Hiranya Malwatte, who takes amasing photographs of our landscapes, people, and cultural sites, once made an interesting observation about why young people take to photography so much today. She contended that it is because to the aspiring artiste, even the most mundane picture becomes a work of art. Roughly the same argument can be made of aspiring novelists, actors, playwrights, and directors: they all think their first work is so great that it is impervious to further improvement.
Think about it. That picture of a rose or siyambala tree in your garden, that first shot of your pet dog, that amasingly clear image of dewdrops on a wet morning. The first time you took them, particularly on a DSLR, you thought they would make the final cut, or would at least be worthy of an exhibition. Presumptuousness is and has always been the preserve of youth, so it is in our adolescence, when we are armed with good enough cameras and camera equipment, that we feel we have conquered the world with the most ordinary picture.
And at the end of the day, as expected, the results are despairing. I have been to literary festivals and awards shortlist ceremonies and I have come across the exact same comment made by the judges; that for every masterpiece they are fortunate enough to come across, they have to wade through hundreds of rubbish packaged in the form of superficially novel themes, ideas, and characters. In other words, the same ideas reworked a hundred times over are, for many, THE literary ideas of the era, if not year.
Act of taking a photograph
Part of the reason for this is that we are enthralled by the act of taking a photograph. The movies are to blame for that, since somewhere in the sixties, Hollywood turned the lonely artist into an unwilling hero. Michelangelo Antonioni in Blow-up turned a fashion photographer into an obsessed detective who tries to solve the world’s greatest mystery: how much of what we see is real, how much of it is myth? From that point on, Hollywood’s heroes were no longer detectives, lieutenants, and treasure hunters. They were artists, writers, creative directors, and of course, photographers. The end result, as expected, was the idea that being a photographer, like being a musician, was not only cool, it was also “mod” in some metaphysical, existential way.
“Time flies and only our death can stop it,” Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the greatest practitioners of the art, wrote. And yet, most young photographers I encounter seem so rushed that not even death can stop them. Like the hero of Blow-up, they seem cursed with the idea of the artist as a hero: they want to prove to themselves and to everyone else - elders, friends, crushes - that they have what it takes to turn their DLSRs into a commercial tool. Not that they are moved by the money, of course. But as with every artist, their sense of urgency has transformed photography into something to make a profit out of.
Hiranya’s remarks about these young people and the art they take to is depressing in that sense, because photography was never the preserve of the young (at least not the way it is now). Cartier-Bresson, to give just one example, had to go through art school before he decided to shift to photography, then the newest of all art forms. That sense of carefree randomness in his early work came from his experiences as an art student.
October is not the month of photography, not in Sri Lanka anyway. And yet, it is special. Almost invariably, it is the month of Pilibimbu, to me the answer if not one of the few answers we have to the problems I’ve outlined before. I have already written of Pilibimbu to this paper. All that needs to be rewritten here, then, is that it is the exhibition and final showcase event of the year of the country’s oldest school based such club, the Photographic Art Society of Ananda College.
Ananda College is not the only school with a photography society, but it is one of the few schools, in and around Colombo, that has a set of students dedicated to the craft. When it was inaugurated in 1946, and later as it evolved along, it counted among its members (Dr) Hudson Silva, D. B. Nihalsinghe and his brother Suranimala, Indra de Lanerolle, Daya Ranaweera, and Upali Athurugiriya. According to K. L. F. Wijedasa, who was kind enough to furnish me with these names, the Physics Teacher at Ananda, L. S. R. Wijetunga, “used to come to the darkroom and help them [the members] with the filters.” The society had established a cinematographic unit overseen by D. B. Nihalsinghe.
Over the months, I have come across certain members from the Society.
The difference between students from a society at a school like Ananda and those from societies that fall outside the school photography circle in Colombo is that for the former, photography is more than just taking photographs. They have understood the “art” in the field, but are not enthralled by it so much that they pass over the other dynamics which determine the art.
Photography and cinema
Most students I know who take to photography, for instance, are unaware of or choose to ignore the relationship between photography and the cinema, between the still and the moving image, and are therefore unresponsive to art forms that, while different to photography, can go a long way in shaping the aspiring photographer. In that sense Bumindu Jayaratne, this year’s President, is a refreshing contrast: a film aficionado, he is acutely aware of, and has frequently talked with me, about our cinema.
And yet, the eclecticism of these two young men is more the exception than the norm among their peers from elsewhere. At least partly, that explains why and how one set of schools has been able to capture the school based photography scene in not just Colombo, but also Sri Lanka. In particular, Ananda: as more than one commentator has told me, that school has gained a reputation (at least by the standards of popular Colombo institutions which privilege hard subjects like science) for inculcating within its students a love for the arts.
Perhaps all these are connected. Perhaps they are not. All I know is that we are facing a problem, in this field and this country. The truth needs to be told: there are too many photographers engaged in too little photography. I am tired of reducing every problem of the arts to the indifference of the young. And yet, they remain indifferent. And stubborn. Hiranya, I am sure, would agree. As would the organisers of Pilibimbu and the members of the Society at Ananda. And as would Bumindu and Kavindu.
Organised by the Photographic Art Society of Ananda College, Pilibimbu will open to the public on October 18 from 2 p.m onwards at the Lionel Edirisinghe Rostrum of the University of Visual and Performing Arts.