Word Play

Two new journals provide a plethora of ways to combine words and images

‘The Silent Observer’ by Ankit Goyal. COURTESY PIX: A PHOTOGRAPH Y QUARTERLY
01 January, 2012

IN A WORLD WHERE WE ARE CONSTANTLY bombarded with images, the photomagazine makes for an unusual viewing experience. First, from the magazine perspective, there’s the slow, pleasurable realisation that turning the pages only for the pictures—something we do all the time with magazines, whether with the concentrated longing for glossy otherness, or as the desultory whiling away of time in the doctor’s waiting room—needn’t be the guilty pleasure it ordinarily is. Here the act of consumption is legitimate, expected, perhaps even imbued with significance. Meanwhile, from the photographic side of things, images placed on the page are experienced very differently from the way they might be if they were placed on a wall, or on a screen. The scale ensures a focused intensity to our viewing—one that remains a private act, shorn of the self-consciousness that often comes over people while walking through a gallery. The structure of a bound volume provides a clear, predetermined order and yet—unlike, say, a slide show—it allows each individual the freedom to turn the pages any which way.

But to me what really makes the photomagazine fascinating is how much of it is given over to words.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, as the old cliché goes, but few words are needed to determine how we look at a picture. Pictures inspire feelings. Words can transform the direction of our thoughts. A single sentence printed beneath a photograph can narrow down the innumerable potential interpretations; a paragraph, or three, placed alongside a disparate set of images can thread them together with astounding ease.

In the series by Tushikur Rahman that opens the second issue (2011) of Punctum, for example, we move from an impossibly close close-up of a single teary eye, red from grief or sleep deprivation or both, to a ghostly figure in a hoodie standing at the end of a tunnel-like corridor, then to an aircraft in a night sky, seen from below, and finally, a posh-looking multistorey building with a scaffolding ladder climbing up one side, so enormously high that it’s dizzying even when viewed from the ground. The images are all striking, even unsettling in their own way. But it is only because the photo essay is labelled ‘Fatalistic Tendency 2003-2006’ that one associates these images with suicide. Take, for example, the young figure in the white hoodie: the image is surreal, their legs seem to melt into the light, he or she could almost be hovering above the ground. But it is really only because the words in the title have guided my brain in the direction of death that I think not of, say, an unhappy childhood memory or an alien descended to earth, but of a sad spirit still wandering the corridors of the living. Or take the building: it is because the stated theme of the essay frames the image so powerfully that I cannot look at the picture without imagining what it would be like to fall from that height.

As someone who deals overwhelmingly in words rather than images, I have often been that person in the museum who arrives in front of a work of art and moves instinctively towards the tiny plaque to the right, relying on the words of some mediator-curator to make sense of what I have come to see, to parse the experience. And I have often also been the person who, realising she does this, consciously tries to stop herself. But really, why should I see the use of words to frame the viewing of an image as some sort of trick, as a dilution of pure experience? Surely if cinema works precisely because it creates a composite of words and images (not to mention sound and movement)—and we consider it no less of an art form—then the insistence that the visual must establish an independent identity, and not ride piggyback on the aural or the verbal, is a ridiculous condition.

So let us abandon the conceit of imagined purity. Pix  and Punctum, which engage with contemporary photographic practice in India and across Asia respectively, provide many different ways in which to combine words and images, some more interesting than others. The personal documentation of a project, for example, is an avenue for the photographer to meditate on how the project came to him, or how it changed from the time it was conceived. The curatorial piece, on the other hand, locates the photo essay within the photographer’s body of work, or simply provides one level of interpretation. And finally, there is the seemingly unrelated text—a poem or a story or a short prose piece by a writer not originally part of the photographic project.

Some of the photo essays in Punctum gain immensely from the brief but intimate introductions provided by their creators. For example, some of Hemant Sareen’s photographs of his family’s old home in Noida—‘Suburbia Indica: a House is not a Home’—can seem dully familiar until they are illuminated by his beautifully written account of what it is to live in a house without ever letting it claim you. The melancholia of enforced impermanence, of a sense of isolation both redeemed and echoed by stray cats, emerges much more strongly from Sareen’s images once I knew the specific narrative of entrapment within which they were located: a house in which his family was forced to live for 20 years but which never stopped being provisional. And yet, no words can be as stark or as moving as his picture of an old lady (his mother?) looking up at the night sky, sitting on a cement seat on their terrace, with a cat on an outcrop parallel to her. They are the very picture of isolation, and yet they might also be the very picture of quiet companionship. Even more deeply felt is Thai photographer Lek Kiatsirikajorn’s ‘As Time Goes By’, which, like Sareen’s photo essay, seeks to work through a personal sense of sorrow and a relationship with a familial space. In Kiatsirikajorn’s case, he declares that taking pictures of his aging fruit-vendor parents in their increasingly dilapidated home (to which he has returned after seven years in England) is his attempt to reduce his guilt at having neglected them for so long. And the discovery that he—and the soul he has been searching for—are more intimately tied to them than he realised: “The more I photograph them the more clearly I see myself.”

‘The Imaginary “I”’ by Abhijit Nandi. COURTESY PIX: A PHOTOGRAPH Y QUARTERLY

Of the two journals, Pix seems to be more invested in these creative juxtapositions between image and text, the relationship between word and image so open-ended as to seem slightly surreal: “Am I making up this connection,” you find yourself thinking, “or does it really exist?” My favourites among these (Imaginaries, issue III, 2011) are Ankit Goyal’s ‘The Silent Observer’ and Abhijit Nandi’s ‘The Imaginary “I”’. Goyal’s digital black-and-white images traverse their disparate terrain with a deliberate dreaminess: a woman’s torso submerged in soapy water, fingers poised delicately above her vulva; a male figure framed in a narrow doorway awash with light, but seen from afar, as if through a forest of shadows; a curled-up foetus preserved in a jam jar. If Goyal’s pictures produce a delicate sense of each moment as pregnant with possibility, Delhi-based vascular surgeon  and writer Ambarish Satwik’s accompanying text, ‘Kapse-Agarwal’, provides a pulp noirish vision of what that possibility might be: true to Satwik’s particular obsessions, it is a vision full of “wanton and savage slayings”. What is remarkable is that the specificity of Satwik’s somewhat abrupt account—of these rather odd but memorable characters who conduct autopsies at the Maulana Azad Medical College and maintain files on murders in Delhi—does not pin the images down. Abhijit Nandi’s more dramatic pictures, also black–and-white and digital, tap into our horror movie imaginations. However secret your fantasy of violence or madness, these images are an insidious appeal to your inner role-playing self: the surreally lit curtain, the man in silhouette clawing at the window, the hands tied roughly with jute rope (this image feels a little over the top, especially with the apples of evil just out of reach). The scariest of Nandi’s photographs here are of a pair of upturned hands being washed at a basin, one pale and bloodless, the other literally dripping with blood. On Vivek Narayanan’s lovely accompanying poem I will not comment, for a quote from it should suffice to show how much it adds to our experience of these images: “…The scene/ of an unsolved crime, sticking regardless to me,/ waking in this empty room,/ the sunlight through burglar bars,/ the room’s interlocking design.”

‘The Silent Observer’ by Ankit Goyal. COURTESY PIX: A PHOTOGRAPH Y QUARTERLY

But there are also texts here that actually detract from any power the images might have summoned up: a case in point is Rupleena Bose’s utterly vague, ostensibly poetic piece for Adil Hasan’s series ‘The TV’. Hasan’s attempt to bathe the everyday blankness of the television screen in various sorts of ethereal light feels fairly clichéd already, but the pretentious banality of the accompanying words makes everything much worse: “we become prisoners trapped in the ruins where the imagination had been forsaken” or “the secrets of others brings (sic) them together when the evenings draw them apart.”

And there is even the rare text which seems to swamp the images, where the pictures come across as illustrative rather than originary. I speak, for example, of Toru Morimoto’s ‘Remembering the Future’ (Punctum, issue 2, 2011), whose narrative of the aftermath of a recent tsunami in Japan’s coastal northeast region seems to be more or less based on the written word, with the studied photographic portraits of survivors never transcending the roles that have been scripted for them by the reportage.

‘Remembering the Future’—though it does not track the violence of the event as news photography might, but only its less graphic remains—is probably closest to what might be called photojournalism, which Wikipedia defines as photography “that provides a visual account for news events”, in contrast to fine art photography, which (also according to Wikipedia) “refers to photographs that are created in accordance with the creative vision of the photographer as artist”. Pix’s mission statement appears deeply invested in this “creative vision” brief. The editors of the quarterly envisioned it as a magazine that would “seek not only to present photography in temporal, spatial or historical terms, but also in personal, self-conscious and aesthetic ways”. Each issue has a thematic focus: the next one will be Trespass. The theme chosen for the issue under review is Imaginaries: Exploring Photo Art, which editorial contributor Suruchi Dumpawar explains as the “construction of images, where photography practitioners deliberately create and sometimes even fabricate images by using various strategies to convey a sense, meaning or thought, rather than finding visual resonances of their thoughts in the real world”.

Punctum—which is more than 200 pages compared to Pix’s 64 (which, though, has a slightly larger format)—has much less obvious editorialising than Pix, and no stated thematic focus. Its geographical scope is much wider, encompassing photo essays from across Asia, with the stated aim of “offering its readers ‘native’ images of our times ... in the most faithful sense of the word: photographs taken on their own terms by Asian photographers”. Its editors appear to retain an openness towards a wide range of photographic practice, from the stark and unannotated beauty of documentary work like Geric Cruz’s pictures of Sitio Damayan, a community of charcoal makers in Manila, to the Cambodian photographer Samnang Khvay Tay’s quirkily masked portraits of his neighbours in their own homes: a remarkable series of images that reveals much more than it conceals.

‘The Silent Observer’ by Ankit Goyal. COURTESY PIX: A PHOTOGRAPH Y QUARTERLY

In contrast to the oddly affecting gravitas of Samnang’s pictures are the Singaporeans also photographed in their own homes by photographer Sean Lee, who creates often hilarious portraits of family members that depict a sense of humour reminiscent of the goofy madness of Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express. A child with fake canines frowns attentively at the camera as her mother looks sombre; the brilliantly deadpan caption reads: ‘Vampire child protects mother’. A man crouched on a tabletop in his boxers bites into an enormous leg of chicken, while his wife holds up a whole raw chicken, her lips quivering on the edge of a smile. ‘Photography as a Comedic Tool’, reads a handwritten headline over the photograph, which is titled ‘The Crazies’.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these magazines is that one is transported into the lives of others—inthe case of Punctum, often very distant others—viewed at close quarters. The ‘golden age’ of photojournalism, from the 1930s to the 1950s, was characterised by magazines like Life and Picture Post, which built their reputations and acquired readers on the basis of photographs of worlds that readers had never seen and most likely would never see. Perhaps magazines like Pix and Punctum, in their own small ways, will find a way to reassert that enduring power of the image.