Photography and Meaning
Every so often, my father emails me old photographs — scanned copies with yellowing borders and colors that bleed past the edges — of long dead family members. People who I do not recognize except for their spectral presences in a cousin’s posture or another double chin. There are often no words or other biographical details accompanying these photos which he sends me. In fact, in an act of selfless remembering, there is no expectation from my father that I even reply to these emails. Usually, I look at these photos in a manner that one sees images in a wedding album — as a form of documentation of other people’s lives. At times, I find these photos disappointing as the immensity of the past that I carry in my head is so easily reduced to postcard-size images, outside of which those large-sized lives no longer exist.
This mismatch between memory and the very act of memorialising — be it through photos, texts, public records — is not new. The concretisation of any phenomenon implies an imposition of form, rules, and structure. Photographs are no exception. When previously amorphous and free-floating memories are yoked to a new technology, it births new anxieties, stirs previously muted sentiments.
In ancient Greece, the philosopher Plato worried that writing would begin to decimate the traditional means of information keeping which used memory techniques. Nearly two millennia later, the poet Petrarch endowed respectability to letter-writing among the increasingly literate elites. The result was that they began to explore their inner worlds in a language that was informal, free flowing, and revelatory, often without the forbidding rigidity of formal prose. As Gutenberg’s printing press began to percolate in the 16th century, the new technology was used to transform minor sectarian conflicts into full blown propaganda wars, which in due course became major social schisms. That technology changes our lives is not surprising, but what is striking and less understood is how it begins to change people’s perception of themselves — how they find meaning to their own lives amidst the tumult of living.
Photographs, too, did something similar. In fact, when I look closely at the photos my father sends, I realise that how I interpret them has itself changed. Of these photos, I had seen some of them framed and displayed in the verandahs of our ancestral homes, arranged one after the after, like a police line-up, as a form of genealogical record-keeping. As a teenager what caught my eye, invariably, was the dourness of their faces, the pall of heaviness in their mannerisms, which perhaps betrayed their impatience and nervousness as the cameraman worked his contraption. Later, as I entered college and discovered the convenient righteousness of youth, I pitied the smallness of the lives of these men and women who powdered themselves for the sake of a photograph. But by now, a decade older, wounded in an emotional skirmish or two, I wonder, what did these photographs mean to them? Was it an effort to document their lives, a ritual of self-expression, or was it a deeper effort to efface their traditional selves and to be born anew?
Photography, wrote the American author Susan Sontag, with the authority of someone who theorized more than practised, is ‘the’ singular phenomenon that traces and reveals the contours of modernity more than any other. To be modern is to allow for the capture of our contingent selves into two-dimensional representations. But whereas once photographs were witnesses to the world, we are now awash in images — some photos of our own making and others made by public cameras. Ironically, however, many of our “private” photos, thanks to the performative aspect of social media, are now public, while many of our public photos remain locked in secretly held databases of governments and corporations. As if anticipating this turn of events, the great John Berger provided a taxonomy of sorts. He wrote: a private photo is that which is interpreted in the same set of circumstances in which it was taken and a public photograph is that which is interpreted in circumstances far removed from its origins. In essence, whether a photo is private or public is less about the display and more about the distance between the context of its origins and the context of the interpretations that follow. By this definition, the personal photos that my father sends me have now become like public photographs, since my life is far removed from the original.
Historically, across societies, to understand our representations of reality — be it paintings, engravings, photos — we have relied on the stability of contexts to arrive at homogeneous and mutually reinforcing meanings. But this contextual stability has come undone thanks to varying forces in play: migration, social media, manipulated and manufactured news. And as a result, any claims of uniqueness of meaning in any of our arts subject to the logic of mass consumerism has become untenable. Photographs on social networks accentuate these forces: they are public, their meaning is elusive. We’ve made our experiences into advertisement campaigns for our own lives, which have, in turn, become the products to be marketed. We’ve become the ‘fast moving consumer goods’ we have been waiting for. 
A version of this was published in The Hindu on September 9th, 2018.