A pastime for some, and a religion for others, photography shelters a plethora of ideas and styles under its wide umbrella. We take a brief glimpse at two prominent, albeit contrasting ones.
Eight in the morning. Driving down Lodhi Road, and exiting the Sabz Burj roundabout at the first leftward turn, you enter a secluded parking space, and are greeted by an imposing blue “UNESCO World Heritage Site” placard, tilted imperfectly towards the left, or maybe towards the right, like all placards in New Delhi. You exit your vehicle and sling along your Nikon, or Canon, or if you happen to have successfully convinced your parents that photography is more than just a fleeting interest for you, a Sony.
A brisk walk along a narrow footpath takes you to the ticket counter, which as you expected, doesn’t have the same long queue that you encountered a month ago on a Sunday evening. Having gotten past the counter, you continue walking, and a couple of hundred steps later, you find yourself staring at a colossal white marble and red sandstone domed structure flanked by flawless green gardens on all sides – the magnificent four-and-a-half-centuries old resting place of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun. Understandably you aren’t as awed as you were when you glimpsed it for the first time but nevertheless, you gaze at it a few seconds longer than you usually would at an exotic medieval building.
Then you whip out your camera and proceed to commence with your “mission”. What’s the first shot you take? You go and position yourself right in the middle of the walkway leading up to the mausoleum and attempt to compose an exactly symmetrical photograph of the tomb, along with the fountain pool and the trees and the manicured lawns, the kind which would make Wes Anderson proud according to you. Or would it? A look at the photograph reveals the lack of any human emotion, any contrasting elements and most notably, depth. And anything which might take the viewer beyond the picture. Nonetheless, the photograph is aesthetic enough and pleasing to the eye, hence you decide to keep it.
Through the rest of the day, you end up clicking several photographs not very different from the one described above. A photograph of the tomb from a 45-degree angle. The intricately carved arches. The façade. The dome. The balcony. The serpentine interior chambers. Another symmetrical frame, this time with a row of trees. The sky, either blue or pink. Or even grey. A random dog wagging its tail. A zoom-in of a crow perched on a branch. And undoubtedly, a zoom-in, or rather multiple zoom-ins of multiple flowers, each seemingly different according to you, but according to the viewers of your photographs, indistinguishable.
Decamping these posh and heavenly surroundings for a while, let’s shift our gaze to another person armed with a camera, seated in the sweltering heat inside a rickety e-rickshaw rumbling amidst the unruly traffic towards a dinghy locality in Uttam Nagar. To be precise, Potters’ Colony. The person can be a “he” or a “she”, but just for the sake of convenience, let’s make this one a “she”. Once she is dropped off at her destination, she eyes the myriad narrow winding lanes in front of her and choosing one, proceeds. And what’s the first shot she takes?
Inside the courtyard of a small bare-bricked house. A middle-aged lady in a dark pink saree is seen seated on haunches in front of a potter’s wheel, a few seconds away from putting the clay onto it. Cooped up in a small corner, a couple of meters away, is a young girl, presumably the lady’s daughter, reading a textbook. Apart from that, the room is empty, except for a small television cubicle. As the lady starts operating the machine, the girl lifts her eyes from her book and gives a quick gone-in-a-second glance at the lady and her machine, slightly startled by its sudden whirring sound. At that exact moment, someone with sharp ears would have also heard the faint but discernible click of a camera’s shutter.
A girl studying indefatigably to pull herself out of the vicious poverty cycle that is represented by her mother and her potter’s wheel. Or a girl who’s trying to do so but suddenly realises what the cruel reality of her situation is. Or even a more specific portrayal of a complex issue – with plastic and synthetic materials replacing earthenware, the potters face a threat to their livelihood, and the future of their offspring.
The photograph can be interpreted in multiple ways and multifarious stories can be woven around it. Human facets, emotions and contrasting elements are present in abundance, with the juxtaposition of the book and the potter’s wheel being the most striking comparison. The viewer might encounter feelings of sympathy or admiration, or maybe both. In spite of being a largely simple image, the photograph’s meanings and interpretations go much beyond the visual representations present in it. And though not exactly an aesthetically pleasing frame, it’s the kind that would make the viewer think. And the kind which would be found in an exhibition at an exclusive art gallery, surrounded and fawned over by photography aficionados, old and young alike.
At its most basic level, art’s cardinal purpose is self-satisfaction and this purpose loses its sheen when someone else dictates you to produce a specific genre of art. Thus, if you happen to be someone who derives pleasure from clicking simple aesthetic photographs, then keep doing so. No one should direct you to take a step further and move on to street photography or photojournalism. The realisation or the urge should come from within.
As you move up an imaginary Maslow pyramid for artistic needs, you shall realise that apart from fulfilling your self-satisfactory needs, what’s also imperative is ensuring, or at least attempting to make your audience think and contemplate through the work that you present. While it’s not necessary to move up, you shall undeniably find your work far more stimulating and fulfilling than before.
And you’ll know you’ve moved up the pyramid when you come across a sudden urge to discover something beautiful, and the first destination that comes into your consciousness is not an opulent UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the small corner of a potter’s makeshift house in a nondescript part of the city.
Feature Image Credits: Ankur Saha (Instagram @theguywiththeprime)