The Construction of Meaning in Photography

‘Photograph… a record of a reality refracted through a sensibility’

– Victor Burgin (1986)

Shadi Ghadirian and her range of artistic photography vocalise two of her most personal identities: Iran and womanhood. However, as expressed in her collection Miss Butterfly (2011), and in various films that struggle to sieve through the web of state censor board,  personal and public are not significantly distinguished and demarcated spaces for Iranian women. However, it is not the politics of her subject matter that is the only fodder for one’s fascination; if one may look closer, or deeper, it is her process that fancies. 

In her frames, Shadi Ghadirian captures the duality of contemporary existence in Iran; imbued in life’s contradictions and an innate desire to be understood. This duality can be seen as a struggle, if not a conflict, between tradition and modernity in the prevailing sense of representation in Iran. To Shadi, this duality in representation is more apparent in the representation of women. In her collection, Qajar (1998), Shadi uses the style of traditional Qajar photography, famous in the 19th century Iran, and twitches the construction of meaning by invading the traditional space with an object that signifies modernity.

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

The duality represented in Qajar answers well to the understanding of a ‘photograph’ as provided by Roland Barthes. Instead of its artistic composition, Barthes was more focused on its construction of cultural myths on a mass scale. In Mythologies, Barthes asserts that a photograph is a coded, historically contingent, ideological speech which is amenable to scientific study  and semiotic analysis. In Qajar, we can see Shadi substituting the surface understanding of the picture with a larger ideological and political meaning which is represented through well coded symbols that carry certain political meanings in themselves. Therefore, the use of a traditional style (Qajar) as a space where little objects of modernity are placed, alienates the meanings earlier associated with these two elements and conjoins them to construct a new political meaning. Interestingly, the women in these photographs maintain the facial features and aesthetic sense that was prevailing during the Qajar period. In such a frame, an object of modernity seems like an inevitable reality to which women in Iran might have dealt with in an operational sense but not in a cultural sense. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

 

 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

Apart from construction of duality in representation of Iranian women, we see another very fascinating feature in Shadi Ghadirian’s photographic process: The symbolisation of the subject matter. 

Photography for Shadi is as symbolic as it is real. So much so, that when the urge to surface the reality, which has been brushed aside for so long, becomes irresistible, the symbols become the voice that speaks on behalf of reality so silenced. It is when the language of reality becomes too hard to gather, that the symbols become the mouthpiece of  one’s truth. 

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In Miss Butterfly, we see the frames depicting meanings that are drawn not from the referrant herself, but from the space in which the referrant is placed. In addition to this, the interplay or engagement created between the referrant and the object (in this case, the web) alienates both the referrant and the engaged object from their own meanings and reduces them to become mere symbols of a political message. 

Miss Butterfly was inspired by renowned Iranian playwright Bijan Mofid’s piece about a butterfly’s ill-fated pursuit to encourage her fellow insects to escape captivity of a spider’s web and go see the sun again. In each of the images from the collection, women are shown weaving or unravelling webs attached to the frames of light (an exit). They seemed at turns overpowered by the narrow staircases and rooms or dwarfed by the stately homes in which they are placed (Nagree : 2006). More than anything, it is the overpowering darkness that reflects the most upon the reality of the lives of these women. 

Shot in black and white, the women in these frames are symbols of multiplicity of layered meanings. One such layer is the public-private divide in the lives of Iranian women. The images show women wearing the headscarves even in the private space within a domestic setting. Some critics argued that the same was deliberately done by Shadi to comply with the guidelines of the state censor board. One might not see this distinction as relevant within the religious context but the same does come across as a constructed meaning from the direct reading of the photographs. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Miss Butterfly 

 

Unlike the meaning usually associated with photography theorists, the pictures in Miss Butterfly are much alienated from the actual reality of the referrant. Such alienation is much evident in the poetic construction of the frame where the object which symbolises captivity is enlarged from its usual/normal size. Moreover, the careful selection of space and source of light, also work towards alienating the referrant (women) from their actual historical context; hence reducing them to mere symbols of general understanding of oppression. One may say, Shadi Ghadirian in Miss Butterfly, becomes the author of the photograph; metamorphosing the reality into well construed ideology and representing the same through intelligently placed symbols.  

We can see this well thought of placement of incongruous objects to create meaning in her other acclaimed works such as Like Everyday (2000) and Nil Nil (2008) as well. In all of these works, the ideological motive becomes a vantage point from which objects (including humans) are seen through preconceived meaning. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Like Everyday 

 

 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Nil Nil 

It is through her well choreographed process, that Shadi Ghadirian imbues movement in stillness. Since the subject matter of her photograph is not the historical fact or abstracted reality but a political meaning, the pictures escape the socio-temporal existence and remain relevant till the political objective is achieved. Therefore, the referentiality and indexicality of Shadi Ghadirian’s  photography is not reflective of the world represented in the photograph but of the world ‘out-there’; that is, the world outside the photograph but yet so near. 

This subject matter, however, runs contrary to the classical understanding of photography which considered a photograph to be stillness; so much so that some considered it to be a death. Christian Metz in his Photography and Fetish (1985) argues that photography operates as a figuration of death. Metz says ‘photography is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world into another world, into another kind of time… photography by virtue of its stillness ‘maintains the memory of dead as being dead.’  In common parlance, photography is compared with shooting; the camera becomes a gun.

Shadi Ghadirian, on the other hand, is bringing alive the voices of the dead and the denied. With every frame and image, she challenges the ‘still’ nature of her medium of expression by constructing meanings that remain relevant, existent and omnipresent. Shadi’s camera is not a gun; it is not a flag of peace either. More than anything, it is a mirror; reflecting what ever movement and the moved fails to see through his own naked eyes. 

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What Is Age But Relative

My concerns do not align with how biology understands my age. Maybe we just somehow decide to develop into what biology expects us to be; like a good ole Indian parent. What fascinates me rather is how I’ve been thinking of my age lately.

When I sit across a bunch of humans from South Delhi in their twenty something, I sense abstraction; not of myself but of others. I understand them to trenches but I don’t wish to. It’s not the understanding of age as a number that propels my understanding. It is the feeling that erupts when a fish meant for deep waters is brought to the surface and is asked to breathe. If age is a hedonistic expression of lightness that makes you feel that you belong to someplace higher than this, that would be me.

Then there are metro rides where all the fascinating instances are staged. When you’re thrown into the transporting vehicle by a dictatorial regime called Rajiv Chowk, you survive. You stretch, extend and reach out to hold onto even a slightest piece of something stationary to keep yourself steady. This is where and when you are put into the strangest of situation where you are so close to a person who appears to be nothing but a body to you; also breathing (oh how unfortunate). And then transporting vehicle halts, in hope of taking more unwilling souls in; so the bodies collide, heavy gasping happens, and sometimes, smiles surface. Everything then is not your head versus my head, your bag versus mine. It is a sense of togetherness emanating from mutual understanding of travails and triumphs of a metro ride that knows no age. 

From being older, to feeling no age at all, there are times I feel much younger than the lot. A popular bar in Aurobindo Market, people walking in, walking out, or, just spread out. There are clothed in the high street; glasses and hairstyles so niche yet so similar. As the lights were dim, I saw the slightest of expressions getting lost in the rising cigarette smoke, of theirs, the frail sounds of platonic conversations dissipating in the winter chill. Where am I in all of this? Where, or what, are my expressions; how does the noise of my triviality sound like? Maybe, a little louder than silence and a lot lesser than meaning. So, there I stand, somewhere in the corner, staring into the voids that do not even exist; only if the faces so unfamiliar could be called one. I feel displaced, distracted and oh so young. 

 

 

On Academic Insecurities

I am a person divided by his thoughts; conflicted by his desires, his material reality. As I approach the final year of my Law school, I quite faintly realise what sort of a journey I have traversed. What all I have done and have become of me in the course of the past three and a half years. Nothing of these years reveals anything clearly about any of the questions that wander around my conscience every day, crying for answers. I just have a vague and general perception of my life so far and I don’t know how I comprehend this understanding.

At one moment I see myself sitting on the cusp of a life-changing activity. I see every day, every hour, as a test of passion that demands action. And, then there are moments where I feel like an abandoned boat in the middle of the sea; aware of its reality but devoid of any possibility. I take solace in resignation even while constantly reminding myself of what I should be doing. I do let motivation get me but also push my energies and effort in pursuing things that might not directly assist me on the path I intend to walk on. I might call it a distraction or be diversifying my learning, but sometimes it feels like denial. It feels like running away from what you perceive yourself and your conditions to be.

I don’t know what I see of myself right now and why my friends instil hope in me. The depth of the faith that my family have in me either forces me to create a delusional perception about myself or a sense of betrayal towards them. I’m unable to trace that one ray of light that can show me the way out of this tunnel; an echo that tells me that I’m not caving further. I’m in want of something that assures me of myself and if not full then some of my capabilities. I don’t know what tomorrow looks like, but it is definitely casting a shadow on my today. I hope to see you tomorrow, but I don’t know how. 

Conversations: On Internal Conflicts and How I Perceive Them

He: Why did you disconnect the call for like 5 minutes? Was there something important? 

Me: No, no! I just had to go to the terrace. I didn’t feel right talking to you with a roof over my head. It just didn’t seem right. 

He: Well..! So, where do you place yourself mentally? How’s everything going?

Me: Well, I’m conflicted as usual! A part of me can’t wait to go back to Pune and start the new semester the way I want to. But, a part of me also wants to stay away even from a glimpse of anything remotely college. The funny part is that I’m aware of the existence of these conflicts within me but I still can’t do anything to resolve them

He: I think it shows your maturity as a person. In your case, knowing that the conflicts exist is mostly an exciting thing for it gives you challenges to prepare for. Something that I know you so passionately adore.

Me: Aaaah… Well, I would put it differently. Earlier, when I had a lack of self-understanding, these conflicts were more like temporary baits that used to lure me and sway my attention towards them; only for me to realise the depravity I felt afterwards. I was unaware of the fickle nature of my overambitious head and that made me feel extremely devastated at times. I was clueless about the reasons behind the things that were happening to me. But now, after years of learning about self, I am at least aware of the nature of these dispensations and the fact that they exist. I know that I as an entity is different from the conflicts that I carry within and thus I should be minimally affected by them. 

He: So you think it works for you somehow?

Me: Kinda! Like now knowing this fact about myself has changed the entire matrix of mental response to the rise of such internal conflicts. As I see them as periodic but inevitable guests of my overly ambitious conscience, I see myself dwelling in peace and calmness whenever such conflicts arise. I no longer panic or enter this horrid phase of self-doubt. I as an individual is above the inhibitions in my psyche. This is a very empowering yet peaceful understanding that I’ve acquired. 

Probably the reason why I’m having this conversation about my internal conflicts while taking a stroll on my terrace with a beautiful blue sky over my head and the chirps of migratory birds dispelling the evening silence speaks volumes about how I see my conflicts. The nature around me is a metaphorical representation of how I feel on the inside – big, calm and purposeful.