Citizens of Photography: the Camera and the Political Imagination is an empirical anthropological investigation of a hypothesis about the relationship between photographic self-representation and different societies' understanding of what is politically possible. The project is based within the Department of Anthropology at University College London and is funded by a European Research Council Advanced Grant.

Prolonged ethnographic fieldwork (by six anthropologists at the postdoc and doctoral level) in Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Greece, Nigeria, and Nicaragua has been investigating how local communities use photography to represent individuals, families, and other identities and exploring whether this plays a role in the manner in which people articulate their political hopes and demands.

The conceptual starting point of the project is recent work by photographic theorists, among them Ariella Azoulay. She has argued that photography makes possible a new form of “civil imagination” and offers a subjunctive form of citizenship, because of its inclusiveness and contingency. Azoulay develops her argument in the context of historical images and also in relation to contemporary photojournalism and the manner in which photographic images appear to provoke actions with political consequences. This project starts with her insights and seeks to explore them at a local level in relation to vernacular or “demotic” photography. One central aim of the project concerns the relationship between “representation” through everyday images and “representation” through politics.

Presented here are five images selected by each of the project team whose research has been in Asia. They arise from work by Vindhya Buthpitiya, in northern Sri Lanka; Christopher Pinney, in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India; and Sokphea Young, in Cambodia. The findings of the project will be available in due course via individually authored studies and a collectively edited volume. The full project also comprises work by Naluwembe Binaisa, in Nigeria; Konstantinos Kalantzis, in Greece; and Ileana Selejan, in Nicaragua. Their work can be found here.

Vindhya Buthpitiya

Sokphea Young

Christopher Pinney

Later images in the series show the matki phod, a human tower, being constructed by thirty or perhaps forty individuals in three tiers. It was while this living pyramid struggled to take form that the participants became aware of a mysterious presence, a zone of energy of the kind that someone fifteen to twenty feet high might exert. Everyone was aware of something helping them as they clambered upward, and the same force came to their rescue when the tower collapsed onto hard stony ground, for they were all magically cushioned as they fell. The final image in the series delivers the denouement, placing the tower at the center of the image and showing some of the many small colored flags suspended from the shrine, which remains out of frame. Parallel to the tower on the left side a large, mottled, snakelike stripe sears the image. For the participants in the matki phod and the many excited spectators whose presence the image also documents, the photograph affirmed what they had experienced: the King Cobra whom the festival remembers had been the mysterious presence assisting in its own effervescent celebration.

Professional photographers in the nearby town are highly skeptical of the rural ontology of photography that prizes it as a medium in which the world of sagas and jujhar (spirits of the deceased) becomes visible. Suresh Punjabi, of Suhag Studio, observed that when developing 120 film, the negative can easily get scratched, producing confusing noise on the surface of the image. Deep scratches can also start to “melt” at high temperatures, and for this reason many photographers would add a little ice (if they could obtain it) to the developer. Split negatives often produced a mottled pattern on the final printed image.

As well as providing a striking example of photography as a kind of “divination,” the image (which was disclosed to Pinney only in 2019, more than thirty years after he started visiting the village it depicts) demonstrates the value of long-term fieldwork.

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