Is Photography limiting our appreciation of the real world?

In January 2017, my parents came to see me in Mumbai. As a family, we have always enjoyed travelling and almost 20 years ago, I came here for the first time. I remember the open-top tour bus we were on going around the city from one stop to the other, keeping to our time as there are only so many hours in a day. We saw the Hanging Gardens that homes a boot-house, for my 8-year old self, it was something out of a Lewis Carroll book; the magnificent Gateway of India surrounded by the old and the new Taj Hotel, the Marine Drive, the museums in South Mumbai and many more sites that I don’t remember very well. For anyone who has grown up in India watching Bollywood movies, Mumbai is special; there is an instant relationship that I built growing up, that Mumbai was where one would go if they had a dream that needed a touch of reality. The Bollywood movies did, in fact, romanticise the city then and continue to do today. The tapori language became a cool benchmark after Aamir Khan’s Rangeela, and the non-Mumbai folks assumed that seeing celebrities on the streets would be such an everyday affair, that no one would really turn around and look at them twice, cause you’d probably see another in a few steps, right! Every kid in the nineties knew about Essel World and The Waterkingdom in Borivali, due to the overzealous ads Zee TV aired in between shows like Hum Paanch, Disney Hour, etc. So, Mumbai has been, for me, a big deal.

Two decades since then, flipping through the photo album reminds me of those times very vividly. It is not just the fact that looking at a printed photograph is more tactile, more physical and hence more real, for me, it is also the limited nature of film rolls that played a crucial part in all this. With only 36 shots worth of Kodak Gold in the 35mm automatic film camera, one had to be careful, to only make the best image and choose the best scenario, and make the process of photographing landscapes, portraits, street, buildings etc., all the more relevant. Before you could make an image, you had to first see, look and experience. The judgment of making images was more critical, more thought-through. To choose between a photograph of a family portrait and a photograph of a beautiful building was a tough one, as you only had so many expendable slots on the film.

As ‘digital’ has stormed the photography landscape in the past decade, the cost of creating a digital reproduction of the ‘real’ has reduced to a one-time investment – that of buying the camera. As a result, collectively humanity is producing more images every day than the hundred years put together before the turn of the century. The internet is jam-packed with images harbouring hashtags like #foodporn, #selfie, #photooftheday in their captions. Add to the mix that digital photography is a mode of instant gratification, it becomes evident why tourist sites are filled with selfie sticks, digital cameras and camera-phones.

Referring back to our trip a couple of decades ago, we were excited about going to The Elephanta Caves, off the mainland of Mumbai and an hour ferry ride from Albert Bandar in South Mumbai. We couldn’t make it then as we, unfortunately, picked the one day in the week that tourism is closed on the site. However, this time around, 20 years later, we were prepared. Elephanta Island is a UNESCO heritage site and has cave-sculptures made centuries ago, honouring Lord Shiva. If you ever have the pleasure of visiting the site, you’d see visitors in hundreds, local sellers selling ‘authentic’ Elephanta artefacts, many fearless monkeys and camera phones – all this everywhere.

As I go around looking at the architecture, the meticulously built sculpture and reading the very few placards placed around the caves (thank God!) I realise that many who have taken the time out from their schedule were more interested in taking selfies and recording the site through their phone moving from one sculpture to the other, or rather from one photo-spot to the other. No doubt, photography is great to record but sorting through hundreds of these images to analyse the craftsmanship of the cave-sculpture is going to be a far cry. It was then that I felt nostalgic for the pre-digital age when you had to look, see and experience before you would make an image as opposed to now when the experience entails taking multiple photographs in the hope that one would be social-media-worthy. Photography, I feel is limiting our appreciation of the real-world, we are so obsessed with the recording and documentation aspect of it that we are failing to see the underlying beauty or the lack thereof in the real world. The appreciation is (more?) valid in the real time, in the three-dimensional world, rather than a two-dimensional screen reminiscing on a lazy afternoon when the only thing to do is flip through old photos in your phone gallery. At sites like The Elephanta Caves, we fail to interpret the design, the history, the motivation to create and therefore the art, by keeping a primal focus on taking photos that suggest, “we were there.” What this lack of appreciation is slowly leading to is a reduction in our capacity to understand culture and history, and perceiving things superficially. If the image of a sculpture is just an add-on in a self-portrait, its essence as an art-form gets diminished and if the only motivation to go see the next one is to get another photographic document, then what’s the point of taking the trouble to go out anyways?

I’d be lying if I say that I was always away from this pack, on the contrary, I feel that it has taken me a long time and many missed opportunities of appreciating the art and design of these sites. Since the realisation, I leave my camera at home and go out with the sole intention of seeing and looking, not documenting.

Through my photography, I continuously attempt to ask the question whether a photograph is a document of the real or not, whether the representation of what lies in front of the lens an accurate measure of reality. There are many academic debates on the topic and it is very interesting that photography is the undisputed champion in the reproduction of reality. My only counter is, photography undoubtedly is the champion of a representation of reality, but reproduction… maybe not.

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