The Elusive Truth of Photographs

Earlier, a short conversation ensued.

Something that I have struggled with for a while (and I continue to struggle). This post, is by no means an expression of any finality. Struggles are continuous. We take them with us to our pyre.

Ethics in Photography: Primarily related to manipulation through digital tools.

I first heard of Photoshop in the very-late 90s. I used to take photographs much before that. I never manipulated photos (I had no means to; didn’t have access to a darkroom). Then, with my introduction to Photoshop, I realised what was possible. It was still not easy. You had to get your photograph printed, scanned, and then manipulated.

Cut, to the last few years.

The ease with which we can now manipulate photos is a critical factor of how many photos we manipulate, and to what extent. When it was the darkroom, and the effort was huge, you’d be satisfied with the photograph you took. Most photo upload sites Instagram, for example, depend on manipulation. Notice how the app is created; the process calls for manipulation. As this became the norm, otherwise puritan sites like Flickr (yes kids, there’s something called Flickr, and yes, there’s an app for that) joined the bandwagon, and created a manipulate-first strategy. Like we have mobile-first strategy. The humble smartphone camera, humble, no more, now included built-in editing tools. It’s worth noticing, also, that the editing tools are primarily auto-fix or filters. Not Levels, or Curves, and such (I know some apps have them, so don’t kill me for saying it). Why bother users with complex scientific concepts like a Histogram? Why teach core concepts of amount of light and duration of light? Focus on publishing!

All of the above, only to establish our current environment. No judgement, at least not yet.

Let’s come back to the short conversation that ensued.

A participant in a photography competition withdrew his entry, after it was found that he had retouched a photo to remove undesirable artefacts from the photo — in this case, a straw-like-thingy.

The question that was posed: Ethical Violation or Technical Breach.

My instant response was: Technical Breach. And it was so, because the competition disallowed major manipulation:

The rules of the contest state that “No cloning, montaging or digital manipulation other than cropping, ‘digital spotting’, burning and dodging is permitted,” so the photographer alerted Walkey about the suspicious submission. [Link]

For those of us who think that digitally manipulated photos are an ethical violation, I ask: is cropping fine? Or Burning? Or Dodging? In my opinion, cropping is completely removing a context in a frame! By showing me a photograph that is devoid of some context (by cropping) the photographer is changing meaning. Pretty much like sensational headlines or context-bereft sound bites. Then, are you making the sky look more blue? The leaves more green? Are you, Mr. Photographer, deceiving me? Was the sky really a dull boring blue that was almost white, when you saw it? Were the leaves not as you had imagined?

I am not advocating an ultimate realism in photography. As a person who takes photographs, I know that reality changes every millisecond, and so does context.

Broadly, photography serves two realms: that of documentation and that of art.

If an artist painter, who uses a canvas and oil paints were to paint a sky that was true blue (as most of us imagine it to be) we would never question it. Yet, fact of the matter is, we rarely see a blue sky as blue as we imagine it to be. We applauded the orange-grey-green-blue abstract skies of JMW Turner. When a photographer HDR’ed a sky, we felt cheated. This is the first realm of photography, and that is art.

The ethical questions, essentially come in the second realm — documentary photography. This realm deals with reality, harsh reality. And I am not talking of gory photos of dead bodies and such that we see on social media these days. If a photo’s purpose is to show you reality, and if it is manipulated — to edit meaning or create a new meaning — it is, clearly an ethical violation.

Common to both these realms is how we take photos. Given the means and the ease that has been afforded to us, the line between art and documentary photography has blurred beyond recognition. Whereas, we should be seeing photos as either art or as documentary, we are looking at them as manipulated or not.

“Both those taking snaps and documentary photographers, however, have not understood ‘information.’ What they produce are camera memories, not information, and the better they do it, the more they prove the victory of the camera over the human being.” ~ Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography

This post wasn’t going to be complete without a quote from my guru.

Where do I stand?

In the simplest of terms, capturing a moment, for me, has always been about amount of light and duration of light. Primarily. That is what makes a good photograph. Now that the basics are covered, a photographer creates meaning. That is what makes an interesting photograph.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the manipulation of photographs; if presented as art. For, if you are photographer, you know that the real manipulation begins, before you click. When you set your aperture, when you compose, when you set your shutter speed. When you choose to include something or exclude something in the frame, that’s when manipulation has started. In a digital editing tool, you are only continuing the process. Even if you add a simple border, that’s manipulation.

Except, if you are documenting. Documentation is essentially boring. There is no need to manipulate that. Just file it, and be done. And when (and if) you manipulate a documentary photo, you are crossing really thick lines.

Here is a case study:

2015-11-03 12.03.06

This is a photograph I took of an AC fan, outside my office, with my mobile phone camera. After a few minutes, this is what I posted, on Instagram.

#fan #circle #circular #concentric #grill #yellow #blades #web #airconditioning #aircon

A photo posted by Atul Sabnis (@atulsabnis) on

Do you feel cheated? Or did you just not care, and enjoyed the Instagram? Now that you know the raw truth, what do you feel?

A Different Kind of Post

I wrote a real letter, after a long time.

There’s a context to real. It means that it was handwritten on paper, put in an envelope, was addresses by hand, postage stamps were applied, and it was dropped in a proper post-box.

India Post - Post Box "Indian Post Box". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

India Post – Post Box “Indian Post Box“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve recently written a few letters. Some are incomplete. Some complete, but not posted. Some completed, and sent — but as scans, some nearly perfect, but sent via courier.

There were two challenges with this letter; one that it was being written to someone who was less than a third my age, second that it was (in all probability) the first letter for my young recipient ever. After all was done, I had to go to the post office. I had no postage stamps. And though my mother had some old ones, I had no idea how much postage would be required for my letter’s destination.

So off I went.

It’s five rupees now. For less than the cost of a cutting-chai two pages of a letter can travel anywhere in this country. For those of you who may not have cutting-chai as a benchmark, it costs US$0.08. Less than a dime. The Indian postal system is an institution that I have always respected, and nothing has changed in that department. No pun intended. The post office is much cleaner, spacious, and instead of letters being bang-stamped there is a whirr of a dot-matrix printer. The post office looks brighter and happier.

I owe a bit to my recipient, else this was an experience I would not have had.


Writing the letter was a very interesting experience. Especially with the spellings, because another friend had pointed out, that I should be careful with the spellings. I discovered, the speed with which I can write, has reduced considerably. I wrote the letter as I would have written when I was prolific with letter writing. I do not know if the style will make sense to my young reader. Well, in the least, my reader will know how we used to write letters 20-25 years ago. Yet, I did not feel like making any changes in the style. In the end, I was very happy with what came out.

Postal Envelopes and Stamps

Postal Envelopes and Stamps

I knew I’d write more letters than before. And I want to write letters now. Let me know if you’d like to receive one. So, while I was dropping this letter, in the post office, I bought some prepaid envelopes and a few stamps.  The prepaid envelopes look very different now. But I’ve changed too. So has my handwriting. So has my paper. So has my pen. So have my thoughts. So have the people I’d write to.

In this ever-changing world, the sense of writing a letter has stayed the same.

The Unexplained: #Anthem: 16

It’s been a while, since I posted an Anthem.

Songs of tragedy, pain, and loss are usually difficult to write about. One, the original context of the sadness is often very personal to the song’s author. When we listen to a song, the meaning changes — because the author’s context makes way for our own. Two, most sad songs are beautiful. So when you say you like a sad song, it isn’t clear if you like it because it’s beautiful, because you relate to it, or both. And finally, they enclose emotions that there aren’t words for, it can only be an experience.

But it’s a wonder (for me) how the poets do it. What kind of pattern-thinking do they posses that allows them to choose and lay out words that can make meaning to thousands, millions of people and relate to that inexplicable experience? The abstraction that they create, reaches far deeper than a simple statement would. There seems to be, to me, a sense of protectiveness of the sorrow, and if it has to be displayed, it stays behind the lattice-work of abstraction.

Perhaps that is why some sad songs become beautiful. In a single instant, there’s meaning, and there isn’t.


When I first heard this song, I didn’t understand it much. There was something however, about the song that never left me. This is the song that people sing at picnics and outings, after all the dance has been done, all the drinks are over. Like a full circle. This song, is essentially, full of questions. Mostly, none of the questions have answers. It’s the phenomenon of no-one-knows..

Here’s a decent translation (And a link to the same song, with better Audio, but no video)

I cannot, but think of a doha (couplet) by Kabir:

ऐसा कोई ना मिला जासों कहूं दुख रोय।
जासों कहिये भेद को,सो फिरी बैरी होय।।

None could I find, as such, to share my sorrow, sad profile
To those in whom, I did confide inimically turned hostile.

Above translation by Daduzen (DN Harjani), from Kabir Speaks



Dedicated to My Nerdy Friend

History is a beautiful subject to study. Most of us, because of the way it is taught in schools, dislike history. We should start learning history, again, after we are out of school.

I met Samir today.

For a long time, in my head, the word — nerd — was associated with science and such. Samir, was the first person who declared that we were History nerds. I liked it. Because I was not in college anymore, and because I am hitched. There is a respectable element in the word, which was never attributed to me, ever. Samir and I talk of history; mostly regional, but global as well. And within those discussions we have enriched each other’s lives, even if it had nothing to do with history.

Samir Pathak (left) and me (right).

The History Nerds. Samir Pathak (left) and me (right).

We do have a problem with history, though. (not Samir, not I; the world at large, i.e.). It’s sad, that History is being appropriated and maligned for sociopolitical purposes. It’s sadder, that people at large are allowing it to happen. It’s saddest, that over time, people start believing in the propaganda. The instant-generation lives off the micro-context; the now-context.  The new mantra is: have-platform-will-abuse.

And that is why, I enjoy my conversations with Samir. Especially, tonight. We engage. We differ on views. But we take the time, effort, and patience to hear each other out. Needless to say, we met in IRL (In Real Life; or F2F = Face-to-Face). No one has the time to study. Correction: No one cares to study. If we were charged a couple of USD for every tweet or a Facebook post, would we be so gloriously expressive? I think not. Once upon a time, the act of writing a letter to the editor was effort intensive. It limited the number of responses and it controlled the quality of of responses. Social media platforms disrupted that. What did we do? We abused the platforms. We ended up caring more about responses than our content.Instead of learning from others, we used it to diss others.


One clan, in the history of Western India has captured Samir’s imagination. We spoke about it at length. LENGTH. I doubt if Samir realised it when he was telling me about it, but he ended up comparing two sources of history and painted an animation of events. Samir is cynical, but if ever, a phrase had to be coined, this is the time: he is a cynical optimist. In other words: I-want-it-to-be-true,-but-I-am-happy-to-be-proved-wrong.


This post is about history, no doubt, but it is more about conversations with friends. This is not the first time; definitely not the last.

Notwithstanding what we talked about, I cherish, sacredly, these conversations.

It’s Not About Photographs – V

It’s been a while since my last post. Given what’s been going on, there should have been a post every couple of hours. That itself, in a curious way, explains why there have been no posts for ten days.

And, even now, it’s not about photographs. But it is about the same two people I had mentioned, in my previous post. Not to mention, there is some photography involved. My artist friend and I, have had many conversations about a muse. Philosophical, practical, even commercial. That one word, as it works in art, has been a constant source of intrigue.

I recently took a photo. (I care little about the nuances of using the word click or make a photo or capture an image.) That’s for the writers, when they want to project a simple act as something that has multiple dimensions. I prefer take or took because that’s, what I think, photographers do. It’s already there; we just take it.

When I took this photograph, I was captivated, more, by how these two people: Amit and Sagar, would see this photograph. Somewhere, deep inside, I felt they would enjoy it (Seriously, no compulsion, guys). The photograph in itself is perhaps mediocre, a bad one, or perhaps the best, ever. It matters less. What matters, for me, (and that’s what happened in that moment) is that I imagined that it would mean something to someone. The joy, when my finger met the shutter was double-fold: one, of the act itself (I liked what I saw) and two, the future joy that someone; someone specific, would not just appreciate it, but relate to it.

Creation is incomplete without joy. It does not matter, if the joy is personal, shared, or public.

Here’s a spiral staircase, when I was far away from home, thinking of my friends.

A Spiral Staircase, showcasing the Poetics of Space

A Spiral Staircase, showcasing the Poetics of Space

In that one, very small instance, I was with them; they were with me. It was a moment of joy.

Sagar, Thank you. I continue to question why I take photographs. I am not necessarily in a comfortable space. Yet, I like the questioning.

Thank you for planting the seed.

The Same Newness

And way back, I had written how much I love airports.

I haven’t had a chance to feel that love much, in recent times. Haven’t travelled as much.

Today seems very much like that day, that year. And the memories come flooding by. No, I did not take a photo that day. And I am not taking one today either. These are memories, not memorabilia. Printed on your heart with thoughts, ideas, and feelings; not paper and ink.

The cushions are red, the airport is the CSIA, the crowd is very different.

And life’s good.

We Can Only Protect Love

My first, best friend.


I was nine. It was 1981. There was an elocution competition in school. My teachers encouraged me to take part: Topic – “Should women work?” I came back from school and handed over a note from my teacher to my mother. My mother saw the note addressed to her, from my class teacher — I do want Atul to participate; please do convince him. (I had refused, when my teacher asked me to take part). My mother asked me if I want to take part. I said, I didn’t want to.

No need to participate, if you don’t want to, she said. But why do you refuse? I told her I don’t agree with the topic. My sister is having lunch with me. She gets upset, says a few words. I ignore her. Mother asks her to keep quiet.

Then, my mother asks me, “You don’t think women should work?”

“No,” I said, “I think they should go out and get jobs.”

“You idiot,” my sister shouted, from that far side of the dining table. She always sat at the right end of the dining table, with her back to the window, the afternoon sun shining through. Always a silhouette.

My mother calmly asked my sister to eat her lunch, and asked me what I meant.

My class teacher was one of my favourite creatures during those years. I adored her, and I had great respect for her. Even if, I didn’t understand respect at that age. I was upset at her, because she asked me to speak about something I didn’t believe in. It wasn’t as clear, then. I do, however, distinctly remember, I was confused. My mother asked me again, what I meant.

Women should not work. They should go out and take jobs, if they want. My teacher had a job. All women should be like my teacher. They should have a job.

My sister continued to be frustrated, throughout her lunch. She tried many times, during the course of the lunch, to voice her frustrating concerns about the degree of my idiocy. My mother didn’t allow an argument to take birth. We soon established that I had wrongly interpreted what work meant. Needless to say I was confused about work and job. Lunch was over, my mother hurried off to finish her work for the rest of the day, and my sister continued to lecture me about the nuances between work, job, career, profession etc. I don’t remember the exact words. (My vocabulary is better now, and I have my sister to thank for it)

So you will participate, she asked, finally. Yes, I said, but I don’t know what I should speak about, for 15 minutes.

The script of my first ever public speaking event was crafted by my sister. She was twelve, then. Two days later, I read the script with my classmates and my class teacher in attendance. My teacher was more than impressed. Since she knew me (and my sister) very well, she called my sister, and congratulated her on a wonderful and a powerful script. (we studied in the same school) Then, the unthinkable (for me) happened. My teacher warned me (in very polite and decent words) not to screw up this wonderful speech. In less than a week the speech was by-heart. In the presence of of my teachers (in school) and my family (at home) I waxed eloquently.


After about seven sentences in the speech, on that stage, I froze. I cried. I uttered all the keywords I could remember. Disconnected words were rambled. There were unknown people staring at me. I could see all their faces. A nine-year old does not need to see the intimidation of an audience. It was an afternoon; and a well-lit place. Then, I literally ran away. I let down everyone, I thought. My class teacher. My mother. Most of all, my sister.


Most people aren’t aware, but I have a bagged many awards and certificates since that day, that relate to performing on a stage. Twelve, to be precise. Since that day, I never left the stage before the curtains fell. Presentations, debates, elocution, and acting (drama). I am 43 now; 34 years since that day, my legs still shake and I break into a sweat when I speak to an audience of more than seven. Yet, I do it. I have not conquered stage fright, I have learnt to manage it. I have learnt, not to leave the stage. And I owe it to one person: my sister. She put me there.

My Sister


Today is Raksha Bandhan: A festival, traditionally, celebrated when brothers vowed to protect their sisters. Surely there’s some logic behind it. Women of yore did not have the means to take care of themselves, mostly, because men didn’t allow women to take care of themselves. In these days and times it does not apply. But that should not stop us from celebrating a festival. (In any case, mostly, folks in the Indian subcontinent celebrate festivals just because of the food) We can always redefine the purpose of that festival. There is no more a need for brothers to protect their sisters. I am fortunate to have grown amidst strong-willed women. My sister is undoubtedly, one of them. My first best friend, my teacher, my guide, my guardian, my confidante; to this day.

Raksha (Protection) Bandhan (Bond) is no more about protection from conventional harm.

I have to only protect, if at all, what she wants. I have to only protect, if at all, her sense, that she is alone. I have to only protect, if at all, her beliefs.

~ Love