How do we think in imagery? How do we make pictures, and why? What do we say with our photographs? Do we have to tell stories all the time? These questions have been swirling in my mind for quite some time now. Answers peek from the horizon just enough to make their presence felt and vanish. Meanwhile, I have also been reviewing my archives of negatives and transparencies from the last 26 years of shooting. I really liked many images from my early photographic days (One of which is featured on this page. A photo from Bangalore, 1986, from the first roll of film I photographed with an SLR, a Nikon FM2.
Almost all those images were done without any story to tell. They were just visual notes in the diary of a teenager. Did they mean anything? Where did those images come from? I don’t know. However, when I show them now, they trigger interesting feelings in the viewer. They were done when there was no internet, no prizes to win, no assignments to go after, no editor to please, and no curators to talk to. 95% of our mind is in the unconscious realm of which we have little awareness, but it contains riches beyond imagination, says psychiatrist M Scott Peck. I wonder if my early imagery came from the unconscious. Will we be better off if we make images from our unconscious?
When we are young and unencumbered, our imagination is fertile and knows no bounds. As we grow up, our worlds get boxed and weighed down by expectations—our own, but formed mainly by the thoughts and words from the environs around us. Our photographs become more tactile, more of something or someone. When we see an image, we want to know where it was taken. Of which place is it? What is it? Who is it? Explain, explain, cries our mind. We must learn to see and interpret images in our own way rather than being told everything about them. Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami says that he finds the obligation of telling a story an obstacle!
In a recent talk in Bangalore, Kenya Hara, a great designer from Japan, spoke about his philosophy of emptiness, derived from the architecture of Shinto Shrine. You plant four sticks on the corners to form a square, tie a rope around, put a roof on it, and have a Shinto shrine. “God may come in. ‘may’ is an important word here,” he said. Photographer Uta Berth says her work is like an empty receptacle onto which viewers project themselves.
I interviewed photographer Hans Neleman for the first issue of LIGHT, a magazine on visual thinking I used to publish in the mid-nineties. Talking about the new direction he was going into, he said, “It is as if I can say more with less…make a simpler statement with less..less..less.” I had also written to the great Irving Penn requesting an interview. The line in the fax I got from his studio manager read, “Mr. Penn has said everything he has to say in his photographs; he doesn’t give any interviews.” Great philosophy of a great photographer.
Back in the nineties, a project called Picture Mumbai—Landmarks of a New Generation was conducted. Funded by the Getty Conservation Institute, a group of children between the ages of 12 and 18 photographed the city, armed with only point and shoot cameras and some extraordinary insights. They produced brilliant images. There was an exhibition, and a book was made. The images challenge readers’ conventional notions of landmarks and, at the same time, invite people to consider how they are marked by the communities in which they live. I believe that only the raw visual minds of children could have produced such unique imagery. This is another example of saying less and conveying so much more.
So I wonder, in this day of digital-aided explosion of visual media, should we photograph less? Should we start saying more with less? Photography will triumph when it truly gets out of technicalities and not about cameras, lenses, digital/analogue, software and now AI. It was not so for Raghubir Singh, Irving Penn, Bruce Weber, Ernst Hass, Guy Bourdin, Skrebneski and several other masters. It will triumph when it reaches out to the society at large.
Let me reiterate that photojournalism and serious documentary photography are as relevant as they have always been. There is a need to tell stories that are generally not told. In a world overflowing with ephemeral TV footage, still images stay in our minds and make an impact. However, there is a need to say little and convey more. To borrow a line from writer Joe Queenan, this may help us to escape to a more exciting, more rewarding world of images.