What We Talk about When We Talk about Photography | Aveek Sen | Mittwoch, 14.03.2012

Books without Words

Thank you, Martin, for this anatomy of photography’s proneness to a certain kind of mindlessness, taken by David towards a vision of what a ‘liberal’ education for a photographer might be in the future. I am also grateful to you, David, for the directness of your question to me: “What is it that photography offers you as a writer?

This question has forced me to focus my thoughts over the last few days, and to do this purely on the basis of what I am carrying inside my head and in my computer, for I have been travelling constantly. Sometimes, it is good to be away from one’s books, and to be forced to rely solely on one’s memory, eyes and ears.

As a writer, I’ve never really been interested in photography per se, but in the work of certain artists who happen to use photography (among other things) and whom I had discovered purely by accident a little more than five years ago. Two books marked my introduction to photography – Dayanita Singh’s Go Away Closer and Tacita Dean’s Floh. I read up the history and theory of photography in preparation for writing about these books, and that opened up the larger, and more historical, universe of photography for my writing.

So, my relationship with photography is characterized by three external factors. First, both the books introducing me to photography were made by artists who are profoundly inspired by literature (Dean is an accomplished writer herself). I found out very soon in my study of them that photo history (or photo technology) was much less important than, say, knowing about Hindustani classical music, Mahler’s symphonies and the films of Guru Dutt (in Singh’s case) and the books of W.G. Sebald and J. G. Ballard (in Dean’s case). Also, paradoxically, with both Singh and Dean, the more literary their work became, the more wordless their books turned out to be, shorn of writing in the form of essays, captions, and so on. This is both challenging and seductive for a writer.

Second, my introduction to photography happened through photobooks rather than exhibitions (and that both were Steidl books is perhaps not simply a coincidence). Third, this induction into photography was happening to me mostly in India, which has its own photo-history, both as photographic agent and object. I found myself resisting, with all my wiliness as a writer, the Indian immersion in the decisive and documentary moment, and equally, the Western photographic and curatorial locating and positioning of “Indian” or “Asian” photography in a certain kind of (largely pre-determined) imagery and ‘context’ (more about this in later instalments). Yet, even as I resist the easy rubric of “Indian photography”, I’m beginning to realize that everyday life, aesthetics and visuality in India form a vitally complicating and disordering counterpoint to, and sometimes an implicit critique of, Western photographic practices and discourses – provided one doesn’t succumb to the allure of seeing what one is programmed to see either in India or in the West (more of this, too, in later instalments). Japanese and Latin American photography (the work of Naoya Hatakeyama and Graciela Iturbide, for instance) become other subjects in that counterpoint. (Geoff Dyer’s novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is another fascinating instance of this photo-fictional two-part invention, much more so than his more-explicitly-photographic Ongoing Moment.)

Yet, outside this historical (and, I suppose, geopolitical) framework, photography has other, somewhat more ineffable, gifts for a writer. First, that post-shooting-and-printing part of photography, which both Martin and David have written about so interestingly, affords invaluable lessons to a writer – the editing and sequencing, the putting together, of photographic images into larger bodies of work. They not only afford invaluable insights into the more inscrutable aspects of artistic process, but also become exercises in creating narratives that must play elusively with disclosure and concealment, language and silence. It is a different way of playing with time from the way a writer inscribes his writing with time – but ultimately not that different either. (The parallels between film-editing, photo-editing and writing have been brought home to me brilliantly by my recent reading of Michael Ondaatje’s The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film and Murch’s own book, In the Blink of an Eye.)

The compelling pleasures of moving from the temporal and formal patterns and habits of photo-editing to the structures and patterns of life – the rhythms, cycles, spirals, repetitions, linearities, regularities and intermittencies of everyday experience – is another gift of this photo-and-photographer-watching, a gift that also enriches, and mingles with, the experience of music (“that mysterious form of time”, according to Borges).

As someone who has carefully avoided writing fiction, I have also been freed from my own anxieties and despair with fiction by observing how the boundaries between art and documentary photography are often blurred by the best photographers. Photography has helped me realize how, as a writer, I don’t have to write novels or short stories in order to invent the real, and how the fictionality of truth can be just as exciting as the truth of fiction, and how both can be created out of nothing more, or less, than what I see or what has existed, which I then inform with the opacity and mystery of what I bring to it.

Finally, photography has sharpened my relationship with death – with my own mortality and with the mortality of others. It has helped me understand the sentimental history of my own relationship with death, and then to un-sentimentalize this relationship, or re-sentimentalize it in my own terms (rather than taking on unquestioningly the legacies of memorialism handed down to me through familial and cultural conditioning). The photographic exchange – between the photographer and the photographed, and between the photograph and the viewer – is both a relation and a separation, swinging between intimacy and distance in a way that could be merciful as well as cruel, freeing as well as abject. For me, as a writer, this is the “go away closer” of photography, and the key to much about life, love and loss that I wouldn’t have reckoned with as rigorously as I do now had chance not put those books without words in my way.

The poem: Elizabeth Bishop, One Art

The film clip: Satyajit Ray, Charulata