The Challenge of Photographing India

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“Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like the Punjab” Sir John Strachey, 1888

In his New York Times Magazine article ‘A Too-Perfect Picture’ (30/3/16), Teju Cole famously criticised the portrayal of India by the photographer Steve McCurry.

Based on a narrow reading of a minority of images contained in the photographer’s retrospective book India, Cole claims McCurry perpetuates an obsolete visual narrative and has a hackneyed style. 

In summary:

“The photographs in “India”, all taken in the last 40 years, are popular in part because they evoke an earlier time in Indian history, as well as old ideas of what photographs of Indians should look like, what the accoutrements of their lives should be: umbrellas, looms, sewing machines; not laptops, wireless printers, escalators.”(1)

It is not my aim here to defend McCurry or discuss perceived weaknesses in Cole’s argument. While I’m well aware of the recent revelations concerning the manipulation and staging of images by McCurry, I am equally aware the scenes in his photographs are not entirely creations of his imagination but common sites in India today.

However, Cole does raise an interesting point about the ability of itinerant (or, indeed, indigenous) photographers to make valid photographic statements about the places and cultures we travel through. It’s a thread within wider discussions of the pretensions of objectivity and truth telling in photography as a whole.   

Travelling for the purpose of photography raises complex issues about how we portray the geography, people and cultures of the places we visit.

Those issues relate, in part, to what John Urry termed ‘the tourist gaze’(2), i.e. the tendency for tourism experiences to be constructed as ‘products’ to satisfy the expectations and preconceptions of those engaged in that globalised industry. Both the tourists and service providers are complicit in this process of manufacturing cultural experiences.

The result is that all tourism experiences are open to the objections Cole has to McCurry’s photographic portrayal of India.  They are nostalgic constructions served up to meet market demand. A part of the process of commodification characteristic of globalisation.

A further layer of complexity stems from our own cultural identities and understanding of the language of photography. Our cultural sensitivity, and understanding of the different aesthetics of genres such as ‘street’, travel, documentary and portraiture, entail choices in seeking to say something meaningful about a place through our photography.  

Having said that, making ‘statements’ about a place or culture may not be the photographer’s intention at all. The specifics of place may be of little importance to the photographer concerned with the graphic qualities of ‘fine art’ photographs.

I struggle with the idea that any one person (be they photographer or writer) can provide a definitive portrait of a country and its culture.  Cultures are too diverse and nuanced to yield all their secrets to even the most curious sensibility. Photographers, especially, ought to be more modest.  The publisher of Steve McCurry’s aforementioned book could have shown a little restraint by titling it ‘Steve McCurry’s India’ because that is precisely what it provides (one person’s subjective and highly selective view).

So, experienced tourists understand that a package holiday to Goa has little to commend it as an experience of the ‘real’ India.  Similarly, visually literate photographers understand that our cultural identities, and creative choices, serve to produce imagery that is twice removed from any claims to truth, objectivity or authenticity as depictions of the places we experience on our travels.

Does that mean we should refrain from photographing what we experience of other places and their cultures? Of course not: we should continue to photograph them with passion and respect.  But we do it with an understanding that our photographs disclose something about our own identities as well as the places we experience.

1. Teju Cole ‘A Too Perfect Picture’ New York Times Magazine, 30th March 2016.
2. John Urry, The Tourist Gaze, SAGE Publications 1990.

Image of two women in Varanasi, India

Varanasi, 2016

Street scene Delhi India

Delhi, 2016

Colour photograph Varanasi India

Varanasi, 2016

Four men Varanasi India

Varanasi, 2016

Sikh taxi driver Delhi India

Delhi, 2015

Boys swimming India Gate Delhi

Delhi, 2015

Man having a shave Jaipur India

Jaipur, 2016

Street scene Delhi India

Delhi, 2016

Blurred train Agra India

Agra, 2016

Boy with pale of water Varanasi India

Varanasi, 2016

Two men Varanasi India

Varanasi, 2016

Tuba player Varanasi India

Varanasi, 2016

Images and text © John Meehan 2016

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