02 October 2020

There’s poetry and history resident in photographs

Words can be very visual. And pictures can speak. Good words and good art, that is. Art forms can communicate with one another and they communicate artist and art to us.

Now there is text and there is subtext. It’s the same with a photograph. There’s the obvious and the subtle, things we ‘get’ immediately and things that we could miss. A text can speak to us differently at different times. It’s the same with photographs, sculptures, music, dance, theater, films etc.



What this means is that there are layers of meaning embedded in art. The ‘reader’ can always misread and this is why in a sense a work of art belongs as much to the artist as to those who ‘receive’ it.

So there’s poetry in photographs and the ‘reader’ obtains it in the language of his/her persuasions, be it cultural, political, life-experience or some mix of these. What’s ‘apparent’ is not necessarily what is there. There are backstories that don’t get captioned or indeed cannot be framed.

Timran Keerthi, award-winning poet, relates a story that sheds light not on just a single photograph but on ‘seeing’ and ‘seeing beyond’ in a poem aptly titled ‘Poto Eka (The Photo).’

The Photo

It’s amazing grandpa, this photo mesmerizes
a memento of a precious past is it not?

Look at the faces alight with joy like the whitest clouds
there’s something quintessentially ours that overflows,
the history no less of the village, dear god!

is it not you, grandpa, flanked by those two young men
and  the mustached man seated there, the headman?

‘The photo was taken in seventy or seventy-one
in a time of terror what talk of joy?

with the red star as guide we fought as one pack
the mustached man, although seated here, that ratted

in the midday sun unused to the camera we weren’t smiling
It was in the evening that the two on either side were shot

to dispel the cemetery’s gloom the photo above the window I placed
everyone’s asleep in the cemetery beyond the window, but I am here .’

Where have they gone, those who smiled at a photographer? Were they real, the expressions, or else art-directed or simply a convenient disguise? What was said by he or she who stood in the corner? Was anyone listening?

How do we tease out stories from pictures? What if Timran wasn’t listening? What if the grandfather chose not to speak?

It’s not something limited to photographs and the arts in general. If we look around we see faces. We see expressions. We hear words. There are gestures. A lot is said and we may or may not hear, but how about that which remains unsaid, that which is hidden by smile or silence or words chosen so as to distract and divert?

There’s small print and footnotes. There are end-notes no one bothers to read. There’s a glossary glossed over.  There are narratives meant to be read and there’s text deliberately held back.

The stories of the defeated often are buried with them. This is the truth about 1971. It is true for that other and far more brutal bheeshanaya towards the end of the 1980s. It is true about the thirty-year long conflict between security forces and the LTTE, of course with the Indian Peace Keeping Force and other armed groups such as the EPRLF playing not-so minor roles.  

There are terrible moments that have nothing to do with conflicts such as these. There’s a story in a factory, a university, a corporate board room, a security post, a prison and a military camp. There’s one that’s written along a dirt track in the Dry Zone and another that is cut by barbed wire. There’s poetry that spills on the boots of laborers laying a highway. There are innumerable paintings of various kinds of violence. Unfinished.

Timran noticed. And we cannot see portraits and group photos the way we did before. The eyes just won’t move fast.  

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News']  
Eyes that watch the world and cannot be forgotten   Let's start with the credits, shall we? 
The 'We' that 'I' forgot 
'Duwapang Askey,' screamed a legend, almost 40 years ago
Dances with daughters
Reflections on shameless writing

Is the old house still standing?
 Magic doesn't make its way into the classifieds

Small is beautiful and is a consolation  
Distance is a product of the will
Akalanka Athukorala, at 13+ alre
ady a hurricane hunter
Did the mountain move, and if so why?
Ever been out of Colombo?
Anya Raux educated me about Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
Wicky's Story You can always go to GOAT Mountain
Let's learn the art of embracing damage
Kandy Lake is lined with poetry
There's never a 'right moment' for love
A love note to an unknown address in Los Ange
A dusk song for Rasika
How about creating some history?
How far away are the faraway places?
There ARE good people!
Re-placing people in the story of schooldays  
When we stop, we can begin to learn
Routine and pattern can checkmate poetry

Janani Amanda Umandi threw a b'day party for her father 
Sriyani and her serendipity shop
Forget constellations and the names of oceans
Where's your 'One, Galle Face'?

Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons
Yasaratne, the gentle giant of Divulgane  
Katharagama and Athara Maga
Victories are made by assists
Lost and found between weaver and weave
The Dhammapada and word-intricacies
S.A. Dissanayake taught children to walk in the clouds
White is a color we forget too often  
The most beautiful road is yet to meet a cartographer