Cultural photography: Need to redefine

Posted: July 29, 2016 in Ramblings of an artist

The art represents an outlet of expression, that is usually influenced by culture and which in turn helps to change culture. Cultural photography as an art form is important not only to preserve our values and lifestyle for our next generations but also for introduction of our society to the world at large. This genre of photography is quite popular among many amateur as well as professional photographers.
Are we doing enough? There is a need to have a look and reassess our progress with a view to make future plans.
The word culture is a broad term with multiple layers of meanings. According to Concise Oxford English Dictionary, the word, ‘Culture’ is defined in
1. The customs, institutions and achievements of a particular nation, people or group
2. The arts and other intellectual achievement regarded collectively, a refined understanding or appreciation of this
From these definitions it is obviously that culture is an extremely broad term and any art which claims to present it, must encompass every aspect of a society. This task is difficult especially for Pakistan; a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic society rooted in one of the oldest civilizations of world.

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In other genres of art, Pakistan`s artists, both visual and literary, have developed an organic vision of Pakistan`s identity, by espousing after Independence what art critic and journalist Raza Rumi terms `a new idiom of contemporary Pakistani art’ which conversed with society and critiqued what was happening in Pakistan.
Have photographers kept pace with development with other art forms? Let us have a look on what is being presented among photographic circles, in the name of culture. The trends among contemporary photographers can be summarized as follows.
Most of these images are related to rural background. Events like tent-pegging, bull races and other rural festivals are popular topics.
Even on functions organised by government organisations, similar trends are obvious. Activities related to village life are presented as representative our culture. Skilled workers from villages are given space to showcase their works in pottery, weaving and carpentry. Photographers are active in such festivals and present those pictures as their efforts to present cultural art.
There is also a trend to frequently visit different shrines and capture devotees in trance or dancing to music. Even psychedelics busy in addictions are captured and presented as examples of our Sufi traditions.
Another favorite trend is to visit northern areas and capture pictures of dancing girls of Kailash valley as examples of our culture. Such pictures are extremely popular among tourists and foreigners are advised to visit the valley if they want to have a look at our ancient civilization.
Is this approach correct or sufficient to encompass the various shades of our society which has roots in one of the most ancient civilization? Are we being biased or subjective in our approach?
Another interesting thing which is observed is absence of any serious attempt to capture customs, rituals and intellectual activities of our religious minorities. Aren’t they a part of Pakistan? Why their contributions are not considered as a part of jigsaw puzzle of Pakistan’s culture. Whenever I post such pictures, there is an objection that Non-Muslim festivals do not belong to Pakistan

Even in Architectural photography, we observe a major trend to present either modern monuments or buildings belonging to Muslim era of the history. The buildings, monuments and temples of Hindu and Sikh era are not included and presented as culture of Pakistan. Usually there is a tendency to categorize them in a separate category of ‘Heritage’. After all those eras and those people have a strong influence on what we are today as a society.

In the words of  Marcus Garvey, ‘A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots’ Elie Wiese has put it more emphatically that  ‘without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future’.
In her writing “On Photography”, Susan Sontag discusses concerns about the objectivity of photography. This is a highly debated subject within the photographic community. Any art form is a subjective form of representation, heavily influenced by artist’s own feelings and experiences. Photographers decide what to take a photo of, what elements to exclude and what angle to frame the photo, and these factors may reflect a particular sociological context.
For a subject like ‘culture’, it puts a great responsibility on artist to adopt an objective and careful approach. However such a free play of diversity, which would encompass ethnic, linguistic, and religious multiplicities, would destabilize the purported unity of Pakistani nationalist identity, defined and implemented from the top down.
Current approach may be because of the fact that most of urban people are actually migrants from villages and their roots in rural culture and agrarian society gives them a nostalgia to capture what they lost on coming to towns and cities.
Or it simply may be due to a trend of following others without giving it a serious thought.
On a larger scale, some people argue, that the trend is probably part of a larger confusion about what constitute ‘Ideology and culture of Pakistan’. This debate is complex and overshadowed by different social, linguistic and religious biases. May be that is the reason artists also appear to be confused or simply don’t want to think about it.
There is a need of an open discussion with an aim to redefine the question. This is important as it would have strong impact on our approach and our goals as artists and photographers.
Rapid urbanization has resulted in various issues and these must be reflected in our art.  Whatever work has been done, is mostly about inner cities. There should be an attempt to present what is going on in other localities and how they are developing. There is a need to present life in small towns.There representation is minimal on art scene especially in the absence of significant local photography groups
The trend of ‘Photo walks’ has done a tremendous service to popularize social and documentary photography among amateurs but now there is time to take another step in this direction. We should define issues in our local areas and start planned organised work to highlight them. There is a need to think of more topics to explore in addition to work on street boys, trans-genders or simply going to vegetable and fruit markets.
No attempt on cultural art would be complete, unless it recognizes and gives space to all sections of society as part of a greater whole; ‘The Culture of Pakistan’. Moreover it won’t be acceptable if it is not seen rooted in its past. Only through our commitment to the human need for self-expression and to the artistic values of truth and beauty, the Pakistan’s idiom in art would continue to develop and flourish

I end my article with a quote of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people’.

Eid Milad un Nabi

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