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 post shared 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?

The Long 400kms

It will be an unearthly time by the time we reach home. Two cars. The other car’s home is a couple of dozen kilometres less than where I have to reach. I have an offer of staying back. 24-odd kms means much less, when you are homeward bound.

It’s dark. Late evening is upon us. I am a little over 400 kms away from home. The road ahead is good. It’s a dual-carriageway. We later discover that this is only a half-truth. But that’s later. My present is very different.

Fog Lights

A very young co-traveller is in my car, i.e. younger than me. I am driving. There’s three of us, I soon realise: the two of us, and the generation gap. The third passenger shows up every time a song plays from my playlist. We exit the city streets and are on the highway.

Man on the Moon, by R.E.M. plays.

“Do you know this song?” I ask.

“No.”

I let a minute pass by.

“Do you like it?”

She says yes, but I am suspicious.

“If you have any songs on your phone that you’d like to play, feel free to plug your phone into the AUX.”

While I offer her that, and because I have arranged my playlists, Losing My Religion starts playing.

I feel I should tell her something about the song. I do not.

She says she is happy with what’s playing. I wonder what she is thinking. Perhaps, allowing my kind of music to play will allow me to focus on driving. 400kms in the night is not a small thing. I smile. Smart kid. I say to myself.

“You don’t speak much, do you?” I ask.

“No.”

Wilson Pickett is describing the Land of a 1000 Dances. We’ve spent the last five days together, looking at broken buildings of yore. Alane, by Wayfinder is playing. I recall that in most conversation through the ruins, she has amply demonstrated her presence, yet, hardly participated. Claudette, by Roy Orbison. I offer again; she is free to play her music. Ella Fitzerald says Oh Lady Be Good. She refuses; say’s she’d like to hear what I have on my playlist.

“You had your chance.”

I hand her the iPod. “Skip what you don’t like.”

She owns the iPod instantly; doesn’t speak much, but the quietest, longest conversations I have ever had, is the one that I cannot forget.

Somewhere within the 400kms she feels compelled to make conversation. We play a diminutive version of 20 questions. It keeps me alert; and I think she feels good. She now skips songs on the iPod with ease. It’s a playlist I have curated. I wince every time she skips a song.

Once in a while, she says, “I like this song.”

That gives me the opportunity to tell her more about the song.

I do not know where 400kms went by. We come to the point where the road forks. We say our good-byes. She gets into the other car. I am homeward bound alone, for the next 80 kms.

I smile every time a song she skipped, starts playing.

Cheat, If it Makes Sense

Eight of us, many years ago, got 0/35 in a Unit Test.

A unit test was a form of formative assessment when I was in school.  Nowadays they have a much sophisticated system, I discover, as I do my job. We somehow knew that Unit Tests didn’t mean much, we could wait for the final exams (which contributed the most to the final score) and cram everything up in the last few days before the exam. This allowed us to enjoy the year.

That one Unit Test, where eight of us got 0/35 is something I’ll never forget, however. If you are a kid in school, read the rest of this article carefully. There’s a good chance that it might become philosophical as I write, but read it, nevertheless. Skip the philosophical stuff if you have to. I know you won’t learn much that’s useful. In matters like these, we have to learn from our own mistakes. Very few learn from the mistakes of others. It is the current world order — you are not to blame.

Seven of us cheated in that Unit Test.

IMG_0447

This is that class where this happened. i.e. really

Our teacher magnanimously, refused to invigilate the Unit Test. She announced her departure with a bit of a flourish. You are responsible adults, she said, (even though we were only 13 years old) — I expect you to be honest and responsible. We could have been, but yeah, whatever. Right.

My bench-mate, and my best friend for 26 years (let’s call him H) was the topper-contender in my class. He furiously started writing. He didn’t have any qualms about us copying what he wrote. I copied what he was writing, and passed that copy to the front bench (Yes, I was a last-bencher. Some teachers prefer that students are ordered by academic excellence, our teacher insisted we sit by height.) The bench in front of me passed the answers to the bench in front of them, and repeat. That made eight of us who had exactly the same answers. Other kids in the class got out their text books and such. The girls, mostly, were sincere and took the assigned responsibility head-on.

Needless to say, eight of us had exactly the same answers, word-for-word, and we were rewarded accordingly.

0/35

H too. And he was devastated.

30-odd kids were asked to leave the room, when the results were distributed, and we were spoken to. H tried to be belligerent. It didn’t matter, in our teacher’s eyes, copying is wrong. Allowing someone to copy is equally wrong. Our teacher knew who had allowed the copying and who had copied. It was a no-brainer.

*

Moral of the story? You have to be innovative when you cheat. Of course, you shouldn’t cheat in the first place. (Kids, this is what I wanted you to really focus on) But if you have to, be innovative, and to do that – you have to know something about the test that you are taking. Sorry, but that’s how it works.

*

I am sure I will not be able to complete 210 posts in three months. I need to — I need to coincide my tenth year of blogging with a thousand posts (not that, that makes any sense – it amounts to a hundred posts a year). I have considered cheating. Adding photos with badly formed Haikus and such. My poll asking you if I should merge my various blogs was a means of defending the cheat.

Cheating has to have a moral purpose, with your own standards of morality. No one can tell you what those standards are. (Kids, this is what I wanted you to really focus on.) They have to be your own. Ten people will tell you to do it one way, ten others will tell you to do it another. You may never lean on what others have told you. Your moral compass is your own. Build it, in your own way.

It doesn’t matter whether you cheat or not – what matters is the direction it points to – are you following True North or are you fumbling and compromising your own compass. It is OK to make mistakes. Mistakes matter less than how you stand up after those. It is not about forgiveness, for that is what others offer you. What will you offer yourself? All those mistakes will sharpen your moral compass, eventually; don’t deny the mistakes.

A goal is not just a destination, it is also about how you get there. If you can live with the manner in which you get there, everything’s all right. If not, find a new way. Irrespective of what you do, learn to live with it. You will have to.

Live your life as much as you can – and when the proverbial flashing-of-your-life-just-before-you-die is upon you, make sure, watch it in its full glory,

Make sure it is feature-length.

Making Bad Excuses

It’s seems quite impossible that the reason for not writing would be the lack of thoughts. We think all the time. And therefore, it seems equally impossible that we do not write because we cannot put our thoughts together. To be able to come to the conclusion that we cannot write because we cannot put our thoughts together is a process of putting thoughts together.

Munni Vs. Sheila

A lot has been discussed and written about the better one of the two most popular songs published in 2010/11. This topic is quite delayed now; for obvious reason – it took considerable time to deeply study these two publications, from the various perspectives in which these were presented. This research paper perhaps doesn’t have the same energy and currency that it would have had if I had posted it a few months ago. However, I submit my academic study of the comparative analysis of these two songs that are almost a phenomenon in the Indian ethos.

Munni Badnam Hui vs. Sheila Ki Jawani

Regional Identity

By any means, Munni encompasses a denser Indian ethos than Sheila. Whether it is in the presentation or the language of the song, Munni prevails. Munni sings a song in a single themed (ghagra-choli) costume all through the song: is consistent in her presentation. The costume, if you will allow it, is essentially, Indian. In comparison, Sheila is a world citizen of sorts. She flips from Arabic (Harem Trousers) to pseudo-English shorts and an untied neck-tie to a designer sari (read: I didn’t get enough cloth to design this sari) costumes all through the song. Munni’s song endorses all sorts of Indian products and movie-stars and encompasses other Indianisms (Zandu Balm, Shilpa, Saifu, Cinema Hall, the quintessential Prince Hair Cutting Saloon, and even the country), whereas Sheila epitomises the all-encompassing urban mood of the minority of Emerging India. Munni stays traditional to the original idea of India – in the towns and villages where the real India resides.

Sacrificial Nature

In continuing with the ethical sense of the presentation of these two publications, Munni typifies the sacrificial nature that is inherent in the expression of love. She embodies the needs of the lover to appeal to his myriad senses of pleasure and morphs to become a pain balm, a theatre, an atom bomb, being common, right up to becoming a country. In contrast, Sheila exhibits a certain play-hard-to-get attitude in the her presentation — she is inaccessible — in her own words. She goes on to declare that  no charms work on her, and that the one who woos her will never be able to get her. While Munni has already qualified as becoming a mint for you, Sheila is looking for an easy way in, with only those of you who have demonstrated that they come from money. It is unfortunate that those from the lower economic strata will never be able to “achieve” Sheila. She creates an unattainable aspiration for this segment of the society.

Accessibility & Presentation

Munni, is at all times making a statement of availability, a resume that would be the envy of the best resumes on monster.com (maybe naukri.com, considering the ethos). All through the presentation, Munni makes a compelling case of her qualities, including references from some of the well-known stars in Bollywood. While Sheila makes a similar statement of desirability, her standoffish statement may be the one thing working against her. Somewhere, it evokes desire at a higher level. It has been proved, that to deny competition is a mark of ignorance, and this is an area where Sheila fails miserably. Also, her statement that she would rather make love to herself, may very well go against her, within the Indian ethic and sensitivity (or perhaps work in her favour too, who knows). Finally, in terms of accessibility, you have to consider the location of the presentation. Munni, is out in the audience making close contact with prospects, whereas Sheila is always on stage – which distances herself from the potential audience. For this factor, it is obvious that Munni scores better on the CV value than Sheila.

Conclusion

Having presented this argument, it may still not be clear whether men will choose one over the other. It finally boils down to choice and personal preferences. However, based on the critical analysis that has been presented above, we hope that those who still have a conflicting sense of choice, will benefit from the analysis.

PS: This post is tagged under “Humour”

Prayer of Intention

The good thing about wandering is that you never know what you pick up on the way. Especially when you wander without agenda.

On one such wandering I picked up a prayer.

Our default prayers are those that our parents taught us, to acquire all the goodness in this world. It took most of us quite a while to edit that prayer and add our own specifics, clauses and caveats to it. Some of us let go of the prayer altogether.

One word, it’s meaning, has eluded me for a while: intention.

I have used it many times in life; I now feel, I used it loosely. This possibly stems from the lack of proof, in some way. When you intend (for, or to do) something, that is all you do. It is, as it appears to me, an orphan word. Though it is born of a desire or a wish and it dies with the action that makes the intention a reality, it truly belongs nowhere, and to no one when it exists.

Like raw, unharnessed power, perhaps?

This one prayer, I picked up recently caused a mental feud of what an intention is, really and at the same time asking me, if I have ever really wondered what a prayer really is – and what I do when I pray. Enough has been proven about the science of the power of suggestion, and perhaps all prayers are just that. Some prayers, like the one I discovered are elaborate and elegant; some are crude while being beautiful. And whatever their form and quality maybe, they serve the same purpose: statement of an intention.

However, whatever the nature of their composition and presentation, a prayer cannot be a transaction. A transaction has a shelf-life, which ends when the transaction is complete. And a single prayer cannot be reused for another transaction, because then the specifics would change.

So, is a prayer just a statement of intention of a continuous purpose? Compare, “I need to touch an average of 500 page views on my blog in the next three months”, with, “Let there be a continuous abundance of readers on my blog.” This is obviously a bad example, for it sounds frivolous. But, I suppose it serves the purpose of explaining one defining characteristic of a prayer.

But then who is to fulfil the prayer, be it the one about the page views or of the abundance of visitors. Because the prayer is only a message, and without an addressor or an addressee the message is an unmarked envelope gathering dust somewhere.

But there is no addressee.

There isn’t “someone out there” who actually takes up the job of fulfilling your prayers. And it makes sense that no one entity is taking that responsibility, else it would be a conflict management issue — attempting to fulfill prayers from around the world. Our prayers are addressed to ourselves — only a reinforcement of intention then, of dedicating to the action that fulfills the intention.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

Some of you may have seen (or been a part of) the recent Facebook experiment. The status message that asks your friends to dig up a memory of you that is at the tip of your brains. After only a few bothered, it seems my memorial ethos (pun, accidental), would be: conversations, and having them, under the influence or not.

Mighty chuffed, I was, after I read through the memories. There are a million others, which didn’t make it to the experiment’s venue, which however, I treasure with all my might.

These days, it is difficult to have a conversation going; haven’t had one for a while now, except with my artist friend. I don’t quite count IM chats as good conversation, though they tend to be interesting if you can manage the multiple threads caused by the delay, and suffer the typos caused by the difference in the varying speeds of thinking and typing. One such good conversation ensued a couple of days ago, unfortunately on an IM chat.

He and I usually talk of movies. We have had other conversations, like  “ethics of prevalent business models in the mobile communication services industry”, but, he fails miserably at those and it usually becomes a lecture series from us after a while, when he gives up, and we continue to talk of movies. So, after a moot argument about identifying a movie that excelled in (a) the art of film-making, (b) the presentation, and (c) the story-telling and wafting though elements of photography, lesser known Marathi film directors of yore, influence of critics and analysts on art, we ended up at “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

It was a lazy Saturday, three years ago, in London, alone, when, with the intention of spending the autumn afternoon at Trafalgar Square, I gingerly made way to the National Gallery that overlooks the square. I always thought of myself as a misfit in art galleries. I don’t understand art a lot (the technical parts), and I have a peeve about critics and analysts who usually tell us what to look for in it. I usually don’t see the way they do, if, I can extract meaning of the words they use to describe what it is all about, i.e. I like things because I like things. But being with an artist for long, certain thoughts and knowledge permeates through and sharpens your vision. In the aimless wandering around the Gallery, I was suddenly flush in front of this huge painting:

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche, 1833

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche, 1833. Source: Wikipedia Commons

It was overwhelming, to say the least. It told a long and intricate story in a single still image. When I wrote to her about this, I could not tell her anything about the painting. How big it was, the play of the light and such details. I could only tell her what I felt — and that I couldn’t explain it well, either. I only wrote that I was stuck on the bench looking at it for a very long time, and I cried.

This is a life changing painting for me. I am still the same as I was on that Saturday afternoon, however, what I have always believed about art became true that day. Art has a very personal meaning and good art is that that touches your soul. To be able to travel to 1553, the painting becomes a portal of sorts. Since then, I have been able to brave an entry into museums more often than I would have. Willingly. This painting opened a world of experience to me. I read a lot about the British history, especially Lady Jane Grey. I saw many other paintings, and found many, from different times, that made meaning. At the same time, I found many that didn’t.

I discovered that a painting or a photograph or music or a book doesn’t do anything to you, as such. It doesn’t do much to change the world, acting as an external force. It only provides an option: to you, to allow it to relate to you, if you will. If the connection doesn’t exist, you will feel nothing about that piece of art. You will only see its colour, brush strokes, and the artist’s intention, if at all.

If the connection exist, it gently evokes a feeling that you need to experience to find a little bit more about yourself.