New flashpoints in the continuous drama of brief encounters with the Homo Incognitus
My work is about provisionality of the moment, artist William Kentrige had once said to have remarked. Though this pronouncement surely may perturb many a mind with an artistic bend, especially in this region, as most hold complacently on to the notion of art as an eternal source of enlightenment, or at least pleasure – as if pieces of art have no culture specificity, or any socioeconomic and time-bound context. If they had their way, art would be passed of as something that regularly originates from a reservoir devoid of links to 'history' or 'locality'; and this reservoir or a cultural heritage site is naively pictured as a growing, enduring hub – a 'natural'/'neutral' archive.
Without bothering much about the reaction of the people who choose to live under illusion, one may face this pithy remark from the South African maestro with gusto; and this marked man who now hovers over the contemporary art scene defying modernist grid of aesthetic control and stereotyped concoctions as well as national borders – like some other winged angels with similar fortitude, stands out for his ability to draw from various sources, including literature with a canny eye on the incongruous and the awkward. If painters and sculptors of this clime still remain unmoved, photographers are there at least to give this reflection a thought.
What is photography if not a moment caught in the reel for posterity knowing full well that the act is nothing but provisional. And that particular atomized moment remains significant not only in the context of the truth it divulge, or meaning it imparts, but also for where it stands in relations to other such images, as in the case of all semiotic system where one component becomes valuable or meaningful only in the context of the rest.
One who chooses to take up this challenge of freezing moments in time as both passion and profession may operate – freewheelingly – advantaged by not being too bothered about how the end results would be looked at long after one's own time. As one may assume that the image(s) is/are either going to end up adorning a magazine, or an exhibition wall, or, if luck has it, enrich an archive of regional or international repute. And that is not at all an assurance of longevity. Therefore, when photographers crave to remain pertinent to their own culture as well as beyond it, they get embroiled in the act and its effect, in the swirl of events of historical/social significant; and sure he is a proponent who reads phenomena to produce interpretations by resorting to a symbolic order built in succession.
Ever heard of artists dying in the battle fields, particularly when the World War II is behind us! But photographers/photojournalists are being martyred on a regular basis on war fronts in the world's most troubled zones. They cannot afford to depict reality from the safety of their studio, the sensory data they are after is out there where the battle rages; and the capturing is possible either from within their perceived safety zone, or from close quarters. To record an event or a conflict with implications of imperial dimension, or to capture the seemingly trivial, no matter how provisional they all seem to us, is to confront life's drama as and when they happen, there can never be the provision for distancing or disaffection, not at the time of 'capture'.
If what is being captured seems too depressing for the pair of eyes that cannot avoid the act of capturing, one may turn this into a form of living, be that a source of passion or a way to ensure a regular monetary replenishment, as has been accomplished by Munem Wasif, one of the recent upshot of photographic rebirth in the country courtesy of some photo agencies including the mightiest of them all – Drik.
Fixing a lens at a target to be part of the ritual of cultural transmission is now a sustainable vocation, and immensely profitable, as has been proven by the likes of Wasif.
Susan Sontag might have taken issue with the yields that this life would produce, she would have indicated several morasses within this modernist framework of signification, as in the book 'On Photography' she points out how photography helps to perpetuate the myth of the real world being representable, and that too in a miniaturized form. Yet, even before all these issues begin to jostle one's mind, fixing a gaze, or determining a stance to record what one stumbles upon or chooses to stumble upon, is an issue that calls for serious thinking.
Munim Wasif is a young Bangladeshi photographer who recently shot to international fame for his mannered yet docudrama-like take on life. Represented by Agence VU, his attempts at assigning value to the heterogeneity of human existence and experience vis-à-vis every-day phenomena has been decisively packed into the Old Dhaka survey he completed early in his career.
One whose work has already shown the signs of courage to go beyond the 'surface value' of the subjects, as a professional feels that, behind every click of the camera through which 'capturing' is performed, behind a fraction of a second that a 'click' takes up, there are learning of many, many years. The discipline of picking a particular moment only develops over time, Wasif points out. For he knows that it is no fluke but the result of a meditation on a particular way of organizing one's thoughts and life towards creating each opportunity that results in a discerning image.
One who has already been able to put his camera to the task of generating some extraordinary visuals in a country 'where there are no readers of visuals', as has been lamented by their progenitor, there exists a misconception around the very apparatus used to record the real. Popular assessment has it that the man behind the camera is a mere manipulator – a conductor of sort, thereby robbing of his/her person, or intellect. Wasif feels that it is of crucial importance to have one's head fully engaged with things on which one's eyes are focused; which may be interpreted as his bias towards thought over insight. But, as he further elucidates his outlook on the ethico-ontological dimension of image-making, it soon dawns that the intellect is for him is a way to remain observant/aware of the moot issue of 'who portrays whom', which he believes, 'is the most important matrix in this game.'
The politics of representation has its many-sided particulars to reveal: it defines the roles of the capturer and the captured within the continuum of dominance and subjugation; and as a rule the former dominates the latter made possible through the structures of projection and introjections. So, as a person whose lived experiences has not readied him for any short-cuts – at least not for the time being – while touching on a gamut of life's drama including the trivial and transient, he works with his digital tool akin to a glib talker adept at filling the void with convincing words. Through the enthusiasm for fluidity, flux and reading events as they unfurl, there emerges an eloquent portraitist of chance encounters as we see in the series on lives in Old Dhaka and the string of intimate images he has recently been in the process of finishing centering on friends and acquaintances. For their ability to divulge new layers of social and psychological truth, the works seem to make us understand that one man's subjectivity and fractured vision may sometimes pave the way for the rest to attempt a restoration of the real as well as the whole.
The workmanship Wasif displays seems to supersede the condition of a person caught between 'mirror' and mask, to use the formulation of Cristopher Nash to indicate the personality whose 'self-awareness' and 'other-awareness' never feed off of each other placing her/him forever in limbo.
For Wasif and his strain of tempered realism (tempered due to the symbolic and expressionistic layering) things are ferried from the center of experience to the sphere of gestures or subjective interpretation. It is in the maelstrom of experience where lies the aperçus or outlooks that positions him the sphere beyond depotentiated personality mentioned above as well as scopophilia, the later being the most infectious in today's Bangladesh. Pleasing the eye or scopophilia often undercuts the quality of a photo devised as an offhand commentary on the ontic dimension of the subject it apparently give appearance to.
One is aware that however personalized the vision is, photography never speaks 'a hermetically private idiom' , to borrow Terry Egelton's phrase. 'Reel' reality may or may not be the reality at the level of the ontic stratum, yet it has rarely been a means for its proponent to stand in isolation, or in abject detachment from the world we are able to perceive through vision as well as the technological devices used to attempt an equivalent.
The dilemma facing a young photographer such as Wasif has to do with this medium being a conduit through which we not only get to know the effect of events on human life or situations, considering its news as well as documentary value, but also the effect the acquired pieces, by way of the mode of representation, have on people who are exposed to them and are subjected to their manipulative power. This latter component, if taken advantaged by the man behind the lens, propels this medium into the province of 'Media Production' – either to be part of a fit for purpose solution – as after conforming to the force of the 'hidden hand of market behabhiour', or to complement the unending web of transmission of urban narratives the media affords.
But, things can also be pushed to a level where the 'prescriptive generation of social and aesthetic ideas' is successfully avoided. The defamiliarizing or denaturalizing effect achieved through technical manipulation – either during a shoot or afterwards – permits Wasif's oeuvre a quality of disinterestedness, which, at first sight, seems nonmarketable. But to fully rescue him from the pall of doubt about him being in the grip of the demand and supply cycle one needs to recourse to the idea of empathy, which often gives a spin – seemingly harmless one – to a simple subject, making it media-ready. The multitude of images which have been put out from the canons invented by the social interventionist institutions is the case in point.
To be able to distance one from the NGO inspired 'unary image' that lacks the punctum, or sting – as has been propounded by Barthes – is not a matter of principle, as in this image-saturated world the patterns and webs of influence perverts one's perception at multiple levels. Standing far apart from the depoliticized, empathy-inciting images seem an impossibility at times when the entire spectrum of empathy art and representation has been hijacked by the liberals whose faith in micro-level engagement has given rise to a rigorous cycle of aid circulation and receipt. Does the empathy which we detect in the docu-dreamlike pictures on the severely salt affected region in the series 'Salt Water Tears' make us restore our faith in photography's ability to heighten 'other-awareness'? Or is it a way for the photographer to sap our emotional core, thereby creating a false sense of awareness of the reality about which we have apparently no real association or concern? The Old Dhaka series presents no scope for such dilemma as the Gesalt of experience is from where they throw things at the viewers; consequently, each encounter seems to emerge as the layers of every-day visibility are peeled off to make it seem deep-seeing. As is testified by the photographer himself, Nan Goldin holds sway over such contingent results with her concept of Snapshot Aesthetic and also the repositioning of the capturer forced into 'overlapping of 'roles' – photographer/seer/activist etc – to explore the 'multitudes of layers of reality existing in our society.'
It is, perhaps, due to the subject-matter he delves into that we are thrown back to the threshold of the issue of 'empathy image' time and again. Whether the empathy with which his lens responds to the water crisis in the southern district – where commercial shrimp farming has a catastrophic effect on life, drastically increasing the salinity of both surface and ground water – has to do with the First World's demand for the Third World crisis-image, or is a genuine investment in understanding human condition, we are left in a conflicting state of mind. However, one particular frame – where a boat lies idle on a cracked and desolate cropland – relay the haunting in such a muted yet memorable symbolism that we are thrown into the epicentre of the nightmare.
At one point, one may ask: between 'description and drama', as is promulgated by John Grieson – a significant figure in the British documentary film movement – where does Wasif's arty documentary pieces reside? The answer to this question may lead us to the location from where one may be able to discern whether the tilt is towards creating an interpretation of one's own or to fit into the diagram already mapped out by the people from the other end of the matrix, whose demands the photographers usually try to meet.
The other issue is about the affectation achieved, the result of which is defamiliarization – a Cubist invention that makes the form have a voice of its own. Standing in front of Wasif's many-sided takes on life, one wonders whether the defamiliarizing effect is a way for him to remain clear out of 'naïve realism' that afflicts so many pieces that come under the documentary genre in this country? Or is this a thrust towards art photography? If Wasif's works typify an essential reengagement with reality and also a rethinking of how one looks at one's subject matter and presents it as one perceives it through the relativistic and situational matrix, only then we would we be able to put him in the category of artists who defy 'preexisting mental picture of things or actions' to profer a new or revised reading.
When true departure occurs, it does so due to one's belief in 'active vision' rather than 'objective representations' – the latter being a throwback from the last century when positivist claim to verisimilitude still had considerable hold on artists and photographers. Luckily, Wasif's notion of representation, by way of putting together discursive skills and the emotive understanding, is analogous to unromantic, anti Omnihistorical reading of events which generate nothing more than officially ordained effectual interpretations. It is by resorting to extra-visual references that one manages to achieve a visuality loaded with symbolic meaning and expressive of visionary zeal. As Wasif's visual language is less about candour than about creativity, we may wait and see how he mediate upon social and ecological concerns with the same intensity which makes his Old Dhaka pictures so energy-saturated and insightful.