Many Indian photographers are making use of the Internet and social media in a bid to reinvent the form and discover new artistic metaphors that are relevant to our technology-driven age. Bhumika Popli writes about the merger of new media with photography.
Rencontres d’Arles, an ongoing photography festival in Arles, France, has a series on display by the Indian photographer Chandan Gomes. Entitled People You May Know, the series doesn’t include only photographs, but also computer screenshots of Facebook conversations between Gomes and a girl named Tara Banerjee. Gomes has juxtaposed these screenshots with random photographs taken on his previous projects.
In one of the screenshots, Banerjee asks Gomes, “Where does your pain reside?” and Gomes has typed, “In the eyes of my mother…” Alongside the text is a portrait of an old woman— Gomes’ mother. Another collage shows some intimate photos of Banerjee, without revealing her face. (These photos, according to Gomes, were taken with the subject’s permission.)
The conversations between the photographer and subject ranged from the introductory to the intimate. After a point, Gomes and Banerjee meet, inaugurating the narrative arc for his art project.
The private was then made public after Gomes “informed about this project to Banerjee”. He says, “I have contextualised this series and this is my side of the story and Tara is free to present her take.”
These days, Gomes is working on the second part of the same series. He says, “The second part of the series deals with how the dynamics of such a relationship changes after I have made the conversations between me and Tara public. And then there is another section to it. I want to understand the people through various means who are dead, with just their profiles remaining on Facebook.”
Many contemporary photographers use social media and the Internet to tell their stories. This new form, explored by Gomes, is no doubt exciting, but it can come across to some as banal and lacking in force. For example, where’s the artistic merit in computer screenshots?
Gomes says, “I was taking the screenshots of whatever we were talking about and kept collecting it in a folder. Hundreds of conversations later, I had a feeling that this can become a story to tell. I am a documentary photographer by profession so I wanted to stick to the form of photography and the challenge was to understand how I realise these conversations as photographs while staying true to the essence from where it all emerged—the Internet.”
Another photographer, Sandip Kuriakose is known for his use of the Internet as a metaphor in his work. He critiques the idea of “perfect masculinity” using photographs exchanged with his correspondents on social media. His series, entitled It Has The Appearance Of A Deliberate Transgression, deals with the subject of sexuality in the age of the Internet. He uses portraits, collages and drawings, and he takes photographs from a popular gay dating website in India.
He says, “I see the internet as an extension of physical space and I am interested in what this ‘non-space’ does to interactions between queer men. Dating websites and apps have opened up a range of possibilities: identities morph into one another and new ones are produced all the time. And many of which seem constructed and re-created to fit into people’s own ideas of a ‘perfect’ kind of masculinity. These distorted images seem to mirror the idea of the original image that has been put up in the first place; always seemingly contradictory.”
Uzma Mohsin is another well-known contemporary photographer whose work draws inspiration from new and experimental forms. In her 2016 series, A Minute of Make-Believe, she made portraits using a box camera, addressing the virtual turn photography has taken. A few of the images from this series were displayed in an exhibition in Delhi, called The Surface of Things. The exhibits appeared as Instagram posts, with hashtags and comments placed as sub-texts. On her website, Mohsin writes, “The ‘virtual’ turn of photography is addressed [in this series], as that too is a space of re-contextualising and extrapolating meaning, achieved here through groupings and juxtapositions.”
The acclaimed photographer Sunil Gupta believes that this trend of using the Internet to invent new artistic forms is here to stay. He says, “It’s now so ubiquitous and not even thought about that millions of people around the globe use mobile phones to shoot dozens of pictures a day and upload them to social media to share with the world. Yes, I think it’s here to stay until an even easier method of capture and transmission arrives on the scene.”
Inquisitive about this scene, Alexander Strecker, the former managing editor of an online magazine, LensCulture, is doing a PhD on the relationship between technology and photography. “I chose to pursue deeper research in the field of visual studies because I believe that we live in an era defined by the image and by visual communication, a state which I imagine will only continue to grow more pronounced in the years to come.” He also adds that photography as a medium has always been defined by revolutions and change. According to Strecker, “Each technological advancement seems to make fresh promises, upending our understanding of the medium and the world. My hope is that my research will draw on this historical perspective in order to shed more light on our image-saturated reality and give us some guidance for where we might be going next.”
But Madhavan Pillai, an independent photography curator, doesn’t appreciate this merger of new media with photography. “This is a separate medium altogether,” he says. “Photography has its own language and grammar. Bringing everything under photography is bizarre. Why are we shying away from accepting a new medium? If the new media can be considered a new form altogether, both photography and new media will flourish. But the rules of the internet are not very well defined.”