Tuesday, October 10, 2017

‘Pilibimbu 2017’: Beyond the eye of the beholder

I know very little about photography, the science or the art. What little I know I learnt from my father and certain texts written by people who weren’t practitioners in the field by any stretch of the imagination. Of the latter, Susan Sontag’s On Photography and, in part at least, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida captured my imagination. But these were largely on theory, and were no more and no less than two conceptions or two theses about an intriguing craft. Because of my childhood infatuation with Sontag (one which I never really grew out of), nevertheless, her take on the subject enflamed me. This is not about Sontag, Barthes, their books, or the state of photography in Sri Lanka, however.

Sontag’s claim that photography indicates our desire to capture, to collate, and to preserve for posterity is true when it comes to our relations with not just our friends and families but also our world. It’s so potent, as a veritable symbol of conquest that is, that we refer to it as though it were a gun: we shoot, we go after, we capture. Her other claim, largely implied, that the world as such is divided into two cultures, between those who embrace the field and those who detest it, echoes that simplistic dichotomy between civilizations which are active, ruthless, go-getting, and civilizations which are passive, submissive, pacifist. We are divided even within ourselves: we like to shoot, but we don’t like to be shot. In other words, we like to do, to take, but we don’t like to be, to give.

I’d like to think that Sri Lanka has moved away from the first and into the second of these cultures. The digital era has democratised our desire to preserve, to archive, and cameras have helped us preserve and archive our past, at least partially. Strangely enough, though, the world of photography in this country is limited largely to the birthday party, the graduation, the wedding. Children take to photography, yes, but for the most because of their own desire to be with others, to cohabit and intermingle and be a part of something they are invited to, and also to make money and see their work in the public domain. Commercial photography has never been more saturated here, before. School societies and clubs have a large say in this trend, naturally. This piece is about one such Club.

It all began in 1946 when a Photographic and Cinematographic Society was launched at Ananda College, Colombo. 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, unfortunately, 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 and directors, of whom the “D. B.” brothers (Nihalsinghe and Suranimala) stand out considerably. That it did served both the still and the moving image can be gleaned from the fact that Nihalsinghe wound up abandoning a career in Economics for the cinema.

On the 10th, 11th, and 12th of October (that is, today, tomorrow, and the day after), the Society will unveil its annual showcase event, Pilibimbu (loosely but not accurately translatable as “Reflections”), on the first two dates as an Exhibition at the J. D. A. Gallery in Horton Place, Colombo 7, and on the third as a Day at the Kularatne Hall in Ananda. Not being a practitioner of photography by a long shot I can only hope, as I will, to sketch out what the boys involved in this endeavour have gone through and will bring out. To this end, I talked with the Presidents of the Club from the last three years: Kavindu Hasaranga (2017), Yashodha Liyanage (2016), and Avarjana Panditha (2015). Here’s what they had to say and here’s what we can expect, this week, from them.

Apparently Pilibimbu had been the sequel to a technical competition the Society had organised earlier this year, Oculus, held on May 19 at the Kularatne Hall. Oculus itself has a colourful history behind it, in fact. “In 2001, we launched a magazine that doubled as an Exhibition. Pilimbimbu, as it was called even back then, was the first competition of its kind organised by a school in Sri Lanka. However, it only delved into the artistic potential of those who took part in it. Photography is much more than an art. It involves physics and it involves technology. That’s why we organised Oculus 14 years later. The aim was to get participants through the mechanics of the subject through a series of tests and activities that gave way to a workshop attended by leading local photographers.” Kavindu moved on to another topic here: how the subject is sustained at his school.

Being the current president he obviously had a great many things to say on the topic. And in what he had to say, I noticed one name cropping up frequently: the lecturer, and in more ways than one the guide and shaper of the Society, Boopathy Nalin Wickramage. I first came across the name through a teacher who had apparently been a friend of his at University. I remembered what this teacher told me: “He is as bold as life, if not bolder.” Now I’m sure Boopathy will understand, that is if he’s reading this, but for now I’m more interested in how his students view him. I therefore asked all three at-one-point-presidents to explain how they’re taken through the subject they’ve taken to, by him.

Apparently Boopathy is less a teacher or “sir” and more an “aiya” to them. Kavindu spoke first: “We have lectures once a week. He 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 our 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 students, we are lucky to have him.” Followed by Avarjana: “He teaches less and guides more. He takes a different approach during each of those three years. He is a marvel to study under, to be honest.”

What piques my interest when it comes to Boopathy and the way he’s teaching these students is how careful he is when bringing art and science together with respect to his field. If there’s just one thing I know about photography, it’s that, despite the democratisation drive it’s been steamrollered by in this very digital era, it’s the first art form which evolved out of physics. The cinema came later, and was an amalgamation of the still image (a heavily technical medium) and the theatre (the most primeval medium of them all, as I’ve pointed out before). While it does emphasise on the visual, the what’s-seen and the what’s-hidden-beneath, it also emphasises on the how-it’s-taken and the how-best-it-can-be-taken, pertinent questions for any art form, I believe, a point which Boopathy himself noted in an article in the Ravaya and included in the Pilbimbu Souvenir of 2015, “A Critique of the Art of Photography in Sri Lanka.”

I therefore asked Yashodha and Avarjana to expound their views, fermented as they are, on this contentious matter. Yashodha answered first: “You can’t separate art from technology when it comes to this profession.” Avarjana elaborated: “Photography tests your ability to formalise the creative process. You may be able to envision the perfect shot, but if you can’t handle your device, be it a DSLR or your iPhone, what your naked eye beholds will be lost. Forever. In other words, once you marginalise the mechanics of your craft, you lose the photographer in you.” Reminds me of advertising, another for the most creative field where concentration is as important as imagination, and reminds me of what Sumitra Peries, another veteran in the cinema who followed photography early on and later moved into editing (she’s the best “visualiser” our film industry has), once told me: “Art is nothing less than the formalised expression of a felt experience.”

It’s a curse when you think about it, but modernity has all but completely separated the doers from the thinkers. As I pointed out in my article on Bhava and Harasara Pranamaya two weeks ago, this is probably the worst dichotomy our world operates on, reinforced by the lamentations and the nostalgia the past compels from us. It’s difficult to think of lyricists who can compose as well as sing because there aren’t any. The counterargument to that, basically that is, is that such iconoclastic polyglots were hard to get even then, but the real argument here is that the past bred so many practitioners of a given field, who were acquainted with every facet to that field that their absence today is disheartening to say the least. This argument can obviously be extended to our photographers, today.

“It’s a nostalgic time right now, and photographs actively promote nostalgia,” Sontag once wrote (On Photography). Times change and with them so do tastes, but nostalgia and sentimental value don’t. In this digital age we can truly, sincerely, and madly ensure posterity for a photograph, if at all because digitalisation keeps it from deteriorating, from ageing, from mellowing. But that nostalgic value, be it with respect to a birthday party, a graduation wedding, or even a leopard at Yala, remains. Always. That’s one point the boys at the Society, at Ananda, with these three events and especially with Pilibimbu, have strived to bring out. It’s a test of their success, or failure, whether they have succeeded on this point, and whether we take to it, today, tomorrow, and the day after.

Photos courtesy of: The Photographic Art Society of Ananda College