PHOTOGRAPHING THE NATIVES
I write this essay on the photographer’s request to express a certain critical view of his body of work, which he encountered during his exhibitions in India. I have not seen the exhibition, but I have twenty- eight of his photographs on my computer, which I am looking at very carefully. The photographs, which have been taken over several years that the author has spent in India, are quite beautiful, classically composed and lit, and seem to be finely printed in rich sepia tones.
People in India have questioned the ethnographic character of the work, in both look and subject matter. The images and titles look strangely familiar. They are reminiscent of nineteenth century ‘Company School’ etchings of picturesque landscapes done by the British, of ancient monuments framed in a wild countryside and ethnographic portraits of the people of the country in their habitats, practicing their trades: ‘native scenes’, and ‘native types’. The titles too, are similar - ‘Rickshaw Wallah – Hospet’, ‘In the Rice Fields- Karnataka’, ‘Man with a Cow -Kerala’, ‘Elephant Festival- Jaipur’, ‘Counting their Coins-Jaipur’, ‘Morning on the Ghat- Pushkar’, ‘View from the Monkey Temple –Hampi’, ‘The Sickle Seller-Udaipur’, ‘On a Mountain Path – Dharamsala’, ‘Ritual Shower- Terumala’… echoing the British colonial passion for traveling the length of the country documenting its architecture and people, in sketches, water colours, etchings, plaster casts, or later, photography.
By the mid- nineteenth century, photography was seen as an important tool for anthropological investigations to record newly discovered peoples. The five hundred photographs in the Peoples of India volumes published by the India Museum in London between 1868 and 1875 were significant landmarks in using photography to construct a sort of ‘comprehensive atlas’ of Indian types, which were compiled along similar lines to the architectural photographs commissioned around the same time. This compulsive surveying and archiving served several purposes: to collect information for commerce, to have a ‘moral hold’ on the people by categorizing them (as criminal tribes and so on), and in line with the scientific theories rising at the time, to prove the racial and civilizational superiority of the colonizers.
India is one of the big manufacturing countries of the world, producing most of the raw materials needed and most of the goods that are used by the people. It is a bustling diverse country with factories, cities, bridges, dams and Five year plans, a large technical workforce, universities, scientific and cultural institutions, the world’s biggest railway system. We are a large modern democracy, highly politically aware, with several national and regional political parties, trade unions; publishing hundreds of newspapers and magazines in more than twenty languages. The problems of development are great but issues are intensely debated and fought for at every level.
Yet, when I see the photographs, they are images of the ‘eternal Orient’, stilled in time. It is not as if these scenes are not real, it is only that it seems as if nothing else exists. The scenes are chosen to present a country hardly touched by the industrial revolution, a land quaint, exotic, archaic. The portraits are of humble people, shyly smiling, standing in front of their mud huts framed by dark doorways, or working in their fields. They are poor, but serene, content. The implements they use are sickles, wooden ploughs; their transport is rickshaws, bicycles, bullock carts or traditional boats; they sell from carts, they count coins. Typically ‘Indian’ animals abound: cows, monkeys, oxen, bullocks, elephants, a skinny street dog.
Waswo calls the set of photographs India Poems. To quote from his catalogue essay titled Dreaming the Monkey, Deep-Eyed and Lyrical, “ I do not see myself as a documentarian. I make no claims of revealing cultural realities. In fact, there is a lot of deception in what I do. My photographs include few references to the contemporary. There are no automobiles, no signs proclaiming STD or Internet, no men wearing Nike shoes, Adidas shoes, or Rayban sunglasses. This is a stylistic choice that leaves me open to charges of cultural distortion, romanticism, an eye for the exotic, or a self-willed blindness. Yet, I believe my photographs capture a higher truth. The images that speak to me whisper deeper, more archetypal truths, insights into existence. Like poems, they are open to the stuff of dreams; and like dreams, they are laden with meanings hard to articulate in the harsh light of day.”
Perhaps I do not want to repeat in this critique, the well- worn arguments about the politics of image making, the politics of identity, or the politics of power. I do not want to see Waswo as the representative of a powerful, dominant country, personally out to oppress me. I suspect he is an idealist, a photographer version of the thousands of Western people who have come to India since the nineteen sixties – seeking salvation in a simpler life, a simpler land; fleeing from the relentless materialism of their own cultures, countries endlessly producing and defined by, in fact, the very ‘automobiles, Nike shoes, Adidas shoes, or Rayban glasses’ that are deliberately excluded from these frames.
This idyllic India, drenched in shimmering light and sepia toned, is the land of maharajahs and peasants, palaces and temples and huts. The ‘truths’ that Waswo seeks to reveal are not so personal or hidden. In fact they belong to a long history of representing the sub-continent that go back a hundred and fifty years. If one history of seeing India was to see it as an under developed, decadent and inferior subject civilization, another was to posit the inherent ‘spiritualism’ of the east against the crass materialism of the west. In constructing his archetypal ‘Other’, he is unable to escape from an inherited way of seeing the Indian landscape and its people.