Questioning the insider vs outsider perspective

My wife and I presented our work to a group of photographers in New Delhi recently. We built our presentation around John Szarkowski’s idea that (broadly) photographs are either Mirrors and Windows (as in mirrors of the author or windows into other people, places or things.) It was of course fun. But it also got me thinking about photography, culture and a whole mix of other questions which naturally led to a blog entry.

Delhi (most Indians call it simply Delhi, not differentiating the new sector from the old) is the political capital of India. It is also something of a cultural capital as well, which is the prism I was viewing the city through during this visit. Delhi is surrounded by a number of states, which feed the economic engine of Delhi.

I spent some time on the newish-Delhi Metro. It is a fascinating public works project that has been (I am told) enormously successful in getting people off the roads, out of buses and off two-wheelers (motorcycles.) The weirdest part of the Metro, for me, was coming out of the metro after a 30 or 40 minute ride thinking to myself, “yes, India is moving forward.” Then I would come up the escalator and leave the cool, calm and relative quiet of the Metro to re-enter the chaos, noise, dirt and smells that are India. I was plunged instantly back in the “old” India.

A similar experience happened as we drove out of Delhi to a place called Saharanpur, where my wife was to photograph for her project Regenerations. As we drove out past the edges of Delhi, through the surrounding suburbs and finally into the rural hinterlands of the neighboring state, we slowly left the new, fast, organized and clean India that Delhi works so hard to showcase.

I am not suggesting any kind of nostalgia for the old India or any unbridled longing for the new. One of the many things I find so fascinating about India is that the two coexist so easily in nearly every sphere of life. The buildings are the obvious examples of this but inside the minds of most Indians that same conflict exists.

Speaking of that conflict, I just finished a great book that explores the complex ways that change that is overtaking India. The book, India Calling is framed by the author’s journey back to the India that his parents left behind when they moved to America seeking better opportunities. He came to live in India after his own upbringing in the United States. The other Indians he profiles in the book highlight the cultural changes that are reshaping so much of India.

This old vs new question is at the core of so much of Indian life these days. As I work, both photographing and teaching, I wonder what part of that change is culturally specific and what is universal. I am particularly thinking about the changing place of photography as a creative pursuit within the larger culture.

With this idea of change and old vs new in the back of my head, we showed our work to about fifty photographers, under the auspices of the Nazar Foundation and upcoming Delhi Photo Festival.
In my half of the presentation I emphasized the important milestones in my career path. As I was preparing the talk I repeatedly asked myself, what can I do that will be educational as well as interesting in the eyes of my audience. This is something I do when I assemble every presentation. In this case I went one step further. I considered “what could I share that would be useful to a specifically Indian audience?” Though I am not Indian, I believe I have a little better understanding of Indian life and culture as compared to most outsiders because of my wife, her family and my extensive time in South Asia. On the other hand, I always work hard when I prepare and give presentations not to come off as the wise-ass, benevolent, all-knowing, outside white man.

When we showed our work, we highlighted points of overlap as well as divergence in our career paths and our photographic approaches. Then we had a great discussion that was prompted by the question and answer period. I am pleased that none of the questions were particularly technical. Some questions were about the expanding role of multi-media in the business of photography and others were about career options. Many of the questions touched on the sweet spot where authorship begins to become part of any photographer’s work.

As an educator, the questions about authorship interest me. As a commercial photographer, inquiries about business and career were harder to answer, because they are so specific to the individual photography market. For example, I feel reasonably comfortable in my understanding of the market for fine-art, commercial and documentary photography in the United States. While those all exist in India, I know almost nothing about them so any advice I offered was rather vague.

One compelling point that came up over and over was how the struggle for authorship, personal definition and accomplishment as a photographer is clearly as common here (in the U.S.) as there, in India. Since that concern crosses cultural and geographic boundaries, I felt reasonably comfortable addressing that topic.

On the other hand, the one uniquely India-specific question was directed to me by a young fine-art photographer. To paraphrase her question “your wife clearly credits the sources of her imagery, especially when she appropriates the imagery of others. Your images clearly are built on the contributions of others. How do you acknowledge that contribution?”

On an obvious level, the answer is that in the publication world where I work, getting credit for me as the photographer is hard enough and so thinking of crediting all the other who helped would be impractical. Yet, it is a good question that all photographers should think about.

I am quite aware that the fact that I am any kind of an “insider” when it comes to India is almost completely a function of the thousands of people who have helped me over the nearly two decades I have been working here. Whether family, friends, students or paid assistants, my experience of India is an amalgam of all the input those kind people offered me.

If you think about it, much of professional photography involves hiring people who have that same kind of insider/outside perspective. The best photographer for almost any kind of assignment, be it fashion, sports, nature or travel photography is the one who has enough insight to know/access the sub culture they are photographing. That same photographer needs to also have enough of an outsider’s perspective to make images that portray that same subculture in a way that outsiders will grasp.

Their are numerous approaches to nurturing photographers with this same insider/outside question. One of my favorite approaches is practiced by Pathshala (the South Asian Media Academy) in Dhaka, Bangladesh. By nurturing Bangladeshi media practitioners, they educate photojournalists to have that same insider/outside perspective, but unlike me, they start from the “inside” and learn how to create work for clients, with the photographic perspective of an outsider.

In the end, the universal question of career options, as in “how do I become a professional photographer” came up again and again in the dialogue after the talk, as it does in virtually every talk I give. A couple of days later we worked with a young Indian photographer who raised the question again. Since that question kept resurfacing, I kept asking myself if there was something uniquely Indian about the way the question was being asked and therefore how I would answer such a question. If there was something peculiarly Indian, then I was obligated to give something of a uniquely Indian answer. That is the subject of next week’s blog entry.

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