Citizens of Photography: the Camera and the Political Imagination is an empirical anthropological investigation of a hypothesis about the relationship between photographic self-representation and different societies' understanding of what is politically possible. The project is based within the Department of Anthropology at University College London and is funded by a European Research Council Advanced Grant.
Prolonged ethnographic fieldwork (by six anthropologists at the postdoc and doctoral level) in Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Greece, Nigeria, and Nicaragua has been investigating how local communities use photography to represent individuals, families, and other identities and exploring whether this plays a role in the manner in which people articulate their political hopes and demands.
The conceptual starting point of the project is recent work by photographic theorists, among them Ariella Azoulay. She has argued that photography makes possible a new form of “civil imagination” and offers a subjunctive form of citizenship, because of its inclusiveness and contingency. Azoulay develops her argument in the context of historical images and also in relation to contemporary photojournalism and the manner in which photographic images appear to provoke actions with political consequences. This project starts with her insights and seeks to explore them at a local level in relation to vernacular or “demotic” photography. One central aim of the project concerns the relationship between “representation” through everyday images and “representation” through politics.
Presented here are five images selected by each of the project team whose research has been in Asia. They arise from work by Vindhya Buthpitiya, in northern Sri Lanka; Christopher Pinney, in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India; and Sokphea Young, in Cambodia. The findings of the project will be available in due course via individually authored studies and a collectively edited volume. The full project also comprises work by Naluwembe Binaisa, in Nigeria; Konstantinos Kalantzis, in Greece; and Ileana Selejan, in Nicaragua. Their work can be found here. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/anthropology/research/photodemos
Fig. 1. Sample identity card photographs display at a Jaffna studio, 2018. Jaffna was the base for early local photographers such Swaminathar Kanagaratnam Lawton (1851-1919), and is locally claimed as the birthplace of photography not only in the island, but ‘the East’, following its introduction by American missionaries as early as the 1840s. Before the advent of mobile phones, where personal cameras remained a considerable luxury, the region’s studios documented, over the decades, both special occasions and citizenships. From birthdays and weddings to the state-necessitated National Identity Card (NIC) and passport headshots, these tattered repositories chart life cycles and life journeys. Photograph by Vindhya Buthpitiya. Fig. 2. Framing shop remains, Kilinochchi, 2018. The decades of devastation during the Tamil ethnonationalist struggle and interlinked civil war have shaped the visual and material trajectories of everyday popular photographic practices in Northern Sri Lanka. The making, displaying, damage to and loss, concealment or destruction of photographs vividly thread through the postwar following the defeat of the LTTE by the Sri Lankan military. In studios and in framing shops, owners became custodians of a medley of uncollected photographs abandoned over the years, their owners dispersed at best, or long-dead at worst. Where personal photographs have been mostly lost to conflict and displacement, these unintended treasuries offer glimpses into the way in which the war whittled social life in Northern Sri Lanka, especially in the way in which photography became a part of a visual (political) economy of death. Photograph by Vindhya Buthpitiya. Fig. 3. Framed memorial portraits awaiting collection at a Jaffna framing shop. National Identity Card photography, though an embodiment of state surveillance, classification and securitisation further exacerbated by conflict, possess extraordinary afterlives, conjugated into new forms and uses. Through a process of ‘copying’, retouching and overpainting, once with ink and brush and now with Photoshop on desktop computers, each photographic incarnation is recast and remade into others. Studio practitioners, would transform staid NIC photographs into extravagant memorial portraits made even grander by frame-makers with twinkling electric lights and neon plastic flowers, to be placed and worshipped among Hindu or Catholic household pantheons. Photograph by Vindhya Buthpitiya. Fig. 4. A Tamil family mourns before a portrait at Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day that marks the end of the war, 2018. In the postwar, these humble everyday photographs, made for the most part by local photography studios during the course of the conflict, photographs spanning from NIC portraits to family snaps, feature in a vibrant political re-routing. The mobilisation of personal and official photographs within spaces of defiant commemoration where the state’s unease about Tamil nationalism endures, as well as spaces of protest have underscored the state’s prevarications on reconciliation and transitional justice. For the Sri Lankan Tamil community, photographs underpin their political claims bound to the inequities of citizenship where Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism has rapidly become the hegemonic basis for determining belonging as well as practicalities of citizenship. The use of these photographs has also itself become a genre for photo/journalists as they place such acts within a globalised aesthetic and lineage of resistance against state atrocities ranging from Argentina to Kashmir. Photograph by Vindhya Buthpitiya. Fig. 5. Protest of the Families of the Disappeared In Maruthankerny, Jaffna: family members hold up photographs of their loved ones, 2018. Most prominent among the various acts of resistance undertaken by the Tamil community are the protests of the Families of the Disappeared in the North and East of Sri Lanka. Continued for over a thousand days since February 2017, the protesters have gathered in various locations to demand answers from the state about the whereabouts of their loved ones, a number of whom surrendered to the state security forces at the end of the war. Photographs of the protesters, haunting in their wielding of hundreds of photographs of missing family members, have become a visual metonym for the many injustices and grievances that pervade the postwar. Photograph by Vindhya Buthpitiya.
Fig. 6. A photograph of the first Chinese migrant family, taken in a photo studio in Phnom Penh around the 1930s during the French colonial period. The photograph was restored from black and white in order to reprint and share with relatives (years after they passed away). It survived through apocalyptic and political calamities, from peace to war, from war to genocidal regime, and to peace again. It is a rare photograph archived by their children, and is also an indication that photography was not affordable or democratised to everyone, especially rural Cambodians, except those like this first generation of a Chinese immigrant family. Re-photographed by Sokphea Young. Fig. 7. A photograph of Nharn Nhov, on the left with a blue shirt, taken at a camp along the Cambodia-Thailand border in the 1980s. On the right his portrait has been cut to make a photo ID for a job application. In the 1980s, Cambodia’s situation was fragile, with most of the country’s territory controlled by Vietnamese troops while the Khmer Rouge occupied the Thai border zones. As Vietnam invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979, up to a million Cambodians fled the country and sought shelter along the borders with Thailand and Vietnam, before seeking asylum elsewhere. In this transition period, photography, and especially photo ID services, were not available, and that compelled the young Nharm to duplicate a pre-existing photograph (in Thailand, before he returned to the camp) and then dismember it for his photo ID. Re-photographed by Sokphea Young. Fig. 8. A wedding photograph from a family album of grandfather “Aspara” taken in the early 2000s in Battambang province, North-western Cambodia. His daughter-in-law was cut out of the photograph when he realised that she communicated HIV to his son. Although both of them passed away, the grandfather felt the need to express his anger by excising the ex-daughter-in-law as if the abolition of her face would also destroy her soul. This analogue mode of deletion prefigures Photoshop, and Facebook’s era of “friend” and “un-friend”. Re-photographed by Sokphea Young. Fig. 9. A Photoshopped image of a graduate with Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia. Believing that being photographed in the presence of a powerful figure would bring fortune and facilitate a flow of power, many Cambodians desire such images. In an official event or ceremony like graduation, not many students are fortunate enough to be photographed with the Premier, unless they get the highest score or are recommended by the university rector or chancellor. This poor graduate paid a photographer to Photoshop himself with Hun Sen. A photograph like this would be displayed at the home or office to show to relatives and friends one’s indexical connection to power. Re-photographed by Sokphea Young. Fig. 10. An indigenous woman’s portrait on her Chinese-made smartphone camera, and her Facebook profile viewed on apple IPhone, November 2018. Remote and poor communities now have access to photography and the digital platforms through which they can be distributed at a very affordable price. Photograph by Sokphea Young.
Fig. 11. The photographer Min Ratna Bajracharya with his image “Dawn of Freedom,” Kathmandu, September 2019. Following the shooting dead of more than fifty demonstrators, in April 1990, King Birendra announced the end of absolute rule. Bajracharya photographed a young woman named Durga Thapa rising from a large, predominantly male celebratory crowd with her hands raised in a victory salute. This jubilant image would become an icon of Nepali photojournalism, but one that is little known outside of the country. Durga Thapa’s pose is regularly (re-)performed by demonstrators: Bajracharya recounts many instances in which he subsequently photographed activists consciously acting out her iconic gestures. Photograph by Christopher Pinney. Fig. 12. Shivprasad’s smartphone generated “tree of life,” Bhaktapur, Nepal, 2016. Shivprasad started the series of which this is a part in Qatar, where he worked as a security guard. On his return to Nepal, Shivprasad opened a shop in Bhaktapur, in the Kathmandu Valley. In 2015, both his shop and his home were very badly damaged in a devastating earthquake. The tree template expressed a yearning for place and family: A statue depicts the Buddha underneath Gaya’s Bodhi Tree and is surrounded by Bhaktapur’s key religious structures, such as the Nyatapola Pagoda, the Bhairavnath Temple, and two smaller temples in the city’s Durbar Square. These images of his hometown are interspersed with pictures of his wife and daughter. Re-photographed by Christopher Pinney. Fig. 13. The Instagram profile of an eighteen-year-old Bangladeshi student, revealing images recording one of his several visits to Jaflong, in northern Bangladesh. The river Piyain, which separates Bangladesh and the Indian state of Meghalaya, is a popular tourist destination for younger Bangladeshis, many of whom avail themselves of the services of one of the dozens of photographers who use printers on floating barges to produce images for their clients. Tourists sit on rocks in the middle of the river and exchange Whatsapp details with Indian tourists who flock from the Meghalaya side. Photography is deeply entangled in this fantasy of border-crossing and escape to a “beyond.” Photograph by Christopher Pinney. Fig. 14. Gokul’s and Narji’s outstretched arms hold a memorial photograph of Hira. Hira’s portrait was featured on the cover of Camera Indica (it depicted Hira’s brother, Ramlal, holding a portrait of Hira holding a portrait of his father) in a mise-en-abyme, a kind of visual black hole through which the image fell backwards to an impossible moment of past capture. The image of Hira I encountered in 2019 in the breakaway Dalit settlement near the village railway station where his brothers now live seemed to move in the opposite direction, falling forward into a future in which he served as a guide. Gokul, the son of Hira’s brother Naggulal, “thrashed” with the presence of Hira at least twice a year (during each of the “nine nights of the goddess”). The memorial photograph of Hira directly animated the thrashing, Hira’s pret passing from the surface of the image into Gokul’s body.These two iterations of Hira’s photographs dramatize two different modes of photography, one solemnizing the past, as in the famous Bourdieusian formula, and the other prophetic and future-oriented and filled with unknowability, something close to what Azoulay describes as the recognition that “not only were the photographed people there [at the moment of exposure], but . . . in addition, they are still present at the time I’m watching them” (2008:16). Photograph by Christopher Pinney. Fig. 15. King Cobra appearing during Tejas Dasmi, September 1977, central India. Tejas Dasmi (“bright tenth [lunar day]”) is a festival celebrating the pastoral deity Tejaji, who, through the allied figure of Nag Maharaj (King Cobra), provides protection from snakebites. In 1977, at least, the festival also involved a matki phod, a human tower associated with mythology concerning Krishna in his guise as the makhan chor (butter thief). Photographs carefully preserved in a village album by a leading Jain document villagers congregating around the shrine after the procession circumambulating the village. Re-photographed by Christopher Pinney.
Later images in the series show the matki phod, a human tower, being constructed by thirty or perhaps forty individuals in three tiers. It was while this living pyramid struggled to take form that the participants became aware of a mysterious presence, a zone of energy of the kind that someone fifteen to twenty feet high might exert. Everyone was aware of something helping them as they clambered upward, and the same force came to their rescue when the tower collapsed onto hard stony ground, for they were all magically cushioned as they fell. The final image in the series delivers the denouement, placing the tower at the center of the image and showing some of the many small colored flags suspended from the shrine, which remains out of frame. Parallel to the tower on the left side a large, mottled, snakelike stripe sears the image. For the participants in the matki phod and the many excited spectators whose presence the image also documents, the photograph affirmed what they had experienced: the King Cobra whom the festival remembers had been the mysterious presence assisting in its own effervescent celebration.
Professional photographers in the nearby town are highly skeptical of the rural ontology of photography that prizes it as a medium in which the world of sagas and jujhar (spirits of the deceased) becomes visible. Suresh Punjabi, of Suhag Studio, observed that when developing 120 film, the negative can easily get scratched, producing confusing noise on the surface of the image. Deep scratches can also start to “melt” at high temperatures, and for this reason many photographers would add a little ice (if they could obtain it) to the developer. Split negatives often produced a mottled pattern on the final printed image.
As well as providing a striking example of photography as a kind of “divination,” the image (which was disclosed to Pinney only in 2019, more than thirty years after he started visiting the village it depicts) demonstrates the value of long-term fieldwork.
Vindhya Buthpitiya is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at University College London researching the interweaving of conflict, popular photography and political articulation among the Tamil community in Northern Sri Lanka.
Sokphea Young obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Melbourne, Australia, and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University College London (UK).
Christopher Pinney is Professor of Anthropology and Visual Culture at University College London. His numerous books include Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs (1997), Photography’s Other Histories (co-edited with Nicolas Peterson, 2003), and The Coming of Photography in India (2008). He is the Principal Investigator of the Photodemos project.