In July, the Kolkata Press Club, the oldest press club on the subcontinent, held a bizarre referendum to determine if photojournalists are journalist enough to be awarded club memberships. Two hundred and seventy nine members participated in the voting, where it was decided by secret ballot that photojournalists will, in fact, not be allowed general membership.
By this act, the Kolkata Press Club has inflicting a deep sense of humiliation on the city’s press photographers. They have been made to feel insulted, simply as a result of what they do every day as a profession, even risking their lives to do it if need be.
A writer can stay indoors in a war zone, a flood, a forest fire or during civil unrest but a photographer doesn’t have the luxury to do so. During the Covid-19 pandemic, when writers had the option to work from home, photographers were out there on the streets, capturing the misery and the chaos. The world could witness the heaps of dead bodies stuffed into shallow sand graves by the Ganga during the second wave because a photographer chose to travel and document them.
An act of remembering
The only way you remember moments that defined and changed the course of human history in the last one-and-a-half centuries is through photographs. Text, at best, gives those photographs context. Close your eyes and think about 9/11 attacks for a second. How do you remember the Vietnam war? Pick any major historical event, and you’ll know it’s the images that stick.
Interestingly, events which are not in the public memory anymore are those that were either not photographed much or not photographed well. The genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka, or the exodus of Rohingyas from Myanmar’s Rakhine State, for example, are hardly talked about in India even though they happened in nations bordering us. But the Ukraine war is talked about. Why so? Because the images of Ukraine repeatedly keep popping up on our social media feeds, making it impossible to ignore this conflict.
People don’t react unless they see. Imagine if there was no visual record of George Floyd’s brutal murder by an American police officer, if you didn’t hear his last words, “I can’t breathe Mama,” do you think a movement as big as “Black Lives Matter” would have taken place?
Historically, dictators were heavily dependent on the power of images to sustain their power. Hitler needed film maker Leni Riefenstahl because he knew the seduction of the image, the power of effective propaganda. Which text can match the impact of Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein’s revolutionary Soviet propaganda movie, which Charlie Chaplin pronounced “the best film in the world”?
The political power of the image
Look around at politicians who are successful in India and beyond: they’re what they’re because they understand and use the photographic image to their advantage. Because they know the only bridge between them and their audience is just one simple thing – the image.
When Twitter-happy liberals make fun of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying he is playing for the camera, the joke is on them, because the man they are making fun of is actually at work, while they’re wasting their time inside a digital black hole. Modi knows what he is doing while his opposition is completely oblivious to the power of the image. He knows he is playing to the camera, because that’s the only thing that connects him to his constituency.
Broadly, if we agree on the extraordinary power of images and acknowledge their role in shaping the world we live in, why do a small section of people, organisations and institutions continue to undermine the role of photography and photographers? Actually they don’t want to – they just don’t want to pay for it.
Choking Indian photojournalism
A larger and a more urgent question that arises, as a result: is Indian photojournalism in danger? And the answer is yes, probably it is. The reasons are varied and complex, like technological advancements and democratisation of the medium, which enabled anyone to be a photographer. Moreover, we live in an age of constant surveillance, where everything is already being recorded all the time. In a situation like this, what can photojournalism really offer?
It is this unique crisis which has compelled our generation to push the boundaries of the medium, and we haven’t done so badly in the last two decades. On the contrary, documentary photography in India is probably going through its best time in history. There is no international award the world of photojournalism has to offer that Indian photographers of our generation haven’t won.
Indian photographers today are exhibiting their work at every prestigious festival, museum, gallery, art fair and biennale across the world. Can the Indian writers of our generation or the earlier one for that matter,honestly claim something similar? Can they come forward and say they are the best generation of writers in the last 150 years? Imagine what we could have achieved if legacy media or the new, emerging digital media supported our work.
In transition from print to digital, we have silently but successfully managed to completely throw out one of the most important positions in the newsroom: the photo editor. Forget about hiring photographers, barely any digital news organisation in India has a full-time photo editor. Is it only because of budgetary constraints?
We need to pause and think: when the next generation will look for visual records of what happened in the last several decades, what are you going to tell them? That you didn’t have a budget? Or are we going to beg for images from international agencies? The Indian media and entertainment industry in 2022 is valued at Rs 3.4 lakh crore, and we’re being made to believe there is no budget for photos – it’s absolutely ridiculous.
When Danish Siddiqui, one of the best we had, died tragically at work, there were condolences which came from every corner. Everyone mourned his untimely death. A colleague said India lost its eyes, and rightly so, Danish was indeed one of India’s brightest eyes. But he was also an employee of an international news agency. Indian news organisations would never pay someone like Danish to go out there to be our eyes.
Let’s face the uncomfortable truth – without foreign paid eyes in India, we have reduced ourselves to a blind nation. But can we afford to be blind in the long run? That’s the question all of us have to ask.
Ronny Sen is an award-winning film director, writer and photographer.