FF36 : Selfie

Instant photography. [Buy a print]

‘The Indian people are used to cameras and they like being photographed.’

Steve McCurry

‘Excuse me sir’.

At this point in time, I was still unused to being addressed as some kind of lord, unadapted to the respect, courtesy and invisible hierarchies that pulse through the veins of Indian social life.

Therefore my initial reaction was to assume we had done something wrong. Possibly in some kind of trouble. Had we heinously trod on the hallowed grasses of Kolkata’s famous Victoria Memorial?

Wrong. Our accoster turned out to be a rather jolly astronomer from the city observatory and merely wanted to highlight some points of interest that we might have missed. He asked us a little about what we were doing here, and the conversation ended with a request for a series of photographs on his small mobile telephone.

It was the end of our first week in the city and we walked away from this encounter commenting on how friendly this man was, and yet how serious he had been about photographing us on his phone.

Later, we would look back on this moment as a very gentle entry into a whole world of selfies, photo requests and opportunistic street portraiture. At almost every tourist site, public monument and lively thoroughfare, we were given the kind of lens attention that I imagine only b-list celebrities and unusual trains enjoy.

At these places, we would begin to notice that not all eyes were turned towards the thing that we were there for. Little by little, others would notice us like an architectural quirk, triggering an embarrassing disruption to the official tourism. I imagine that if you experienced this kind of thing over the course of a week, it would be amusing, enjoyable or, at worst, slightly annoying. However, the frequency and enduring nature of this odd occurrence begged for a little more solemn examination than a cursory ‘isn’t that weird!’.

The demographics of the phenomenon provide fertile ground for analysis. For example, there was an interesting generational component: for photographers above a certain age, it appeared that we were considered strictly the subjects of the photograph, sometimes to be accompanied by a member of the family, but the lines between the photographer and the photographed were keenly observed. Younger snappers, on the other hand, would often take a more DIY approach by requesting a selfie.

Gender also played a role. For example, when passed by the frequent groups of young boys diverting themselves on the streets or in a park, I would often be asked for a group selfie (once the term ‘groupfie’ was used — abhorrent), followed by a series of individual photographs with each member of the group. Each boy gazing sternly back into the camera to make sure that all subsequent viewers understood the gravity of the occasion. During this demanding crowd-pleasing work, Sarah was expected only to observe.

However, while gratefully ignored by the majority of teenage boy-packs, Sarah was instead the favoured subject of families enjoying a little weekend recreation. In those idle hours of leisure, she became particularly good at holding babies.

I can only imagine how many images of us surrounded by screaming, traumatised children and gel-coiffured teens with mirrored shades are in current circulation on Facebook.

Amusing as this may sound — and often was — selfies begat selfies with lusty vigour. Seeing as neither of us are lovers of the crowd, we decided that action needed to be taken and developed a policy. In true party pooper fashion, we turned down all photo requests for the sake of convenience and fairness — if you said yes to one, you’d have to say yes to everyone. Let me remind you that India is the second-most populous country in the world.

As we discussed our own experience of being photographed, I began to reflect on my own practice as a photographer. It struck me how I often operate in between believing in the importance of consent and having a positive relationship with my subjects, and yet also wanting to capture something unnoticed, something raw in the unselfconscious behaviour and performance of the unwittingly observed.

I’ve always thought that the process of taking a portrait implied a sort of dignity. To pause, to frame a person, to pay attention. To say that others will be fascinated by your humanity. To somehow express that you are worthy of being noticed and dwelt upon.

But it doesn’t always feel that way. And some of the language reveals where the power often lies. Snap! Capture! Take a photograph. In some ways, the theft of the soul remains a powerful symbol for the abusive potential of photography.

Fairly often, if out with my camera, I would be stopped by people (usually men) and asked if I could take their photograph. Surprisingly, quite a lot of the time, the subject wasn’t interested in seeing their picture, they were simply happy to be photographed. However, whenever it was the other way around and we were being photographed, I was always intrigued by why they were taking the picture. What was it for? Who was going to be looking at us?

Theory of mind suggests that we can perceive something about someone by looking at them. There are obviously limits to this kind of knowing. Our cultural filters fog our view, and the captured moment is only a fraction of a second of a person’s life. And yet, despite the failures of the medium, a kind of connection is possible.

As we parted ways with the astronomer, he walked away carrying away our likenesses, a little piece of us represented in small, crudely pixelated forms on a 1.5-inch screen. Who would see these pictures of us? And what did we reveal?

— Gaze trilogy, part 2.

Read part 1 / Read part 3

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