Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Taking photos: The visual archiving of Goa and its challenges

For sometime now, there have been a number of Goans engaged in documenting our state visually. Two of these photographers are, the USA based Rajan Parrikar, and the anonymous JoeGoaUK. The impression that one gets is that this visual archiving of our state is motivated by the not-unfounded-fear that the Goa that they (and we) knew, is fast fading into oblivion. For this archiving, future generations of Goans, and no doubt others as well, will be grateful.

In embarking on this project however, these people have embarked on an ethnographic project. As basketfuls of anthropologists have indicated in debates within this academic discipline, the ethnographic project is not without its problems. For example, what is the gaze, or view, that one adopts when documenting? For a space like Goa that has been, for at least fifty years now, ceaselessly pictured as a tourist paradise, is there a way in which we can see the non-touristic side of Goa? Goa’s representation has thus far been equally (but silently) dominated by ‘upper’-caste visions, is there space for the representation of Goa by marginal groups?

Thus while there is much that is being archived and documented, there is equally much more that is not. And this gap is significant. It represents that which the archivists do not see, or consider trivial or not important enough to document. Despite this gap, it is from what is captured that a reality is constructed. Indeed, scholars such as Nicholas Dirks make an important argument about the ethnographic project. They point out that the British launched this project as they sought to understand the general features of the subcontinent they were beginning to administer. In the process, they froze certain aspects of society and made these permanent features of ‘Indian’ society. An example of this would be the images that we often come across depicted ‘A Hindu holy Man’, ‘a banian merchant’ and such like. These images further depicted these people engaged in their ‘traditional task’. Thus images that were representative of a particular time and circumstance were frozen to become the ‘traditional’ image of the subcontinent and the various groups that these images became representative of.

A similar process underway inspired this column. Another Goan interested in documenting his homeland put up images of his project and lent captions to these images, very much in the style of the colonial anthropologist- ethnographer. The caption that caught my eye was one that read ‘Bamboo weaver - Paitona’. What was remarkable was the similarity of this caption to colonial era ethnographies that similarly described these images. What were missing were details that could give us an insight into this particular basket weaver. His name, his age, perhaps a story that drove home the point that this ‘basket weaver’ was an individual with his own history and story to share. To be sure the mere presentation of this data may not suffice to do justice to this man, but perhaps it would mitigate the possibility of his being captured for posterity with out the dignity of a name and his own personal story.

The need to give dignity is an issue of importance because of the context of the image. Goa apparently had a rather rich tradition of weaving baskets of various shapes and sizes that is now almost extinct. The reason for this was that as soon as they could, the Mahar community that engaged in this weaving gave up a practice that marked them as untouchable and brought them no respect. From within Goa one hears stories of these basket-weavers who were not allowed to come up to the house to deliver the basket, they had to throw the basket so as not to pollute the ‘upper’ caste home. The ‘upper’-caste Goan is largely clueless to this history, and mourns only the loss of the basket-weaving tradition. The weaver is largely, unimportant. Perhaps it was this entire background that I read into that little caption that innocently contextualized the image.

It would be unfair to demand that the visual archivists, who are going about a task they clearly love, also engage in collecting the stories and voices of the unheard peoples in Goa. This column seeks only to point to what we are leaving out, and contemplate a situation in which we could possibly amplify the effort of these archivists. Indeed, a contemplation of these issues could allow the same archivists to be sharper and more discerning in their capturing of Goan images.

In the context of these ‘basket-weavers’, their name was unimportant. They had to merely produce and deliver. They were not the individual artisan or artist whose work was celebrated. Perhaps even if we provided only a name for this individual in the image we would take one more step toward a more equal and inclusive Goa. Transform the nameless basket-weaver into an individual, a man who has a name, and who, in addition to the many things he does, is also an artisan, able to weave magic with bamboo.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 15 Dec 2010)


Marina Costa Lobo said...

Dear Jason,
Good article, well written, empathetic, and sensitive.
Bom Natal!!!

Pedro Manuel Sobral Pombo said...

Like it, and like it a lot.

Ricardo Falc√£o said...

I found your discussion about representation most interesting. Between the representation as a touristical paradise and the disregarded impure weavers ... is representation as power.

I wrote some years ago about this, only on a personal level, through my own reflections on my own "documenting". See: (In the Anthropology section: number 1: about taking photos in the bush)

Alex Fernandes said...

Jason, this is a fantastic piece. Brilliant thoughts
I totally agree about "the need to give dignity" to the people we capture. In general people do tend to make portraits of 'the todi tapper', 'the basket weaver', 'the poder' etc without showing much interest in who the person really is. We (photographers and viewers of such an image) create these class based stereotypes and the human being within the portrait is turned into a part of the Goan landscape.