Nobody Sees Like You Do: How Photography Creates Conversations Without Words
by: Nilanjana Bhattacharjya
It all started with those walks around my neighborhood, the summer of 2015. In Arizona, we live in a planned subdivision with manicured lawns and hedges. The houses look the same even if they aren’t. I remember why we had purchased the house here a year earlier — because it was quiet, close to campus where we worked, close to shopping. But I found all that stifling, especially the Neighborhood Watch signs, posted to placate the people who had bought new houses when the development opened in 1973, before I was born, some of whom had bought houses here to avoid having to run into people like me. My eyes longed to see things that didn’t fit.
I had started taking pictures of things a month earlier, in late April. Traveling to Chicago for a conference, I had discovered that an acquaintance would be giving a lecture there that same evening. The writer and photographer Teju Cole and I had connected over Twitter off and on for a few years after I read his novel Open City, but we had kept missing each other in person. Another friend joined me for the lecture, after which we all went out — as if we hadn’t all met in person for the first time that evening. We decided to visit the Art Institute, where I’d never gone, the next day. Teju brought his camera, and as he occasionally stopped to take pictures of this and that as we made our way through the galleries, I came to understand that he was always looking. After some time, I also came to understand at least part of what he was capturing, and why.
When I returned home, I started to notice things I hadn’t before — the shadows cast by the Palo Verde branches; the tension between the concrete and the plants and trees, between the yellow agave blooms and the asphalt; the play of reflections in a puddle left by the morning sprinklers; narrow shafts of light penetrating the shade; and the stark contours of the concrete buildings against the desert dirt and sky. I started to take pictures of these things on my phone because I could, and I uploaded them to Instagram. Looking for things that made the familiar less familiar, and thus more interesting, became a game that I played on my own. I looked for things that imposed a sense of unity, as disparate items in a frame settled into a quiet balance. The game also focused my mind and became almost meditative.
Later that summer I had to travel to New York, and after letting Teju know I’d be there, we met again. As another friend and I sat at the dining table while he prepared coffee in the kitchen, Teju asked if I knew Stephen Shore’s work. I hadn’t a clue who Stephen Shore was and said as much. He then pulled out a book from the bookcase and lay it in front of me. He told me that I should know Stephen Shore’s work. As I looked through American Surfaces, I started to understand why and how my daily pictures of ordinary things around me that I encountered each day weren’t as alien to the act (the art?) of photography as I thought. I started to sense how a sequence of photographs can construct their own geography. Teju then lay a copy of Dayanita Singh and Aveek Sen’s House of Love in front of me, which I opened next. Everything that I loved about visiting my parents in India came alive as I looked through its pages, full of saturated colors against dimly lit darkness. After I flew home to Arizona, I ordered those two books from Amazon, and I started to follow Stephen Shore and Dayanita Singh on Instagram.
The day that I had walked with Teju through the galleries had somehow opened my eyes, for the first time in four decades. I shared the photographs I took in the parking structure next to my office because they conveyed something about my experience in that garage that I didn’t have the capacity to communicate in words. Each time I parked I would marvel at the different shadows and patterns of light, depending on the time of day and where I found a parking place. I was grateful to take a few moments to appreciate this space I was in, which would otherwise be swallowed by the routine of the work day. The fact that I didn’t have to use words to communicate my appreciation of the parking garage felt revolutionary and liberating… Sometimes my friends tell me that my photographs had helped them notice things around them that they would have otherwise missed, and persuaded them to start taking photographs too. We all have phones, after all.
On Instagram, I have gradually connected to a wider community of photographers who are using that platform for their own visual experiments. Through Instagram, I discovered that my grad school friend Ryan Canlas was now creating miraculous images with film. I hadn’t even known he took pictures. Earlier this year, another photographer who had known me a few years ago elsewhere expressed his surprise that in his view, some of what I was photographing wasn’t bad, and in some cases, was quite good. I was flattered. I had surprised myself, after all. I’ve received messages about my photographs from people I don’t know who tell me who’ve reached out to tell me that they connect with my work, and I’m always surprised that what interests me visually can also interest others — that photography makes such a thing possible. The fact that I don’t get paid to take pictures, and nobody is obligated to pay attention to anything I post has motivated me to try all sorts of things. Some posts receive more “likes” than others, which I don’t really pay attention to, but when people whose work I respect like my pictures, I notice because it sometimes helps me better understand what is working, if anything. Seeing other people’s feeds over time has helped me understand how their eyes encounter their world, which often looks very different from my own. But even seeing those images from remote places have helped me see things at home I otherwise would miss. I’m always wondering how a community of people who connect through images differs through one who connect through words, and how our feeds reflect our individuality as well as our relationships to and conversations with each other — through images.
My interest in words as well as images has drawn me into a network of posters who work with the intersections of images and words. Some are published writers and/or photographers with works in museums and galleries, and I am fascinated by how their posts reveal the process in which they work and think through things — via their photography, and their writing, and how those relate to one another. For better or worse, I have discovered that I like to play with words too. I have always enjoyed reading, but it was only a few years ago that I truly began to enjoy how people were using words and grasp the craft of writing. I believe that learning to look at images more slowly has also affected the pace that I look at words, especially how I sense their contours and their rhythms.
I’m still clumsy with words on my Instagram posts, and I am conscious of the time and effort required for me to write what I do. I was therefore surprised last spring, when the poet and photographer Rebecca Norris-Webb wrote to invite me to submit some of my Instagram posts to be considered for a special issue of a new photography journal, Documenta. The 2nd issue of Documenta, published last summer, explores the intersection of images and words on Instagram, and includes two of my images and accompanying texts, alongside many other artists, writers, and photographers whose work I admire. It was surreal to be included in a journal co-founded by Stephen Shore, William Boling, and Dawn Kim, and I have had to remind myself that these photographs, printed larger than life with beautiful colors in newsprint are indeed my own.
I take photographs on most days, as a visual practice. I don’t often take photographs to record and remember things, but to acknowledge the particularity of my location at a given moment — the act of seeing in that point of time, divorced from everything else outside the frame. John Berger better explains the relationship among photographs, memory, and time:
A photograph preserves a moment of time and prevents it being effaced by the supersession of further moments. In this respect photographs might be compared to images stored in the memory. Yet there is a fundamental difference: whereas remembered images are the residue of a continuous experience, a photograph isolates the appearances of a disconnected instant. (Understanding a Photograph, p. 64.)
The idea that our photographs can capture a moment that exists independently of the time and space around it almost somehow intensifies that initial experience of seeing in clearer, more distinct terms than memory can. And yet as Berger later writes, these series of isolated moments in our photographs often coalesce into narrative unity, as in a montage.
The pictures I take on a walk from here to there provide an itinerary of sorts of that journey, however discontinuous those images are in what they do and don’t include — the top of the parking structure stairwell from where I descend, but not the bottom where I eventually arrive; this length of the sidewalk I’m currently walking on, but not the length I will walk on next; this tree I am passing, but not the tree next to it. As I see my friends’ pictures on similar walks around the world, I sense their journeys each day, as they do mine. Most pictures I do take aren’t taken on planned excursions. I take pictures around my house, in my yard, when I step outside my car in the parking structure at work, on the six-minute walk between the parking structure and my office, between campus buildings, various parking lots, and when I’m lucky, when I walk all day around another city. In those cases I’m in a new city, I’m always trying to articulate in my own mind what distinguishes this city from others — in terms of what I can see, but also in terms of what I can hear, smell, and feel on my skin. I think that looking more carefully has sharpened my other senses — or at least my memories of different places, perhaps because my visual memory grounds my memory of those other senses.
I’d be lying to say that I think of nothing else but light, lines, texture, color, balance, and composition when I’m taking pictures. Consciously or unconsciously, I recognize some points of continuity in my photographs even if they aren’t evident to others. I often think about walking, and what it means to engage with and see the world while walking and thinking at 3 miles an hour, as opposed to driving past in a car, as I do most of the time. When I’m in my parent’s city, Kolkata, I think about why I love that city, partly to displace my knowledge of its reputation as one of the most squalid places in the world. Closer to home, I think about what it means for a nonwhite person like me to live in and walk around my neighborhood, and my pictures reflect my ambivalence. Living in a city where the summer sun threatens to kill you, I wonder why and how people ever founded a city here, and how our dependence on air conditioners makes us vulnerable to any damage to our electrical power grids. I notice the power lines, our life blood. I notice where the trees and buildings provide shade, and where there is no protection. I consider how alien the concrete is to what grows around it. I try to find beauty in the concrete, to better cope with its ubiquity. I imagine that the shadows of trees inscribe their presence into the concrete, as if in protest. I think about people I’ve lost, and about the residual traces of people who are no longer here, if they remain at all.
I also think about the lack of people in my photos. I haven’t photographed many people, so I worry about asking friends, much less strangers, to pose for portraits that don’t end up doing them justice. As an academic trained in ethical protocols for research involving human subjects, when I see others’ photographs of identifiable strangers, I wonder how others define their ethics of when and where it is acceptable to photograph strangers. I worry about photographing people who haven’t consented to being photographed — especially those who provide “local color,” and its implied exoticism. Whenever I’ve read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I’ve noticed how Marlow’s narrative fails to distinguish the Africans from their physical environment — fails to acknowledge their humanity and individuality. I worry about what it means for me to reduce a person into a photographic object. I overthink it.
I prefer to take pictures surreptitiously, without drawing attention to myself. Occasionally a person will smile as they walk by and realize what I’m photographing, and once, in Kolkata, a domestic worker stopped me in the street to tell me that I should photograph a house on the next block as opposed to the one I was photographing. Of course, that was in Kolkata, where people look like me.
A brown woman walking raises people’s suspicion these days, and a brown woman photographing things with a camera as she is walking raises even more. Often, I’ll wait for people to pass before I take out my camera. Perhaps one day I’ll not think twice about it, but I’ve already been questioned twice.
Last May after I took pictures of a freshly painted bright yellow guard rail against a grey and white building, a police man approached to ask what I was doing. I told him that the yellow was incredibly bright against the grey. He then explained that the building was a courthouse. I apologized, shared the pictures I’d taken, and was waved onward. The year before, I’d been stopped by an old man driving by in a car in our neighborhood when I stopped to take pictures of a tree. He had pointed to the neighborhood watch sign and threatened to call the police even after I told him I lived there because what I was doing looked suspicious. There’s no getting around that.
There’s irony in the fact that my parents both were avid photographers after they immigrated to the US from India in the late 1960s. A few years ago, I came across black and white pictures they had taken when they were young, before my brother and I were born. They enjoyed photographing each other, and later, us. I only have the haziest of memories of things from when I was young, and I can’t always tell whether I remember that moment or whether the photograph itself has created the illusion of that memory. Berger writes that with respect to private photographs, “A mechanical device, the camera has been used to contribute to a living memory. The photograph is a memento from a life being lived” (Berger, About Looking, 56). In many cases, the only evidence that I did indeed live such a life is contained in those photographs.
My earliest memories include being taken to local botanical gardens and state parks, where my older brother and I were impatient while waiting for my parents to finish photographing flowers. My parents had several SLR and medium format cameras, and between them, they’d always have at least two or three cameras on any given excursion, a large and heavy bag of lenses, and usually, a tripod. At that point, I don’t think anybody else’s parents I knew were taking so many photographs, much less developing and printing their own film in their makeshift darkrooms at home. Later they even bought a color enlarger. My mother’s photographs of my soccer teams and music groups were published in the local newspaper, and I remember her taking a correspondence school course in photography, as well as photo hand-coloring. I remember the bald plastic head of the mannequin on which she was supposed to practice lighting. The photographs they printed are still framed around our house. I had my own compact point and shoot camera in high school but only used that camera to take pictures of my friends in groups and seemingly important buildings whose names I no longer remember. I enjoyed my photography class that I took for a semester in high school, and my father bought me a Pentax K-1000 camera, which I still have. I don’t think I ever used it more than once or twice, and certainly not after I turned 15. When I consider how many pictures I take now, I find myself wondering how much if any of my interests in photography relates to theirs, and as all of us wonder — if I’m turning into them, or not. One of these days, I will ask them more about that.
Dr. Nilanjana Bhattacharjya is a popular music and film scholar whose research centers on popular music and film from South Asia and its diasporic communities. She is an Associate Professor at Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University, where she is grateful to integrate her interests in literature, visual culture, and music. Her Instagram account is here. In a recent interview she offered this insight regarding thoughtful looking via a book recommendation:
“One of my favorite books is Amitav Ghosh’s nonfiction book, In an Antique Land. It is a beautifully written book, but its honesty in confronting what it means to do research on things that most people wouldn’t pay attention to while the world goes on around you is something that has stayed with me since the first time I read it years ago. Sometimes tracking down that obscure detail will lead to new worlds and connections most people can only dream of, and occasionally it leads to dead ends that can only be put into context years later, after the fact.”
The above essay has been brought to you by the Society for Photographic Education, as an article published within Exposure, its flagship publication. SPE is a nonprofit membership-based organization that seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all of its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, conversation and criticism. SPE has Affiliated Chapters with events and conferences in every part of the continental US, with Chapters developing internationally, and has been instrumental in fostering community and career growth among photographers, lens-based artists, educators, students, and the broader community of image makers.
Interested in submitting to Exposure? Read our submission guidelines here.
Find out more about SPE here, or learn about the many benefits of membership here. Join with other thought leaders in the field and add your voice to the direction of the organization. Find out more about the 2018 Annual Conference “Uncertain Times,” to be held in Philadelphia, PA here.