Writing with Photography
Thursday October 7th, 2010
We’ve talked before about how to write about photography, but what about writing with photography?
The latest PDN has an article (you’ll have to get your hands on the October 2010 issue to read it) about a photographer named Dayanita Singh, Robert Gardner Fellow at Harvard’s Museum of Archeology and Ethnology. Singh’s work is devoted to putting photography into the space usually occupied by literature, a fitting goal for someone occupying a fellowship that funds photographers to publish a book on the human condition.
Singh’s photographs often lack captions, or any indication of their locations. Her goal is to produce an awareness of photography as a language, a language which takes place in images and therefore does not need to be clouded with text. She explains this approach in an interview with The Times of India about her recent eponymous book:
Photography is no longer a technique. The technology is so advanced and accessible that even a child could master it in half an hour. More than ever, photography is a whole language by itself. Some people say a line with it. Or, a paragraph. I want to be able to narrate whole novels through images. I see the world framed in words. I read a book, maybe a novel by Orhan Pamuk or Italo Calvino or a poem by Rilke, and I am inspired to see the objects around me in a different light. What I see is what I feel.
This statement about the technology will no doubt be controversial; but the technology of narration and communication, practiced by the photographer and the viewers, have been with us for a long time, and their complexity has never been reduced.
Another of Cary’s photos, from his series of pictures of India, brings to my mind the instability of languages, especially when they are translated.
I am reminded of a historical episode famously interpreted by the literary critic Homi K. Bhabha, explained in an interview with Artforum:
For the chapter of The Location of Culture originally published in Critical Inquiry, “Signs Taken for Wonders,” I did some archival research on early-19th-century Hindu peasants in northern India who were approached by early “native” catechists who sought their conversion to Christianity. It would be easy to interpret the dialogue that ensued as an exchange between a muscular colonial Christianity that was keen to convert and an indigenous religious tradition that resisted conversion. That said, what was most fascinating in this process of dialogic contradiction was that the way the peasants dealt with this colonial antagonism was continually to produce supplementary discourses as sites of resistance and negotiation. They would say, for instance: We would be happy to convert so long as you convinced us that these words of the Christian god do not come from the mouths of meat eaters. These words are very beautiful, but your priests are a nonvegetarian class. We cannot believe that anybody who eats meat can transmit the word of God.
Now there is nothing in the logic of the Hindu/Christian theological dialectic or in the master/peasant dialogue that requires the construction of this incommensurable site and sign of negotiation: the vegetarian Bible. Give us the vegetarian Bible and we will convert.