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Photography Revolution: How India Missed It?

One of the striking images of the common man in India in 2007 is his enactments as a mobile phone, digital camera and MP3 enthusiast/user. Here is a post I wrote for indiaphotoculture some time back on the photography revolution ordinary Indians missed before the advent of camera phones and digital cameras.

During the good part of last century, besides professionals and enthusiasts, India could not boast of common men as photographers. The sale of even amateur camera models was abysmal for several decades for the simple reason that they were beyond the reach of many Indians. The SLRs were unthinkable as they were too pricey and scarce on the shelves of legal photo goods vendors. Both amateur models and SLRs were either sourced from grey markets, second sales or foreign trips. The government saw to it that cameras did not reach the common men by its regime of tax excesses. We had only one Indian film brand, Indu, from Hindustan Photo Films, Ooty, catering to the b/w segment. But people had other choices – Orwo for b/w photography; Agfa, Sakura and Kodak for colour photography.

When Sakura became Konica during early 1980s to tap the mass market, which did not exist, we saw the slow sprouting of colour labs here and there. I remember the days during early 1980s when I had to go to the head office of Kodak in Haddows Road (Chennai) to process the colour films. The other place which I started using was again 7 kms from my home. It was Murthy’s color lab, near Anna Statue on Mount Road. There was GK Vale and Co on Mount Road, which specialised in studio photography. Taking one’s studio portrait was seen as a life time experience by many individuals and families. As a child, I was introduced to my ancestors and my parents’ younger days through the studio photos taken at Vaman‘s at Chetpet.

The entry of Konica changed all that. Its films came as a boon not only to the budding photo enthusiasts, but also to the wedding photographers, who simply fell in for the advantages Konica films offered in terms of its colour biases (in favour of the colourful Indian weddings) such as an overt green tone. Konica films were available for Rs 130 to begin with and Kodak was too pricey at 150. After some years, Konica came down to the 100 range and Kodak was selling at 120. Only during late 1990s, Konica films broke the 100 barrier and started selling for 90/80. During the period, we saw the exit of Agfa and Orwo and the death of Indu. If you wanted to buy transparency film (chrome film), you had to really hunt for it and prices were in the range of 200-300. Fuji came much later to the Indian scene and has not made a visible presence yet.

But what’s the fun in having affordable film brands and unaffordable and difficult to get camera brands? Cameras were still pricey and even those who were willing fork out a tidy sum had to face the hassles of sourcing the right ones from the grey market vendors in Burma Bazaar. Photo shops were only fond of selling the low end cameras of Kodak and a 110 mm format camera model (called Hotshot) distributed by Photophone India during the 1980s and 1990s.

During early 2000s, digital camera were slowing showing their presence in the palms of photo enthusiasts, but were still beyond the reach of many of them. The photographers in common men could not think of even seeing one. It took nearly five years thereafter to see them in good numbers on display in many photo stores in Chennai. But still they were more expensive than grey market ones and foreign ones. Only during 2007, prices of digital cameras and their availability are proving to be good for the middle class. Remember, even now the man on the street can not but be the subject before cameras. He can not own. His income levels do not justify one. His desire to be a photographer or photo enthusiast is still a desire and would take several more years of India’s economic development to see the light of the day or the light of the flash.

But he is slowly getting the taste of photography through the short cut route provided by the cheaper camera phones. For the photographers who were lurking silently in common men, camera phones appear to compensate for what has been missed all these years and decades. For many Indians, their tryst with photography begins only now in 2007, roughly 150 years after the invention of photography and a good 75 years after the introduction of compact cameras for individual users.

But the relationship of the common men with camera phones is also seen as a dangerous liaison with a technology that is prone to misuse in the hands of delinquents and perverts, particularly in a society where sexualities are repressed and privacy literacy is unheard of even among educated Indians. Moral panics built around camera phones are inevitably on the rise. Media and authorities are only too good at scaring away people from new technologies. Calls for bans in public places and educational institutions are growing in tune with growing reports of misuse of camera phones by students. Remember the infamous Delhi Public School MMS stories of late 2004.


1 Kishore Budha { 10.04.07 at 2:02 am }

A very interesting observation. It took me a while to understand what you were talking about.

2 spiritofhegel { 10.04.07 at 2:07 am }

I wonder if you have read Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s writings about the advent of photography in India. It did not modernise (introduce notions of realism), but instead led to re-contextualisation of tradition into the new medium of photography. So the real issue here would be a) what kind of aesthetic possibilities would be introduced through a mass access of photography; b) what kind of human desires (from a psychoanalytical viewpoint) would it trigger; c) how would this phenomenon be defined and discussed.

3 joshepisaac { 02.12.08 at 6:54 am }


4 Conversations with Dina » The old, the not-so-old, and many facets of the new { 08.31.09 at 10:44 am }

[…] who was directing the film being made. Still, it must be remembered that photography is really a relatively new behaviour in India, encouraged by easy access to cameras on mobile […]

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