Retracing a runaway love story he photographed in Ladakh, Raj Lalwani ponders over wedding photography and the crisis of authorship.
Three years ago, I photographed Zariab and Rini, as they exchanged seven vows in the midst of seven people. Zariab is Parsi, Rini, Punjabi, and they got married in Ladakh, not out of compulsion of any family resistance, but because they wanted to chart their own story, in the middle of nowhere.
It’s been a little over seven years that I have been seeking the stories of others. But the past few months have seen a growing disenchantment with wedding photography, making me question myself, and go back to Zariab and Rini’s runaway tale.
It was in another runaway wedding that I first discovered photography’s mysterious expressive qualities. Three decades ago, my mother fled from her parents’ house, and flew to far Bombay. I have heard the story several times over, of love in the time of families at war, but it is in an album of carefully placed postcard-sized prints that I marvelled at photography’s magical superpower to document, create and trigger memories.
A lot has been said about the resurgence of wedding photography in India. The level of craft and finesse that defines the current industry standard is mindboggling, especially considering the inherent tackiness of most wedding venues here, and also considering the fact that a large number of practitioners are relatively young in their respective journeys.
But while aesthetics have seen a dramatic rise, individuality seems to lag far behind. I know the number of weddings I have churned out pleasing, competent images, but if you were to publish the same photos with someone else’s credit line, no one would blink. How many of us are able to produce photographs that marry documentation and aesthetics with vision that is fiercely personal?
I have probably managed that in four or five weddings, from the fifty-odd that I have shot. When I accompanied Zariab and Rini, a full frame and a prime slung over my shoulder, I found myself sliding in and out of their glances, becoming less of a photographer and more of a witness. I think focal lengths are like people, each one with its own personality. For me, the 35mm offers a seemingly contradictory mix of interest and space, of curiosity and trepidation, push and pull. And while it is myopic to think that one’s point of view is determined by one’s angle of view, one cannot deny the fact that it is the start of the conversation, a defined parameter that lends to the viewing, a stylistic coherence, a feel that is derieved literally from seeing things in a particular way.
Wedding photography, to me, is a tiny part of the jigsaw that enables me to seek answers to the one thing that befuddles us all—love. I often wonder, is this who they really are? Or is it who they are, to me? Is the photographer’s presence, his visual bag of tricks so overwhelming that the people are mere props within a predetermined composition, that if their faces were replaced with someone else’s, one wouldn’t even know…
I call this the glass test. The greatest of photographers are like glass. Their photographs are a window into the world of others, and a mirror into the way they see that world. They put themselves in their work, such that it is a glass of memory that reflects both, the photographer and the photographed, both their story, and one’s telling.
Wedding photographers are, in a way, the photojournalists of our times. They are documentarians, they are social commentators. But if wedding photography is meant to be a reflection of modern-day India, then we are probably a society of silhouettes and twirls.
This is not about one kind of photography over the other. I love my Raj and Simran as much as I love Mia and Sebastian, Joel and Clementine. But in templatising the ebbs and flows of what should otherwise be a multi-layered narrative, we are whitewashing our modern-day glasses. As photographer Mahesh Shantaram told me recently, India is losing a grand opportunity to chronicle its contemporary social history.
Why does wedding photography need to look like wedding photography? Why can’t it look like, just, photography? David Alan Harvey’s relentless rhythm where celebration meets contemplation, Saul Leiter’s delicate sensuality of romantic colour, Swapan Parekh’s sense of immediacy within a manufactured reality, Raghu Rai’s intermingling stories within a singular epic, photography doesn’t look a certain way. Wedding photography in India has had a few champions who have carved their niche, but most of us are getting drawn into those very niches, rather than discovering our own.
The answer to the question of why a medium looks the way it does, probably leads to whose gaze it is serving. It can be said of all commissioned work, of the fact that it is a photo editor who vets through the work of the photojournalist, an art director who dictates the visuality of a campaign, or a label or editor, who set the standards of a fashion shoot. And yet, these are genres that inherently have a culture of visual literacy. The gatekeeper in wedding photography, unlike an art director or a photo editor, is the couple. Often with no history of visual culture, yet, swarmed and confused by a flood of options thrown at them by wedding portals. According to Mahesh Shantaram, “Wedding photographers are often illiterate authors serving the blind.”
It’s a question of volume and economics, of course. All my aspirations of authorship go twirling out of the window when the monthly bills arrive. The bridge that runs between art and heart hangs precariously, over troubled waters. But it is only in dialogue and self awareness can we move forward, or else the stagnation of the medium, as had happened before this movement, will be upon us again.
It takes time, I keep reminding myself. It has been a decade or so since the rebirth of the wedding photograph, and that is nothing in photography years, where finding one’s voice is an unending journey.
Wedding photographs are meant to touch, and not just be retouched. I am jaded, saturated (my photos, oversaturated). But in writing this, in looking back at this couple’s Ladakhi adventure, I try to remind myself why I make pictures. For the adventure, and for the thrill of all that happens in between. Photography, for me, is a series of in-betweens. Every photograph seen, is a long-winded uncovering of seeing.
Raj Lalwani (www.rajlalwani.com) is a photographer, whose practice hovers in the space between what was, and what will be. According to him, inspiration lies in the fantastic, the ordinary and in love.
First published in Better Photography.