TOURIST ATTRACTION2009, PHOTOGRAPHY
The following text is a conversation with Kriti Kapila, Professor of Social Anthropology at King's College, London. Her research focuses on law in colonial and contemporary India. It was first published in ArtLicks Magazine.
KK: Photography is a curious technology, in that it tries to freeze a living moment and all its movement in stillness. A photograph obviously reveals more than what it holds within its frame. Seeing these photographs therefore prompts a number of questions, capturing as they do the act itself. But what is it that is being captured? What kinds of arrangements of persons and things are revealed through these photographs of people with cameras? Even whilst they are in the midst of monumental glory, natural beauty or hard-earned moment of leisure, not by accident, but through concerted touristic effort - why is it that your subjects are drawn not the monument, the idyll, or indeed their moment of idleness, but instead to a particular human distraction? What do they want to bring still in and through their captivation? What are you capturing in recording their actions?
JH: I am a tourist. These people are tourists. We are doing what tourists are required to do. Culture offers us a very clear function: we consume experiences, we record images. With cameras in our hands, we become active participants, deciding what is worth seeing from what isn't. So we are all doing what the advertisements insist: "Frame, Capture, Store, Share". What am I capturing? My subjectivisation: a process of becoming-subject. In each image, a photographer is training me with his lens. I am becoming a subject in his viewfinder, a frozen assemblage of digital pixels. Framed. Captured. Stored. It's a violent encounter. I know nothing about the photographer. He knows nothing about me, except that I am a white British male. I am ordered to stop and perform before his lens; a representative for 30 million other British males. In a moment, we will depart - never to see one another again. I will simply become a trace, stored on a stranger's hard drive. So I'm not capturing an image, but a situation. I'm capturing a capturing: the process of flattening my subjectivity into an archetype: white British male. My normally-fluid-subjectivity is frozen in pixels, stored on a memory card, uploaded to some Facebook account. I represent a category: white British male, c.30 yrs, tourist. Perhaps something in these images captures the violence of colonial ethnography.
KK: Your photographs remind me of Chris Pinneys work on photography in India and its relationship with the anthropological and documentary practices of the colonial state (eg. Camera Indica 1998, Chicago University Press). Pinney has long been interested in the overlaps between the pursuits of early anthropology and early photography. According to him,19th century anthropology was not quite interested in the study of culture per se but was more captivated by the human body as the site of culture and marker of cultural difference. Hence, it was very difficult to disaggregate the use of anthropology and of photography by the colonial state in India, for example, in that both were aimed at creating a record of the categories of human existence for future reference.
JH: Chris Pinney is very lucid around this messy overlap between photography and anthropology; he explores the deterministic relationship between the two. Did the anthropologist's lens record sitters' bodies, or instruct them? And to extrapolate from this: Did we create photography, or does it create us? For citizens of an image-junkie culture, these are important questions. I feel like our bodies are lodged in an awkward fissure between the two: between their 3D reality and their 2D representation. Perhaps the site of our culture is the human body; it is the performance of our bodies before an all-seeing lens. Perhaps we simply exist in order to become images: happy parents, birthday boys, successful employees, honeymooning tourists. So how does this relate to the relationship between photography and anthropology? Well, today we operate either side of the camera: we record and we are recorded, we shoot and we are shot. We are both the subject and the object; the anxious sitter and the photographer. This has disrupted all those tidy binaries of self/other, subject/object. We all participate in the production and circulation of imagery. We all upload images, share profiles, pose, capture, comment, tag. As a species, we have taken on a binary function: anthropologist and subject. Our images will exist well beyond our lifetime; categorised, archived and stored for infinity on giant air-conditioned servers. A record of our time.
KK: In crucial ways, your photographs seem to be the very obverse of that kind of 19th century photographic practice in India. It looks as if they have managed to reverse the direction of record-keeping. But is it the case? Even if the impetus for taking the picture is located with the erstwhile beholden, it seems to me that the nature of the motivation has not been sufficiently dislodged, or even dismantled from the prior version. I find it so interesting that those who are captured by you taking pictures of you remain shy, diffident, and even reticent. They have not quite assumed the confidence that should come with the part. It is as if they have caught themselves in the act, and are almost embarrassed by it.
JH: You're quite right, they aren't simply the obverse of 19th Century colonial photography. I think they're more complex: a blurring of 19th and 21st Century positionalities. Chris Pinney says that photos are 'a memento of the circumstances under which they are taken'. These circumstances were precisely what I wanted to capture. The smiling embarrassment. The awkward contract. I wanted to reveal the atmosphere of a colonial legacy - its continued effect into the present day. I may be the subject of their images, posing before a newly-enabled digital culture. But in creating a series of images, I'm still performing the function of the colonial ethnographer, methodically recording the activity of 'the contemporary Indian tourist'. During the Raj, photography was an instrument of colonial control: those with cameras wielded power over those without. Today, we are all equipped with the same digital devices. But our relationship to these devices is different. Our histories are different. Our gaze is different. So inevitably, the way we 'frame, capture, store, share' is still very different.
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