Sunday, May 14, 2017

'Pilibimbu 2017': Beyond the naked eye

Photography involves craft, this we know. Sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes it’s not, and sometimes it’s accidental. The best photographs, after all, weren’t conceived consciously: they were born out of coincidence, blending art and technical proficiency in a way that leaves critics baffled, even amazed. That is why photography is not just about what ISO count fits what time or what aperture size is best.

On the other hand, those things do matter. As those who have written on the field – from those who’ve been engaged in it to those who like to comment on it – have pointed out, photography was the first art-form born out of the constraints of physics. In her book On Photography, moreover, Susan Sontag implies that our love for the subject reflects our desire to collect, contain, and control the world. She points out, moreover, that societies which are repressed, traditionalist, and culturally puritan are opposed to photography, while those that are more outgoing have realised the role of the cameraman in substantiating, archiving, and preserving their collective experiences.

Sri Lanka, I’d like to think, is moving away from that latter society, not because we’re losing ourselves to modernity but because we’ve been able to use the camera to preserve and archive. By that I am not limiting it to the arts: photography, like every other art-form, can be used to promote the political as well. Whether it has been used adequately in this latter respect here is something I am not qualified enough to comment on, so I will now shift to a trend that’s gripping the nation: the emergence of a robust and qualified-in-all-but-name photographic movement in our schools.

I know someone who thinks that the digital era has given everyone unbridled access to cameras, which means that quality has dropped. This person, a friend of mine, believes that despite the leap made in the field from roll film to memory cards, there are aspects to photography that must be preserved for posterity: “Not every monkey with a camera can or should take pictures, after all!” was his comment.

I agree. Setting aside his cynicism, his point is that for good photographers to be nurtured, they must be guided, not taught. That brings me to the subject of my article.

On four days over two months, the Photographic Art Society of Ananda College will unveil Pilibimbu, an exploration into the naked eye’s potential to seek, capture, and preserve. Before I get to what it entails, a few preliminary observations about the Society, the schoolboys involved in it, and the organisers of this entire rite, are called for. Starting with a little history.

It all began in 1946 when a Photographic and Cinematographic Society was launched at Ananda. Initially it had delved into both photography and cinema (as the name implies), but for some reason the two had gone their separate ways, with the club morphing into what it is today. With no proper record or written history, however, it is difficult to chart its evolution. What we do know is that for over half a century, the Society and the school gave out some of Sri Lanka’s top-notch cameramen, photojournalists, and even filmmakers, of whom the “D. B.” brothers (Nihalsinghe and Suranimala) stand out considerably.

In 2001, the Society launched a magazine that would double up as an exhibition. Titled Pilibimbu, it became the first competition of its kind organised by a school club here. As a competition, however, it delved into the artistic potential of those who competed. That potential, because of the fact that the exhibition focused purely on the creative process, ignored the theoretical aspect to the subject.

In 2015, therefore, the Society inaugurated Oculus, a “technical competition” where participants would be taken through certain prerequisites in photography with a series of tests and activities. Oculus soon gave way to a workshop, held on a separate day where leading experts and practitioners would deliver lectures on certain topics to students, to be followed by the obligatory awards ceremony. This year, Oculus will be held on May 19 at Ananda, the Exhibition on June 7 and 8, and the Day on June 9 at Ananda again. Three events, three approaches: all in all, self-explanatory.

Important as they are, however, these details interest me more for what they’ve brought out from their organisers. To this end I talked with the Presidents of the Society from 2015 to 2017: namely, Avarjana Panditha (2015), Yashodha Liyanage (2016), and Kavindu Hasaranga (2017). Kavindu being the incumbent spoke the most, but in what they all had to say I noticed one name cropping up: the lecturer and, in more ways than one, shaper of the Society, Boopathy Nalin Wickramage. I know of Boopathy and I know a teacher who does as well and calls him “bolder than life” (I’m sure Boopathy will understand), so I asked all three to describe how he handles the club.

Kavindu spoke first: “We have lectures once a week. Boopathy aiya takes us through everything, starting from how to hold a camera. In fact he offers us a virtual diploma in the subject, even though it’s not a professional qualification per se. By the time the aspiring photographer at school completes Boopathy’s three-year course, he’s qualified to strike out on his own.” Yashodha interjected here: “He is more than a teacher. As Anandians, we are lucky to have him.” Followed by Avarjana: “He teaches less and guides more. He takes a different approach in each of those three years. He is a marvel to study under, to be honest.”

Modernity has a way of separating creativity from technology in art, which probably explains (and I speak from experience) the division in our film industry between technicians who lack creativity and artistes who idealise the cinema as a cerebral craft. That we have not yet been able to resolve it speaks volumes about the gap between art and reality, a point I discerned in an article Boopathy himself wrote to the Ravaya (included in the Pilibimbu 2015 souvenir) titled “A Critique of the Art of Photography in Sri Lanka.”

Spatial constraints unfortunately prevent me from exploring Boopathy’s assertions (astute as they are), so I content myself by watering them down and asking Avarjana, Yashodha, and Kavindu one question: How will Pilibimbu teach us both the technical and creative potential of photography?

Yashodha answered first: “When it comes to this field, you can’t separate art from technology.” Avarjana interjected: “Photography tests your ability to formalise your creative process. You may envision the perfect shot, but if you can’t handle your camera, what your naked eye sees will be lost on it. In other words, once you marginalise the mechanics here, you lose the photographer in you.” This reminds me of what Sumitra Peries, who started out as an amateur photographer and moved into editing and then directing, once told me: “It’s nothing less than the formalised expression of experience.” Perhaps that is what Boopathy has tried to chart in that aforementioned article.

While I look forward to all three events in Pilibimbu, I admit that I look forward to the second one, because it will give me an opportunity to discern art cohabiting with reality. The third event, the Day, will interest me as well, for the lectures that will be taught (by the likes of Lal Hegoda and Harsha Maduranga). As a final point, Avarjana spoke of how these initiatives got its organisers to uplift the field elsewhere, in particular one school in Moratuwa. “When we realised that the Society in that school was falling apart, we got in contact with its Vice Principal and persuaded him to get it resuscitated. Boopathy aiya helped us. Eventually, we got that Society running.”

There’s a time to write and a time to pause. I am no photographer, only an enthusiast, so I leave my two cents for another day. In the meantime, we can partake of what these bright, ambitious schoolboys have scrounged up for the camera shilpiya in us all. There’s theory embedded there somewhere, but I think it best that we forget that and let these boys, and the other organisers of their event, enthral us. We can choose to reflect later. Much later.

Written for: The Island YOUth, May 14 2017