What I saw in that light

Photojournalism, however serious or humanitarian the issue to which it is committed, does not magically become art when it is taken out of its journalistic context

‘Military Calligraphy’ by Parthiv Shah, from the Barbed Wire and Beautiful Skies series. {{name}}
01 February, 2011

AFTER I FINISHED READING, and looking at, Art as Witness, I put it away for a while and tried to hold the whole book in my head. I wanted to see, before sitting down to write about it, which bits of the book came back and remained with me most vividly or meaningfully. As the co-editor, Sana Das, explains in her opening piece, ‘Interrupting the Spectacle,’ in being made up of writing as well as photography, the book attempts to “interrupt” the verbal with the visual. The photographs are placed “in the way” of the writing, so that the reader “trips” up against the pictures and is confronted with an “abrasive, painful and less forgettable” experience. It is not surprising, therefore, that the most powerful moments—to which I kept returning, intellectually and imaginatively—were images and not opinions. Yet, oddly enough, none of these images came from the photographs; they were all in the writing.

I was riveted, for instance, by the account given by the Kashmiri journalist, memoirist and translator, Iftikhar Gilani, of how, as a prisoner at Tihar jail, he had to guard his English dictionary round the clock: “its fine paper would have been perfect for making cigarettes [prohibited in Tihar].”  “When some people donated copies of the English translation of the Holy Qur’an,” he continues in his ‘Tales from Tihar,’ “the jail superintendent refused to distribute them, afraid that someone seen tearing the holy book could spark a bloody row.” This is the stuff of art as well as a rare sort of history—the history of interior, truly invisible, experience. And, as unselfconsciously good writing, it is already art, giving us access to what would otherwise have remained unrepresented, startling us into looking at the content of this book in a new and more difficult light. It compels us to reflect not only upon the nature of prisons, books and cigarettes (I was reminded of Jean Genet’s 1950 film, Un Chant d’Amour), but also makes us think about what it means to be free and unfree, afraid and unafraid. Our thoughts hang together, though, around that unique image of a dictionary being smoked away secretly in a prison.

In this book about incarceration, custodial deaths and disappearance, the death penalty and the brutality of modern nation-states, the jail as a scene of reading (and writing) becomes a recurring motif. The solace, power and fragility of books are central to perhaps the finest piece of writing in Art as Witness: ‘May I take a book with me?’  by Kian Tajbakhsh, the Iranian-American social scientist who has been in and out of Tehran’s Evin prison, and is now prohibited from leaving Iran. Tajbakhsh describes how his “attentive reading” of  Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, le Carré and Vikram Seth, among others, deeply enriched the solitude afforded by imprisonment and led to a remarkable change in his “perception of time.” His reflective essay–spare, stoical and devoid of sensationalism—is in a tradition of prison—writing that goes back to a Roman classic like Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and includes the writings of Wilde, Nehru and Gramsci. The essay sets a high standard for the rest of the book, not only with respect to the writing, but also in the way the book addresses the nature of art, and art’s relationship with powerlessness, injustice and suffering. “Huddled in the blanket, angled to catch the fluorescent light coming through the small barred window of the thick metal door, I read,” writes Tajbakhsh, providing us again with a simple, but masterful, image that renders photographic illustration redundant.

At the other extreme from Tajbakhsh’s meditation on reading in jail, there is another kind of visual immediacy, the shock of a different sort of truth, in Vibhuti Narain Rai’s recollection, translated from Hindi, of being one of the first police officers to discover the 43 massacred Muslim men on the night of 22 May 1987 in Hashimpura on the Delhi-Ghaziabad border. This is an account not of reading, but of seeing or looking in extremis—a moment frozen in time, preceding action or activism, and shot through with a sense of the surreal, which clutches at the languages of cinema and of dreams when trying to express itself in words: “The weak beams of their torches fell on the thick shrubs beside the stream but it was difficult to see anything in that dim light. I told the drivers to turn the vehicles towards the stream and turn their headlights on. An area of around 100 yards width was illuminated. What I saw in that light was the nightmare I referred to earlier.”

This sounds and feels, at first, like the primal scene of witnessing, but it is actually  full of a terrible sense of belatedness. True witnessing eludes even the first to arrive at the scene, for that person is always already too late. The truth of brutality and suffering—the forensic, the legal, the empirical truth—is only recorded irretrievably on the retinas and nerve-ends of the silent dead. Hence, the irreversible irony of the phrase, “Art as witness.” Art can only record the impossibility of witnessing; it represents, at best, the abyss that separates its medium, its craft, its fictions and its intentions from the otherness of what really happened, from the quick—and the slow—of tragedy. Even the cleverest league between photography and journalism, masters of the moment, must reconcile with this belatedness, before claiming for itself the privilege of witnessing and of having produced art out of that privilege.

Art as Witness rhetorically acknowledges this abyss through the sophisticated theorising of Sana Das’ finely written introduction: “The problem with the photographic image is not that it is beautiful but that it is too beautiful, perfected as it is by technology; and its impurity for experience lies precisely in that technological perfection. Thus, a very Platonic question emerges: Isn’t the written word enough? Why do we need the image?” But the following piece by Parthiv Shah, ‘Images for Change,’ brings the entire book, and the thinking behind its photographic approach, down to the glibness of an all-too-familiar photojournalistic ethos nervously waking up to the emergence of art photography: “To reach a media-savvy audience one has to strike the right balance; even as all the vital issues are addressed, the way they are ‘packaged’ is crucial.” Das and Shah seem to be writing about two different books in their respective essays—one critically disrupting precisely the sort of media-savvy packaging that Shah is talking about to create other ways of seeing and thinking; and the other appropriating, almost in toto, the rhetoric of the newsmagazine photo essay that suddenly wishes to re-invent itself as art, in this case, simply by placing itself alongside activism (and thereby refusing to think, with any freshness or precision, about the meanings of either art or activism). As a result, the first book (Das’ book) is realised only in some of the writing, which, in turn, sets standards that the second book (Shah’s book) never quite manages to live up to. Photojournalism, however serious or humanitarian the issue to which it is committed, does not magically become art when it is taken out of its journalistic context, enlarged, expensively printed and framed, and hung in a beautifully lit gallery; nor does it turn into art when it accompanies political, emotive or fine writing.

This is why it is not fair to photographers like Swapan Nayak, Shehzad Noorani and Sohrab Hura to take the photographs they have made, put them under the rubric of art, subject them to an aesthetic gaze that may not have been part of their original intention, ask “Is this Art, or is this not Art?” and then find them either adequate or lacking. It is, therefore, the most ordinary snapshots that become the most moving documents in this book—a black-and-white image of a football team of Burmese refugees outside Calcutta’s Presidency jail, or a colour photo of the adivasi hospital in Chhattisgarh run by Binayak Sen before he went to prison. The more self-consciously made sequences by Parthiv Shah or Sonia Jabbar seem to recall too much the work of artists like Fazal Sheikh (especially in their photograph-of-a-photograph, portrait-holding-a-portrait victimology, reminiscent of Sheikh’s The Victor Weeps). But they lack the fineness of technique, intellectual profundity, depth of feeling and unconventional modes of dissemination that one values in Sheikh’s work. His Ramadan Moon and A Camel for the Son, made for distribution among Dutch politicians, judges, mayors and the media, or the poster-set, Beloved Daughters, made for ActionAid, also happen to be exquisite works of art. Their commitment to activism, advocacy and accessibility refuses to compromise on technical perfectionism and conceptualist rigour. It is for this reason that one does not hesitate, when pushed, to call them art, and not because one takes them as ‘witnesses’ to the atrocities they try to fathom and give vicarious access to. This is, indeed, a difficult balance to strike. The epic melancholy of Sheikh’s art of photography, its luminous clarity and reticence, lies in refusing to indulge in the presumption of witnessing. Paradoxically, more than any other medium, photography needs to be thought of more carefully, and with greater humility, before celebrating its access to the real thing.

Art as Witness, edited by Parthiv Shah and Sana Das (Tulika Books, Rs 950)