You could watch movie stars dance in diverse locations and through those images claim those worlds for your own—Kashmir, Holland, Vrindavan Gardens
Last weekend at the Sassoon Dock Art Festival, a wonderfully diverse crowd thronged the exhibition venues. Almost more striking than the art though, was how most visitors were involved in taking photographs of themselves. Murals, sculptures, photographs, were assessed mostly as backdrops with high-production values for a photograph of the viewer. Where exhibits were in darkened rooms, making self-photography impossible, people compulsively photographed the art works, took videos of videos. It was as if a private, direct relationship with the artwork was somehow awkward. One could relate to it only via a screen. The screen, ubiquitous in our lives, validates reality, almost as if we do not have confidence in our inner selves enough to feel and remember the experience. Well, our inner selves don’t get as much practice as our outer selves.
Humans have searched for their own reflection in art, in gods, in the eyes of a lover. These images were also a conduit to reflect on oneself. People have long stamped themselves onto the world—graffiti on monuments, tourist photos before wonders of the world. If you could not visit the wonder of the world, or ride an airplane, you could get a photograph of yourself within a cutout, or in front of a photograph of the Taj Mahal, joining yourself through images to a long line of lovers, tourists and photographic subjects. You could watch movie stars dance in diverse locations and through those images claim those worlds for your own—Kashmir, Holland, Vrindavan Gardens.
On a recent visit to Vietnam, I frequently encountered young people, doing cosplay—as soldiers, colonial maidens, ancient queens. Spiritual gardens, French colonial buildings, and art museums functioning as sets for stills of themselves in some imaginary film. Recently, the cricketer Prithvi Shaw was allegedly attacked and his car trashed because he refused a selfie to an influencer. A few days later, singer Sonu Nigam almost got thrown off a stage as the organiser insisted on a selfie. It’s not surprising because not just the world, and time, but even people now serve as backdrops or accessories for photos of ourselves.
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The image is not something made for us to gaze upon to reflect on ourselves. We ourselves are continuously creating and re-creating ourselves as images—as if we might disappear if we are not constantly a photograph. We are the centre, we are the point of the image.
If popular culture teaches us something it is that nothing has only one meaning. This self-centering can be powerful —as with young women framing themselves as subjects of desire rather than being framed by men as objects of desire. Someone told me that when young women ask young men to take pictures of them it is also an act of intimacy, an invitation to look, on their terms. There is a sense of exchange here. But, when everything is a backdrop, does everything else also become a thing for the taking—other people’s ideas, emotions, work? If we control all images, what happens to the vulnerability of uncertainty—in love, work, friendship, politics? What happens to the tenderness of looking, paying attention to another? Does the sole responsibility and control of loving ourselves become a tad lonely? To be the special one in every context, the centre of every picture, might be less pleasurable than we imagine.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org