What We Talk about When We Talk about Photography | Aveek Sen | Mittwoch, 28.03.2012

The Tyranny of Context

I have been looking at two things together. First, the excellent Duke University website that collects the photographs, handmade photobooks and notebooks of the photographer, William Gedney (1932-1989), who made a large body of work in India during two extended visits in 1969-71 and 1979-80. Second, the catalogue of the big "India show" last year at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, called Paris-Delhi-Bombay...

Gedney took most of his photographs in Benares and Calcutta, the two most dangerous traps for Western photographers, full of clichés and stereotypes waiting to explode in every corner like landmines. It was brave of Gedney to take on these locations and to seek in them what he was looking for within himself and in his photographic practice. What I find refreshing is how little the Indianness of India figured in his readings and thoughts during and immediately before the trips, as indicated by his regular notebook entries of, and from, what he was reading. His intellectual preparations for the trips did not involve trying to understand India in the usual terms, and according to the usual cultural and historical contexts. So his photographs and reflections are more about his own dis/location than about the locatedness of his Indian subjects.

In contrast, the Pompidou show – in which there were many contemporary Indian artists who use photography – attempts a contextual and historical 'placing' of Indian art that is almost breath-taking in its predictability. The interlacing of Gedney and Pompidou in my mind made me go back to a piece I had written a couple of years ago, in response to a questionnaire sent to me by an American journal of/on Asian photography. On re-reading it, I realized the extent to which the issues I had written about then are still relevant and unresolved. So here is a much-revised version.

Q. Under what circumstances is national or cultural context important to understanding a photograph?

A. Depends on who is doing the understanding, why, and for whom. There is a way of looking at, archiving, understanding and writing about photography that is historical, sociological, anthropological. Here, context is all-important. Usually, this kind of writing is academic and specialized; aesthetic criteria are irrelevant or subordinated to the more levelling gaze of the social sciences. The hierarchical distinctions between art and not-art, or among documentary, popular, commercial, journalistic or art photography, do not apply in such readings. So, if we are, say, studying representations of women, or immigrants, or dwarfs, then we should be looking at every kind of photography from advertisements, police shots and ethnographic records to photo-essays in Granta and the work of Arbus, Salgado or Iturbide, without getting into disputes over whether what we are looking at is art or not, or if it is art, then whether we are looking at good art or bad art. We are more interested in content rather than form, and we are producing critical knowledge using photographs as primary documents. We might have chosen to look at folksongs or newspapers or films, and done the same sort of work with these, without bothering very much about aesthetics (although the aesthetic or formal aspects of these documents could have enhanced our interpretation and made it more nuanced).

But the moment we get into questions of a different kind of meaning, value, price or affect (that is, once we take photography into art galleries, auctions and art publishing houses), the moment we get into questions of beauty and form, or of aesthetic, emotional and intellectual impact, then the role of context, especially national context, becomes more ambivalent and complicated. A different set of priorities and criteria, together with a different kind of politics, takes over.

Someone should write about the international politics and economics of contextualization, and how a great deal of serious academic work is structured by that politics/economics. Why is it, for instance, that Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Eggleston, the Bechers or Jeff Wall is simply photography, whereas Graciela Iturbide is Mexican photography or Nobuyoshi Araki Japanese photography? I suspect that the answer to this is not only political, but also geopolitical, going back to the ancient geographical divides in post-Enlightenment European epistemology: Who is looking at whom? Who is studying whom? Who is writing about whom? Who is the subject, and who the object, of knowledge and of interpretation? What do we need to know in order to understand a Western artist? And what do we need to know in order to understand a non-Western artist? Who are ‘we’ here?

In the first case, not very much context is required because Western art is supposed to be universal, transcending national or geographic differences. It is Art. But Asian art is not Art, but ‘Asian art’, and therefore an informed understanding of the various contexts in which it is produced is essential for doing it full justice; it is always tied to its time and place. So, an Indian photographer cannot depict loss, absence or fear, but must always represent poverty-stricken and spiritualist, or liberalized and industrializing, India (suitably Bollywoodized). We hardly ever have books, photobook introductions or catalogue essays explaining what is Belgian, French, Canadian or American about Belgian, French, Canadian or American photography, because we can respond to Belgian, French, Canadian or American photographs as we respond to the Venus de Milo or Mona Lisa, without having to know about Classical Greece or Renaissance Italy.

But not so with Asian photography. An entirely different approach to knowing, understanding and looking has to be constructed, mastered, disseminated and repeatedly invoked in order to bring such a category into the global field of vision. And this applies to not only those who are looking at it, showing it, collecting it and writing about it, but also to those who are making it. That is, Asian photographers themselves often end up internalizing this way of seeing and start producing work for it, and from within it, presenting their work, in books and in shows, according to its requirements. They readily accept the contexts in which their work is invariably read, and then start perpetuating those readings of their work and the assumptions that inform these readings.

They end up producing work that could be written about, shown and taught within what has turned into readymade frames and perspectives. Non-Asia looks at Asia in a certain way, and therefore Asia also looks at, and projects, itself in that way. In the earlier centuries, this was called colonialism or imperialism; Edward Said had called it Orientalism. Now it is called Context, and the right-minded, well-intentioned, academically respectable sound of the word obscures the structures of commerce, knowledge and power that constitute this primacy of Context.


“I fall into a place and I become of that place,” replied Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak when asked, during a public conversation in Calcutta, whether she would describe herself as cosmopolitan. “I feel sometimes, when someone asks me the question, that I have roots in air. You know? I am at home everywhere and I am not at home anywhere. It seems to me when one is at home, the place where one is at home has no name.” My music teacher had put it to me, once, more pithily: “I don’t need roots. I’m not a tree.”


Both by A.K. Ramanujan (1929-1993)

Poona Train Window

I look out the window.

See a man defecating
between two rocks, and a crow.

Drink my railway tea.
A milestone newly
Painted orange, black

numbers on its sides.
The blinding noise
and the afterhush
of one train passing

another, rise and fall
of hills in two sets
of windows, faces, a rush
of whole children, white
hair in a red turban.

I drink my railway tea.
Three women with baskets
on their heads, climbing
slowly against the slope
of a hill, one of them
lop-sided, balancing

between the slope and
the basket on the head
a late pregnancy.
Buffaloes swatting flies
with their tails.

Six gulls. The tea
Darkens like a sick
traveller’s urine.
Six gulls sitting still,

six eggs laid new
on grass, in, on, near,
water. I see a man

between two rocks.
I think of the symmetry
Of human buttocks.

Time to Stop

There are times
going to museums
makes you see

pointilliste anthills,

Picasso faces on milkmen
framed in the living room

a violet shadow
all around the dead
or dying cow
and you come
back at night to see
how it looks
under the gaslight,

and after an accident,
looks remarkably
like fresh paint.

it’s time to stop
going to museums.


THE CLIP (Bharti Kher’s The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own arrives at Sotheby’s, London, 2010)