We haven’t quite reached the summer break and yet, it has arrived as a self-declared vacation taken by nicer weather. The sky is overcast and grey. Silently, rain falls onto Potsdamer Strasse outside the library window. Rivulets form along sidewalk ridges; streams elsewhere: southern Germany, the capital of France, Tasmania, India are inundated. It is mid-June 2016. Clear thoughts swirled down the drain as life was overworked and power relations underestimated.
Months have passed and this blog lay idle. My focus had shifted and also, I was hesitant to write. Why.
In March, I threw myself right into ‘the field’ and undertook a three-week fellowship with Nest. The project: support silk weavers on the outskirts of Varanasi, India (1).
In April and May were framed by tripping in Italy over futile employment as a fashion consultant. The heartland of high-end manufacture beats at a quietened pace, in sync with global market trends and eroded by the wormholes of corruption (2).
So what to write about? First person pronouns are to be avoided. There was too much of myself in all of the questions I sought to answer.
But beyond the private and personal, any individual experience, scrutinized in hindsight, can point to a grander paradigm which connects us like the dots we trace along our recollection of incidents. And so the potential of auto-ethnography is embedded in anthropology’s belief in the significance of qualitative data, claiming that ‘the unique case is often more interesting and enlightening than the typical’ (3). Auto-ethnography however also bares the pitfalls of narcissism and a lack of critical distance, as its producer only reflects on himself. A welcome distraction from April’s heatwave voids, the MA programme had me type up an essay on ethics in visual anthropology. In hindsight, much of its contents relate to the causes for my silence on the experience in India. Any code of ethics, I argued, is malleable and relative to the space and time it is embedded in. Yet the surviving ethical factor within visual anthropology must be its subscription to (self-)reflexivity. The type that reflects on the reflection. What was my personal impact on the findings I gathered? First person pronouns rule.
So here we go. Back to March.
I boarded a flight to Delhi and a train to Varanasi. I signed up to support an endeavour I found to be complex and challenged by the notion of sustainability. My personal ethical dilemma was threefold:
1: Nest’s undertakings are embedded in the workings of an industry subject to mood swings that are beyond the organization’s control
2: I was fellow to these undertakings
3: both of the points above are tied to an economic information system heavily reliant on the power of the (photographic) image-making process.
India. Full stop.
The country is always more than the sum of its clichés. Having lived there as a child from the age of three to six, I pick up the little girl once left behind and take her for a walk along Varanasi’s ghats. It is sweet.
Ghat means place. The ghats are steps opening up toward the Ganges from the labyrinth of the old town hovering above the broad stream. Sometimes a ghat is also a terrace. Take a step — take a rest.
Everybody is on a trip in Benares, but the tourists call it their ‘journey’. I greet the river in the mornings from the rooftop of the guesthouse. My teacher points to the two so-called burning ghats, where the ashes of the deceased are sewn into the water and the dead plant their souls into the Nirvana without diversion. ‘See them? These are the nostrils of the city, through which the breath enters and exits, just like life flows through us with every inhale and exhale. All is connected.’
Three weeks culminate in a mesmerizing celebration of Shiva, the god to whom the city is devoted. Cows push steadily, calmly through the crowd of pilgrims that have flooded the city from all over the country. Bells and cymbals resounding through the little alleys day and night, chanting along the river, the air filled with the smell of incense, essential oils, spice and bhang (= weed). Everyone is stoned. Everybody must get stoned!, even small kids dip their finger into bhang lassi, a refined version of the classic yoghurt dish. The vibrations span a spectrum from high to low, just as in druphad — classical Indian singing — where the voice is stretched to rise and fall within beats. ‘India is the physical realisation of the dichotomies that make up life’ says Shanti, my 60 year old, bright-eyed, shining surrogate mother who resides at the same lodging house and guides me, the girl, through the experience of these weeks.
The other days are filled with work. I cycle to the office on the outskirts of the centre, every morning, covering nose and mouth against dust and exhaust fumes. Dense traffic underlined with an incessant soundtrack of bells and horns, each ride an exercise in patience.
Nest is ambitious in India. The organization is among the biggest players in the endeavour to support ‘artisanship’. In India, it does so by connecting the weavers to the luxury segment of the fashion industry; the headline of the project puts it so: ‘Varanasi to Paris for Market Access’ (1). A small office belongs to ‘Loom To Luxury’, the business Nest supports. Headed by Jitendra Kumar, it is design studio, dyeing lab and meeting point for the weavers who collect raw silk, deliver finished material, and cash in pay-checks. Beauty lies around in scraps of jacquards or plain weaves, all the colours between heaven and earth woven into fine silks. Their designs are changed each season to display the weaver’s skills.
The original issue Nest tries to tackle presents itself as follows: inexpensive saris produced on power looms within the country and abroad have been flooding markets nationwide, posing an increasing challenge to local craft. (4) Jump to minute 3:20 of this documentary (5) for a detailed insight into the bundled skills and countless hours it takes to manufacture one such piece of fabric. Jitendra lets me visit the weavers in the countryside. Here is a village, a small path winding between the clay walls of a few scattered houses. Khadi cloth off whites on people and shades of ochre in the surroundings until we enter the house. A loom hovers over a hole in the ground, its warp and weft consist of bright blue, turquoise and pinks, shot through by rays of gold and silver. It feels like an explosion in the middle of the steady dreariness that can make up daily routine, and the weaver explains: ‘It is a pit loom to remind us that we are always half-buried’. I haven’t expected this sudden nod to the notion of death. All I perceive is the liveliness of intense beauty.
Back at the office, I take a bucket of water and start to clean. Three weeks are spent on reorganizing the office, checking the inventory and fabric archive, interrupted twice a day for a break of sweet chai and kind chit-chat. Mid-way through my time there, I gather the office staff and begin a dialogue, hesitant first and then encouraged by the verve unfolding within. All of them are incredibly friendly and seem in favour of the changes we decide to make together. Label things. Keep things in one place. Try to recycle plastic bags, and use less plastic altogether. The fallow patch beyond the balcony serves as a general rubbish bin and I try to explain the difference between biodegradability and its contrary. All the while, a sense of neo-imperialist onus bears on my chest; who am I to impose myself onto them. ‘You have less rubbish in Europe?’ I am being asked and respond, ‘No, we’re just better at hiding it.’ — India, in fact, has large recycling units across the country, and the issue seems to rather lie with education and local infrastructure. A matter of fact is that plastic litters the streets everywhere, and as all over the world, market stalls sell cheap garments from the factories that nourish the Asian population. Many want to follow what is the latest fashion right there, and Gandhi’s dream of a nation self-reliant through the fabrication of its own cloth seems dissolved into air. What remains is an incredible talent and workforce in the crafts sector, which the Indian government is cognizant and the intellectual population proud of.
Back in Paris, Demna Gvasalia is preparing his first show for Balenciaga. In my Indian hostel room late at night, the fan shoves cool air through the mosquito net and the internet is lethargic, pushing one jpeg after the next across the screen. Slowly but surely a picture unfolds and sends shivers down my spine. This is the newness in fashion that we thirst for, Gvasalia’s quenched it. “It’s quasimodo-esque” my friend will mumble later, who works at long and lean Celine. But I disagree, I find it a striking balance between a cognition of what we call a house’s DNA and yet, it pushes familiar codes into oddity. This woman’s legs are girl’s candy sticks topped by romance as a patchwork. If she stumbled on her platforms, it would be a nod to the insecurity we are subjected to, but of course, she doesn’t. Only the soundtrack lingers as a subdued hint at ticking bombs.
Next season, the proposal will be something different. The following morning in Varanasi, Manghala, our cook, picks up her five-meter long Sari and folds it into a dress which drapes around her figure as it always has. Something regal about it, something swinging. Time to wrap up my concerns.
1: Fashion is a fast-paced art packed up in an industry. As such, its structure is a clockwork. There are schedules for everything: design, sampling, fitting, approval, show. a film, a campaign shoot, production, delivery, marketing. calculations, summaries, figures, conclusions, next round. On your marks — set — the word everybody asks to be given is ‘Go’. And yet the underlying construction is a house of cards that trembles with every Paris attack. Less tourists: decreased sales figures: reduced profit: cuts.
In Varanasi, time rolls at its own pace. There is intense heat for months, or Ramadan for weeks, and the weavers work at a different pace. Jitendra says it in Nest’s video: all is interwoven, even a mood swing manifests itself in the fabric (5). It is not a machine-made product, it bares the tiny flaws that render beauty perfect. And so they face complaints. About some unexpected behaviour of a fabric, about minor mistakes in the weave. The clockwork doesn’t wait. Yet the ideas of what makes up a trend may change. The weavers pick up the threads to follow them, and traditions have to rest. The market stalls in Benares are still filled with imported goods, whilst Loom to Luxury ships fine silks catered to the fluctuations of Western taste. If the industry can suddenly no longer afford to invest in what it sells as ‘ethical production’, do valuable incentives such as Nest’s face the danger of being washed away as any other trend in the face of changing fashions?
2: I take part. I listen to what I hear, at the office, in the streets, in the villages. I apply myself, I clean the space, talk of sustainability during the day and marvel at fashion trends at night. For good reasons: all of these are fuel to excitement and change, but can it be for the better? I don’t exclude myself from those who hope for a world shaped by fair trade within the preservation of meaning, yet are lured by the images that are the currency for our fleeting interests. It is hard to look beyond, or try to exchange a card in that house without risking that the whole construction fell apart. The problem is that ’… it is a complex and interactive market, where the players, the rules, and the stakes are constantly shifting; where, as Althusser argued, economy and ideology are interwoven (…),’ says Kathleen Kuehnast, warning us that ’The constructed visual image is a powerful material artefact that has acquired economic and political value in a global culture’. (6)
3: And so the ultimate question is tied to communication — how we share such stories and complexities and ensure we talk about the people involved, or better even: let them speak for themselves. Anthropology is always concerned with representation, and visual anthropology nods to the challenges and opportunities posed by the media. If Nest’s video on the Varanasi project does not shy away from including honest information on the experience of weaving by hand, the marks that the fabrics bare, (1) it still veils the words neatly with an upbeat track of Indian pop music. Let me be clear again: I do not wish to point to one side only; rather, it is us as recipients of this information who, literally, need to buy into what we’re presented with, and therefore, the message must not be frightful. There are plenty of incentives which support ‘artisanship’. Inverted commas here, because the term renders the complex smooth and subsumes all individuality under the umbrella of value creation and hashtag vocabulary. Uncanny to observe that the less such incentives are built on a philanthropic model, the more the images they present us with are glamourised and sellable. Kuehnast is essentially alarmed by what she calls a ‘visual imperialism’ threatening to export cultural biases. ‘What makes for easily understood cultural experiences are those that are predicated upon making the strange familiar.’ (6) What we ought to avoid, then, is to be seduced by our own familiarity with the power of advertisement and promotion — both as actors as well as consumers. ‘Why’, asks a friend, ‘as long as the incentive behind it is a positive one, may the images not be promotional?’ Because the glossy surface of our image world pulls our attention away from the depth beyond, one which we may feel uneasy about. And because to purchase means to control the control we’re subjected to. An H&M campaign and one by Maiyet may look similar at first, but speak through very different codes besides obvious differences in composition and colour. Two times Daria. Once framed in a nod to Peter Lindbergh perhaps and the sort of pretentiousness which luxury sometimes likes to subscribe to, next to that the cheap version of La Chapelle erotics, graspable by a fast fashion brain (and upscaled by Matthew Williamson).
What unites both images is their subscription to the realm of advertisement their consumers are familiar with. They feed similar desires and show a surface deprived of the complex depths of our present tense. Maiyet is one of the bigger supporters of Nest. H&M is a Swedish mega retailer of cheap clothing. Their employees, the producers at the beginning of the chain, are both positioned on the periphery of the capitalist system, yet work in a highly different context. Take it to the market! But by all means, avoid the real Paris Syndrome.
To feel uneasy about a version of reality. To gloss over. As much as the popular philosopher Byung Chul Han sometimes glides too easily through the random exemplifications which underline his rant, he makes a point when claiming that ours is an age fearful of negativity. The ideal of beauty is that of the smoothed surface, in which, again, we mirror ourselves only — a beauty that ‘only seeks to please, never to subvert’ (9).
Susan Sontag puts it similarly: ‘Beautifying is one classic operation of the camera, and it tends to bleach out a moral response to what is shown. Uglifying, showing something at its worst, is a more modern function: didactic, it invites an active response.’ No need to uglify or seek the clamorous. The reality lies somewhere in between, as it may present itself in India, in Tasmania, in the capital of France or southern Germany, always embedded in stories that bare the potential of dragging us right into the experience of others, causing an active response. Sontag goes on, ‘All photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions’, ours are embedded in mercantile ambition, in the validation granted through commercial aspirations. At worst, they produce a fake sympathy, as short-lived as the images we click through our memory space. ‘So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.’ (10)
I’m done. Pessimism is stagnation. Where India is slow but sure to tap into its own potential, organizations as Nest create opportunity structures. The former is a concern we can only hope will be tackled further on a national level. To understand and support the latter is in our hands. Any weaver who does not feel forced to migrate to Calcutta or Pune, in search of new employment in the service industries, may be regarded a gain. Because it means that there is one more person to trade the stories of our past through a craft and pursue labour independent of hours spent generating data. Sustaining rural infrastructure and local supply chains in turn means less pollution and density in the cityscapes that are the backdrop to post-industrial stress syndromes globally. If we abandon the pit loom, we bury a knowledge that deserves to survive for endless reasons.
We must find an in-between for how we share all of our stories, even the harder ones. There is beauty in the negative. Exposure turns it into a positive. Perhaps one whose captions speak of the flaws which render that beauty as human as its creators are.
I haven’t let them speak for themselves. A few people in India shared their stories with me. But I did not repeat them here, because I was not invited to work as an anthropologist. And I did not suggest I could subsume such a function — because I, too, had to learn all these things first, before I could see them. The article in Ilsole24ore I refer to at the top is suffused with italianisms and concludes with a grand gesture towards love; ’amore’ as the solution to all problems. Most aphorisms are stripped of their kitsch and gain sudden depth when we get a chance to experience their meaning. Or at least be given a great example. In India, to me, it was this one: It is easiest to love others when you love yourself. Amidst the frenzy of Varanasi’s daytime traffic and the bells tolling at night floats an eternal philosophy; that we can be at peace with ourselves if we acknowledge the fact that some things lie within our control and many beyond. The sweetest dichotomy is that embedded within kharma: the word points to our stricken fate, and yet translates directly: as ‘action’.
O’Reilly, Karen (2009) Key Concepts in Ethnography. London, Sage Publications Ltd; pp 194 ff.
Kuehnast, Kathleen (1992) Visual imperialism and the export of prejudice: an exploration of ethnographic film, in Film as Ethnography, ed. Peter Ian Crawford & David Turton. Manchester University Press, pp.183–195
Maiyet Campaign, A/W 2013: Daria Werbowy photographed by Cass Bird
Matthew Williamson for H&M Campaign, S/S 2009: Daria Werbowy photographed by Sølve Sundsbø
Byung-Chul Han (2015) Die Errettung des Schönen, S. Fischer Wissenschaft, p.15
Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, p.64/ 11/ 80