ‘A philosophy of photography and of some visual art in general’:

Great photography is simple.

It is merely to discover, collect, arrange, create, anticipate or provoke exquisite subject matter;

and then to choose, invent, or patiently wait for

that properly illuminating and perfectly enhancing light,

in order to utilize the proper electronic and mechanical equipment,

and the optical and chemical principles and processes,

which will isolate, immobilize, and capture the combination forever

in a meaningful and aesthetically interesting way.

It takes only a camera and film (sometimes not even that, if I may add).

It is almost as simple as writing, which needs only pen and paper;

as sculpting, which requires only chisel and mallet;

or as orchestra conducting, which demands only a thin stick and an evening coat.


These lines made me think further. When we take pictures, are we recording a moment or a feeling? Do we see what there is or what we think there is? Is it reality? Is it experience? Is it imagination? What kind of stories do photographs tell? Can photographs tell stories the way a series of paintings or illustrations or a film can? Can we believe the stories photographs tell? And, today, when it’s become so easy to take pictures with the smartphone and everyone is a photographer, what are the stories we tell: ours, theirs, or of the world and beyond? What makes us whip out the phone and click? What makes ‘photographer-photographers’ set up their equipment and wait for the right moment? Or capture moments in a ‘shooting’ spree?

Many ways of seeing

You go around the venues and you realise there are not only so many ways of seeing, but so many more ways of communicating what you have seen. At the Cholamandal Artists’ Village, for instance, the exhibit is entitled ‘Material Evidence: Where faces and places are markers of histories’. Munem Wasif from Bangladesh has a series of small, b&w pictures showing the nowhere land on the India-Bangladesh border. Just a rubble passage between two low mounds of earth. As you go from image to image, it changes only marginally. It’s lonely and desolate. Suddenly a man emerges in the frame, adjusting his lungi in the typical way men adjust their lungis. Then more desolation and then suddenly the man is on the ground. Is he sleeping? Why would he sleep in the middle of the path, in the hot sun? Has he been shot at? You walk on, past a small water body, then more silence. The silence of borders where nothing is known and life doesn’t count for anything… This is the story that emerged in my mind.

However, the stories emerge only if and when we stop to look. The simple display at the Kasturba Nagar MRTS station will completely escape you unless you actively look for it. People rushed in and out of the station, intent on getting to their destination. Stop! I cried to one of them, a woman obviously accompanying her daughter to dance class. Stop, look, there are some wonderful photographs on display, I said. She stopped, looked and said, I didn’t even notice them. Many others didn’t even stop.


I wish they had because the pictures shine, even in the dull environs. The theme here is The Peninsular Coast, showcasing the work of the students of NID. You see Veraval in Gujarat, the Kallayi river in Kerala, the Palk Straits, among others, is some truly astounding frames. Public exhibitions reiterate the fact that the aesthetic experience, classical, folk or otherwise, is for everybody and must be inclusive, not exclusive. The aesthetic sensibility is empowering to all. Unfortunately, many of us allow this side of ourselves to lie dormant, forgotten, and, believing we have ‘lost’ it, we think we don’t possess it. All it requires is a little scratching on the surface; in this case, simply looking up at the frames and the photos they embrace.

The exhibit entitled ‘An Unbearable Lightness of Being’ at the Government College of Fine Arts on Poonamallee High Road, the oldest art institution in India, where luminaries such as D.P. Roy Chowdhury (he sculpted the Triumph of Labour on Marina Beach), Paritosh Sen, K. M. Adimoolam, K. C. S. Panniker (he founded the Cholamandal Artists’ Village), and Trotsky Marudu, studied, is a delicately designed space showing unique perspectives. While a series of formal portraits explores the painful aftermath of farmer suicides, another set of pictures has queer women having fun dressing up. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. You watch Kodak offices in Rochester, New York, implode to rubble as you sit surrounded by photographs evoking its life. Some of the most hard-hitting pictures are of invisible women doing visible work from the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). In the college museum sits ‘The Face of Another’, where people come up close, as themselves, as others, intersecting with the digital world, and transforming.

Dramatic, evocative


One of the most dramatic venues is the Senate House, a structure replete with high ceilings, wooden stairways, lattice work and stained glass decorations. Constructed in the 1870s, it is regarded as one of the best examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture in India. ‘Labyrinths’ derives its title primarily from the arresting installation in the main hall. The displays here, such as the photo books, cutouts of the city, voices from Kashmir and the mortuary, Bengali faces waiting for Yasser Arafat, referred to in the film by his kunya (the Arabic custom of deriving a name from the relationship between parent and child), Abu Ammar, all dance around the theme of the world as “a complicated irregular network of images and texts in passages and paths”.

‘The Library of Babel’ at the Madras Literary Society is all about books. A young man reaches books to children on his horse in Bali, a massive-sized book documents the death of books lost in a fire at home, and there are books of fading photographs and pictures of empty bookshelves. ‘Why We Look At Animals’ at the Government Museum brings a smile to the lips: we see with the unsullied eyes of children as they explore the sea, the sun, marine life and the world of fisher people. The smile turns to giggles at Manjunath Kamath’s massive frames of the interplay of human and animal life, with a slice of Ravi Varma thrown into the mixture. Archana Hande’s evocative audio-visual presentation brings more spice to the table.

There’s lots to experience and feel, and the way to do that is to go out there. Photographs are of us and for us and about us; they take us beyond ourselves. Images exist all around us and each blink of the eye shows yet another way of seeing better.

In that case, should we take pictures or look?