On Christopher Pinney’s Lecture – “Ganga and the Cellphone: On the Civil Contract of Photography in India”

By Lara Abouhamad

How many times a day do you take a picture on your cellphone?

In a society where Snapchat and Instagram define a huge portion of social interactions, it is often hard to think about how revolutionary this mere click of a button could be – especially on a device so small and mobile. This feat of mobility was central to Christopher Pinney’s lecture in which he explained the revolutionary (!!) effects of cell phone photography in India, that arise from the newfound portability and widespread accessibility of these devices. Christopher Pinney, a Professor of Anthropology and Visual Culture at University College London, focuses many of his studies on Indian culture, especially on the peripheral villages. This particular lecture focused on what villages are doing with image and photography through the use of cell phones and other mobile devices. Pinney opened his lecture with the question: “What happens when photographic means become smaller and faster?”

Pinney argues the two sides of this coin – stating that this media incarnates both the utopia and dystopia within these societies. Firstly, in the sense of utopia, this newfound accessibility creates a certain democratization within society by including the lower classes in the modern discourse of media, who are now given a voice of sorts through their ability to create images. By calling on Ariella Azoulay’s study of photography in the Palestinian movement, Pinney advocates for the photographic citizenship of the oppressed that stands in stark juxtaposition with their lack of actual citizenship. In such, these Indian villages explore the subversive potential of photography, defying the colonial gaze that once defined them. On the other side of this phenomenon, Pinney reveals the stagnant aspects of some of these villages, in which some prohibit village girls from using mobile phones. Pinney also addresses the concept of the “myth of photographic” which takes on a new dimension in these villages. Through the new accessibility to photographic devices and photo-editing softwares, villages create “proof” or legitimate images of divine apparitions such as the Ganga – a cow how gave birth to twins (an apparently impossible occurrence) – or a mythical snake with ten heads. In other words, beyond being a tool of democratization, this type of media creates a sort of “digitally mediated encounter with the divine” that modernizes traditional belief systems.

All in all, despite the downsides this new development exposes, Pinney’s lecture is central in considering the revolutionary potential of photography. As photographic technologies become smaller and more mobile, the habitus changes as social hierarchies implode on the photographic plane.

Think of that next time you send a Snap

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