By Kshitij Nagar:
To begin with, I would like to make my argument using a few photographs.
First, the year is 1984, Afghanistan is in conflict. Thousands have crossed over to neighboring Pakistan to seek refuge. In a small refugee camp in Nasir Bagh is one of those refugees, Sharbat Gul, a young preadolescent girl, left orphaned by the Soviet bombing.
A young American photographer, by the name of Steve McCurry, is on assignment for the National Geographic Society tasked with documenting the condition of those displaced by the conflict. He’s had a busy day photographing the camp.
He enters the makeshift school in which Gul is studying, after talking to the person in-charge, he proceeds to take a few pictures. The light is dull, and his film speed is slow. His Kodachrome of only 64 ISO (a significant factor in the signature “look” of his photographs) is not suited for such light. While moving around the tent, his eyes fall on Sharbat Gul, who shies away and covers half of her face with her maroon scarf. Even so, McCurry is already drawn to her eyes, and the pain they portray. McCurry requests, the school teacher chips in, and finally Gul obliges.
Both McCurry and Gul step out of the make shift tent, in search for better light and background. They find a spot, and McCurry waits for her to get accustomed to his presence. After taking a few shots, the magic happens. Gul, removes her scarf from her face, turns, and looks directly at McCurry. Enamoured by the moment that has revealed itself to him, instinctually McCurry takes a few quick shots, the moment passes, and it’s all over. Neither McCurry nor Sharbat Gul or anybody else that may have been around knows the gravitas of this moment and what will follow.
The image is published the following year in the June 1985 issue of National Geographic. The image takes the world by storm. The sharp stare of Sharbat Gul’s eyes conveys her plight halfway around the globe. She is named, ‘The Afghan Girl’. All eyes are turned to Afghanistan (if they weren’t already) and on McCurry.
After almost 17 years of wondering, who that girl really was, McCurry decides to return to Afghanistan and Pakistan in search for her after the collapse of the Taliban regime. After much searching, she is found and located and her identity is confirmed using the same thing that made McCurry’s photograph famous, her eyes. Both McCurry and her meet, and she sees, her famous portrait for the first time. A mother of three young girls, she has only one wish, that her daughters are able to go to school and learn some skills. In recognition of her, National Geographic sets up the Afghan Girls Fund, a charitable organization with the motive of educating young Afghan girls and women.
I now present to you, example number two.
The year is 2015. On the night of June 23rd, Joyce Troefranca, a 20 year old medical student is returning home from Cebu Doctors’ University in Mandaue City, Philippines.
A young, 9 year old, Daniel Cabrerra catches her eye. He is completing his homework, while sitting on the footpath with a makeshift table in an attempt to use the light coming from a McDonald’s restaurant. Inspired, by instinct she takes two pictures and posts them onto her Facebook timeline. The images go viral. The images are shared close to 10,000 times on the social networking site and reported by local television. It gets noticed by the local authorities and the boy, who lives in a wall-less food stall with his mother and brother, receives a scholarship grant. Help pours in from the entire world, in terms of financial aid and school supplies. Cabrerra will be able to fulfill his dream of becoming “either a doctor or a policeman”.
I would like to add, if I am to take a step back from the context of the picture, and only look at the picture on its own and judge it on the basis of its photography, this picture is complete. The picture is well exposed, the composition is proper, most importantly, the subject matter is strong. It expresses correctly, what Joyce wanted to express. It conveys to me the same enthusiasm and inspiration (if not more) that it conveyed to her.
Two images, separated by years, time frames, and geographic location; linked by similar circumstance, subject matter and ultimately similar, life changing effect. One difference. One is clicked by a professional photographer, the other by a “common citizen”. This is the power of the photography of today, in today’s globalized context. A photographic device is in your pocket, always ready to empower you with the ability to tell stories visually, if you choose to use it. Gone are the days of slow, unforgiving film and big bulky cameras that limited image making only to those who could master the technical aspects of it. With automatic exposure, automatic focus and automatic white balance, the camera has taken the excess weight of your minds. You are left to focus on the most important aspect of photo taking, which is- framing. It is only because of these factors that Joyce’s image is what it is.
This is the boon of digital technology. It is only for the second time in the history of photography that we are seeing such mass popularity and adaptation of photography in daily life. The first time was when Eastman Kodak launched its compact Brownie cameras. As these cameras became much better and more accessible, Kodak’s motto became “You press the button, we do the rest” implying, you could buy a Kodak camera with film preloaded, and once the roll was finished, the camera could be taken back to the store, the film would be processed and the camera would be returned to you with a fresh roll inside along with your developed pictures.
That has drastically changed; most digital devices are now capable photographic devices and provide you the freedom to tell visual stories anywhere and everywhere that you want to. Some professionals curse and crib that “now everybody is a photographer”, I rejoice and celebrate this fact. The dream of Sir George Eastman (founder of Eastman Kodak) of having a camera in every household is being realized now. Ofcourse, this is not an attempt on my part to reduce the difference between an amateur and a professional. For me, David Griffin, Director of National Geographic summarized it perfectly “Photography is now empowering, now we all have 2-3 good pictures within us, but ofcourse as a professional, you have to produce good images all the time”.
On World Photography Day, let us first realize the power that is now accessible to us all, and not limited as compared to a decade or so ago. The first step towards perhaps becoming a Steve McCurry is now open for all.
Happy Photography Day!
Tell me what you think of this story, tweet to me @KshitijNagar.
To check out more of my work, click here.