Sunday, May 15, 2011
Photography as imperialism
I took this recently in Austin, from close to the bus-stop on Guadalupe and 21st. Walking along the pavement and sipping on bubble tea, I'd caught sight of people pointing at the sky; I looked up and was confronted by a thing of beauty.
Mechanically I retrieved my iPhone from my pocket and shot it, like a deer. The sun eventually dipped. The radiance that lit up this spectacle faded like a decomposing carcass and I walked away.
There are many interesting details about the photo of course, new bits that you spot every time, dots I had not connected when gazing upward. The camera frames the image very differently from the eye. For instance I didn't notice until I looked at the photo that the ridiculously named Darque Tan salon crouched directly below the cloud, or that Dobie Center (which leans in this photograph like the Tower of Pisa) has a faintly reptilian look to it. I can spot faces in the clouds even.
Over the past decade I have grown more conscious of my need to track personal and family history. My phone has especially influenced the way I collect memories. The one I own currently -- a fourth generation smartphone -- is a powerful device that among other things allows me to manipulate my impressions by storing the image in full color or black-and-white: choices governed by aesthetic reasons linked purely to form. I have never owned a camera and I don't expect I ever will. This device is a functional replacement.
I used not to be interested in recording images. For years I subscribed to the mistaken belief that looking at old photographs held out only the promise of passive pleasure; consequently I didn't care enough to learn to operate my father's old Canon SLR. I still mistrust photographs inasmuch as I am skeptical of the power of words to sufficiently pin down one's thought process.
Conversely, part of my ambivalence towards these media may stem from the awareness that even though the technology is more or less widely available in most countries around the world, the act of shooting pictures is, like writing, a project of imperialism, of capture and dominance over the subject.
For Robert Browning, art was imperialistic. Perhaps I suffer from a case of faux-white man's guilt, although growing up as a teenager in Bombay and goggling at crisp images of foreignness in National Geographic, I wasn't sophisticated enough to know that far from capturing the authenticity of experience, the pictures exoticized the poor and the mundane through the use of elements like elegant fonts and glossy paper. It's funny in hindsight to acknowledge that to my impressionable mind, the quality of paper connoted an overly simple sense of what America itself meant to me: clean, fresh-smelling and a place far more welcoming of immigrants than it truly is.
Resistance to photography's imperialistic nature is powerfully sustained by knowing that uprooted from their context, images can never duplicate reality. Our realities register as intangible, fleeting fragments on the medium of our mind. McLuhan's words apply here: the medium cannot be rendered distinct from message.
All photography is political. But as is usually the case with these things, intent counts for a lot. Memory, when documented as accurately as possible, contributes to the resistance by reaffirming our humanity.
Despite its technological limitations and capacity to perpetuate larger imperialistic ideas, video works better than the photograph as a receptacle of memories when it contains both moving images and audio supplemented by language. The combination of multiple elements may overpower the resistance to imperialism, and yet somehow bring us closer to our ultimate goal: to capture a slice of all that is real in our life.