Folk photography on Facebook: What do people want to share?

A picture illustration shows a Facebook logo reflected in a person`s eye, in Zenica, 13 March 2015.Photo: Reuters

What do you see on social media? An endless reel of images? Short video forms called reels or shorts? In the nineties, digital media and the internet appeared as general platforms. Mobiles created great opportunities to personalize the internet. In the social media world, almost every person is an image creator, without the need of being a designated photographer. These people, whom I want to term digital folk-photographers, are my focus.

Photography from photo studios and photographers come to the public. Social media has started to be flooded by folk photography. Let's observe the nature of folk photography and how others are struggling to survive. This is an introductory initiative to bring this issue to light.

The people here addressed as folk are not designated as photography artists or not involved with any earning sources through professional photography. Most of these people are economically marginalised. My interest is what folk want to show about themselves. In the digital era, we have the chance to search for the answer to this question in different ways. Social media, such as Facebook, is a platform that creates a greater opportunity for folk to exhibit their photographic interests and aesthetics, reason, and purposes.

On the other hand, from the very beginning, camera experts have divided themselves by two reasons which are connected with the power of social status. This division is very similar to the craft and fine art debate, which in European art history started from the Renaissance.

What do those fine artists of photography want to display their work? An even bigger question is -- who are the spectators of their photography? People may ask the same question about the novel of Manik Bandopadhyay, 'Padma Nadir Majhi', without knowing the context. The contemporary context of Manik reminds us of Marxist politics, by which he had been highly influenced. But do contemporary artist-photographers fight for similar things like Manik? I do not have enough space to deal with this question.

Generally posted photographs contain the selfie as a self-portrait, a photograph with friends and family members, which basically cannot be differed by point of subject matter with the users of other professionals.

I'm striving to understand the question of folk photography and international prize-winning photography. If we keep them side by side, what will we see? I'm raising this question to explore the further study of digital folk culture including digital folk photography and digital anthropology.

Through random Google searching, I found the names of international prize winners in photography from Bangladesh. I just took those images as an example of what we considered a prestigious language considering the subject and visual language. From this search, people can list a few common names, who recently won prizes.

In the list, we’ll find the names such as the Royal Horticulture Society (RHS) Photographic Competition, Paris' Prix De La Photographie compétition, International Press Freedom Award, Discovery of the Year Award or Time and ASMP’s Global Portraiture Competition.

These competitions explore the success of the language and presentation of the photo crafts of Bangladeshi photographers, too. These photos stimulate and inspire to see the crisis in a particular manner. That success is constructed and measured by the West. Ironically, in the post-colonial era, anti-colonial or decolonization studies earn the apex attention in the area of epistemology in underdeveloped countries like Bangladesh. 

My concern is not to focus on those issues, of what photographers are capturing and what is gaining international sight. Already a small group of people, who capture, analyze, and promote photography as art, are concerned about those issues. That’s why I'm not bothering to share with readers that colonizers always choose the hut and slum as synonyms, what is documented as poverty and what later very much influenced the visual artist to create and express the local aesthetics. Still, artists like the broken houses, old cars, emaciated starving people, or hill people under the surveillance of the state, and at the same time aesthetically preached for tourism.

I'm not saying that this is not the artist's desired place or conditions where they want to spend their life. I’m not arguing about those awkward old images of starving or struggling people, only what they like to depict on their canvases to overcome their misery of survival which they faced in the multi-faceted market of globalization. To buy a new flat or brand new car, artists sell those images of village adolescents or street people or refugees, from where they capture an inexplicable smile to show an unknown spectacle. We should keep in mind that those photographers are also strangers to their subjects. So, a captured smile generally loses the target as well as inner certain conditions. Urban Intellectuals found 'innocence' in those images and those innocent smiles became the property for exchanges.

I’m not interrogating those positions of the photographers or the intentions of their creations or creative process. Rather, I'm interested to know what those 'innocent' people are really like if they get the chance to explore them. How do they want to present themselves to others? I just keep those examples of international award winners’ images, which are already mentioned, in front of you to invite your optical pleasure and comprehension in comparison with folk photography.

In the digital era, folk get an opportunity to express themselves on the same platform as the elite. Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, etc. are becoming the general stage for all classes. Of course, all classes are not privileged to enter the market of those devices that open the gateway for getting access to those social media platforms. I’m not ignoring the market policy of those media, which psychologically and indirectly materially control the users as per their designed programme. In considering these limitations with a keen observation, in this writing mainly garment workers' FB ID is observed with a small number of rickshaw pullers’ IDs.

First, I want to get back to those profiles that are very consciously chosen by their profession. Let me know what type of photograph they prefer to post on FB. I’m only concerned about those photographs that are directly connected with the user's self and family matters. Generally posted photographs contain the selfie as a self-portrait, a photograph with friends and family members, which basically cannot be differed by point of subject matter with the users of other professionals.

As usual, the self-portrait depicts the narcissistic personality of the users. What would be the aesthetic position if economically struggling people also showed off a Renaissance-like landscape or polished palace-like architecture in their photographs? It is generally observed that discussible professionals are not interested in capturing a whole architecture or natural beauty as a scenario or mass gathering, but only showing off their beauty or expression in a certain condition. Their photography is mainly connected with their life conditions, interests, and emotions not to gain appreciation as a photographer but rather to share the beauties of their own life. 

Anthropologist Manosh Chowdhury in his article titled `Nij-Aboyob, Shonghat O Shongslesh: Dipjol Proponcho` critically gives us a sight of how politicians erase their reality in their political posters which are used for propaganda to gain political power. Thus these political personalities are not equal in the concern of class to the folk. All are polished, in suits and ties, with trendy hairstyles of the young. I saw that people who hold the power and are capable of showing off their elitism before the election, get the attention of folk for the vote. Hut-dwellers like to see their leaders as palace owners.

We are facing contrasting features between international award winner photos and folk photos. The photographers, who would like to be designated as artists- prefer to hunt the crisis, violence, sudden incidents or accidents or wounds of the folk; then folk want to show themselves as movie starts like Purnima or Shakib Khan or politicians in all glory and perfection. Maybe this is also true for the life of those photographers cum artists. They can only differentiate themselves from the folk in the class concerned. Otherwise, their profiles tell us the same story in the way of a different mode of class. They also may want to be like Joan Baez or Leonardo DiCaprio. Image hunters know that behind this hunting quality, their economic interests are ambushed. The difference with the folk is that, if folk have any economic business they will not hesitate to expose the reason. 

Dipti Datta is Assistant Professor, Department of Oriental Art, University of Dhaka

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