This is a guest post by Divya Manian, a standards-based web designer who now lives in Seattle. She publishes her own blog, Nimbupani.
What pictures come to mind when you think of India?
India, is much more than vermilion, yellow, vibrant colors and dark women. It is now a land of high-rises, malls, and industrial pollution. Unfortunately, this is not a popular stereotype and rarely highlighted in photography. It perpetuates a myth of poverty and rustic living that is now not true for most of India. Similar is the case with African countries. The greatest catastrophe is the grouping of so many different countries into one ideal “country” called Africa. Africa’s landmass can contain China, US, and more in terms of land area. There are people of several cultures within a single country in Africa and African towns and cities have a lot more technology than popular photographs indicate.
A photograph is a slice of time which exaggerates the importance of the captured moment, just like a painting. Photographs have been used to perpetuate myths as well as facts. They alter public opinion with force that is unseen in the written text. As in the movie Spiderman, Uncle Ben says, “With great power, comes great responsibility” and here I would like photographers to use this power wisely.
It is easier to shoot photographs that match a popular stereotype than to go against it. Many times, a popular stereotype reinforces the familiarity of a shot and makes a photograph appealing. Unfamiliarity with the subject being photographed can cause this too. Sometimes, it invokes a sense of nostalgia for a time that could have been or sometimes, a sense of relief for not being in that position, or there can be simply nothing else to do (e.g. Taj Mahal, or birthday parties). Still, stereotypes pander to an opinion that already exists and brings nothing new to life, and I consider that an opportunity lost. A popular cliche these days is a religious priest with a “hi-tech” gadget.
This is a call to all photographers to look beyond the stereotypes, or to use stereotypes wisely. For example, Mr. Oochappan takes great photographs of a part of Tamil Nadu that is rarely seen by the city dwellers. His photographs revels in the stereotypes so much that the pictures bring out unseen facets of Tamil culture. See this image in particular of a man dressed like the Hindu deity Shiva.
Akshay Mahajan usually take photographs that go beyond the stereotypical shots:
I don’t mean to hold these two as extreme examples and not all of their photographs fit into the boundaries I have drawn around them. It may not be possible to escape the cliche, but as photographers we must try.
How do you know if you are subscribing to a cliché? Simple, if a shot looks “perfect”, ask yourself why you think so. Is it because it fits into a known stereotype of a “perfect” shot for that place/occasion/people? Or is it because that shot tells an unusual story? Whatever it is, before you take or share a photo you have taken with the world, spend some moments thinking about the story the photograph tells and let it not be “perfect”.
What do you think? Ink your thoughts below in the comments section.