This July, I will be participating in THE SALT PRINTS photo walk. It is a contemporary artists’ march with the aim to retrace the historical “Dandi March – the 387 km walk from Sabarmati to Dandi”, which launched the history’s greatest nonviolent battle, the civil disobedience campaign, headed by the father of the nation, the great Mahatma Gandhi, in 1930.
I have always been intrigued by the monumental role played by Mahatma gandhi in India’s freedom struggle.
The most awe inspiring aspect of his achievements is his contribution in motivating the common people to get involved in the freedom struggle, by empowering them with the tool of non-violence. Before he entered the scenario, the Indian freedom movement was predominently the concern of a few educated elite. After the salt march, it was transformed almost instantly into a movement of the masses. It also encouraged a worldwide debate and discussion of basic questions in social and political sciences concerning freedom, human rights, resistance, revolution and social and political change.
Digital media, and digital cameras in particular, at a cursory glance, seem to have done this in the arena of photography. Digital revolution has removed the camera from the hands of the elite few and put it in the hands of every cellphone user. But unlike what happened with the salt march, instead of moving towards a freer, more liberated and more progressive visual expression using digital photography as a tool, we seem to have actually regressed, with the same content, and same style and the same “look” being produced over and over again. The ease of image creation brought by digital revolution should have helped in freeing our thinking, bringing in new ideas, new ways of seeing and expressing and new subject matter brought in by people who wouldn’t have had access to image making devices in the older days, paving the way for a new visual vocabulary, and new dialog and poetry written with it. Every digital versus film debate seems to discuss and compare only the resolution capabilities of digital sensors and film, the dynamic range, the color space and on and on. In every photo workshop I give, whether it be a black and white film processing workshop in Pune or Alternative Photography workshop for NID students or a pinhole photography workshop for kids in a small village, I am always asked about resolution and “How many megapixels does a 35mm film have?” kind of questions. But hardly anybody seems to be interested in discussing what kind of a visual culture the digital camera is bringing in and what kind of image making practices and traditions are we losing in the process of moving from film to digital. Instead, we have actually become embroiled in the megapixel-mongering. What’s gone wrong?
This walk is for me an attempt at understanding the Mahatma by putting myself in his shoes. Exploring visually the social, geographical, ideological, emotional and strategic facets that made the civil disobedience movement a success, so that we can repeat the strategy to achieve similar freedom of thought in other arenas, specifically, photography in India. Gandhiji’s own writings hold many clues. The main reason for his choice of non-violence as a methodology was he believed that the method is inseparable from the outcome. To quote him, “[there is] an inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree.” Photography today has lost this very connection that existed only a few years ago. With all the regalia of highly responsive sensors, intelligent algorithms and high DPI printers, we are further removed from the intimacy and tangibility of image creation and many times come to believe that the higher the cost of the equipment, the better the work produced with it. And the internet is submerged in the deluge of bad images taken with the latest DSLRs and edited with the latest softwares. The alternative photographic processes, traditional and contemporary, precisely triumph in this respect – They restore and re-enforce the connection between the means and the end, the seed and the tree the thought and the final outcome. They put the choice and cotrol back into place where it belongs: In the hands of the artists, freeing them to express their creativity in more ways than what industry deems sufficiently profitable to be manufacture-worthy.