Utpal Borpujari

January 4, 2010

Where’s the Remote: Through a Frenchman’s Lens

Filed under: Deccan Herald,Media,Photography,TV — Utpal Borpujari @ 4:17 pm
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By Utpal Borpujari

It is TV watching time and you are engrossed with what is up on the screen in front of you. It could be your favourite soap, or a nail biting one-day cricket match, or even a “breaking news”, but the fact of the matter is you are so much into it that you are oblivious of your surroundings. Now imagine that you are observing yourself watching TV. What do you see? An individual completely absorbed by the images in front of you, your mind under complete control of the Idiot Box and your body reflecting the vegetative state of mind.

It’s the same picture the world over. If you want proof, you just have to see a series of photographs clicked by French photographer Olivier Culmann, showcased recently in Delhi’s Alliance Francaise in an aptly-titled exhibition called “TV Viewers). Whether it in Kochi in Kerala or Marrakech in Morocco or some such town in Nigeria, the United States, China or France, it’s the same behavioral trait among TV-viewers – that you are so engrossed by the images that you are completely oblivious of what’s around you, including the photographer who has just clicked you in that state of being.

On the face of it, Culmaan’s exhibition of 25 photographs – a larger number of aroudn 70 will be part of a book on the same subject, he says – is a series of images of people watching TV, and sometimes also of the TV set itself. But it is in reality slightly more than that. It is also a visual study of a modern society under the complete control of a medium that visually carries information and entertainment to all of us.

The photographs at the exhibition, presented jointly by the Embassy of France and the Alliance Française as part of the ongoing Bonjour India festival, capture the “unsettling passivity” of TV viewers worldwide. And as it travels to Bangalore, Kolkatta, Chandigarh and Chennai, visitors will understand what that term means through the photographs clicked in Morocco, India, the US, Mexico, Nigeria, United Kingdom, China and France. 

“The exhibition evolved from my study of people watching television. Today the World is a global village and media has played an important role in achieving this. However, television is main source of information for many across the globe, which is the main influence on their perception of the world in its entirety, which is far from reality. It is this unsettling aspect that I have sought to capture,” says Culmann.

Culmaan got the idea to develop this project as he travelled various parts of the world on professional assignments. And it was a physical passivity of TV viewers that drew his attention. “I was always fascinated by TV and its impact on daily lives. I found that there is a lot of passivity while watching TV, even felt that myself. I wanted to study visually how people are caught by TV’s images and how our mind is inside the TV,” he says.

It was a time-consuming process for him, as he had to spend quite a lot of time in each individual’s house – as he or she sat watching TV – so that they become less conscious of his being there and assume their natural TV viewing postures. Interestingly, with each photograph of the viewer, he also shoots the image of the TV set, though only some of them were part of the exhibition. And there was a reason for it. “I shot the TV itself to document where TV set is in the house, to visually link the importance of TV in their house. Usually where you put the TV indicates its importance in your life. Most of the people have the TV as a very prominent part of their lives  and place it in the living room. In some cases it was very funny because TV was placed in place of the now-unused fireplaces, which acted as the centre-point of the house. Earlier the fire was the centre of the house, now TV has occupied that place,” he says.

As Culmaan took the photographs, he would also write down what was being watched as also the name of the individual, the palce and the time as a way of complete documentation of the process. “What I noticed was that there is not much difference in TV viewing habits. Women who do not work watch more TV during daytime everywhere. The Importance of TV is very strong everywhere. Now, with availability with foreign channels everywhere, people discover about other cultures more, so that creates a sense of familiarity and link with other cultures even without ever having been to those places. For example, in Morocco, there used to be only one government channel earlier, but since they get channels from France, they get different points of view. That’s a good thing, but at the same time, everywhere in the world programmes are very commercial, so quality of programmes is not very good,” he says.

The idea to develop such a series came to Culmaan from his self-confessed interest in “non-spectacular moments” of life, as opposed to news photographers’ sniffing for something “spectacular”. “These seemingly-unimportant moments too are very important in life, such as time spent in front of the TV. It is a lot of time, which nobody notices. I was interested in putting the spotlight on this,” explains Culmaan, whose photographs of Indian TV viewers were taken in Kochi where he spent some time and who used the award money he had received for pictures of ghost town in Namibian deserts as well as Fuji’s donation of rolls for the project.

Culmaan now has his eyes – and camera – focused on India. In fact, for the last couple of months, he has been staying in Delhi along with his wife and children, hoping to stay on for two years during which he plans to travel across the country and work with local photographers, including those in small towns. One idea he is working on is to be the subject himself, photographed at small studios in small towns across the country, to study how the backdrops used in those studios reflect the local popular culture as well as the influence of cinema on society. “I also want to study how things are changing with digital photography and use of software like Photoshop.

And yes, before we say adieu, Culmaan points out to a universal truth that he re-discovered during the “TV Viewers” shoots – that you can tell who calls the shots at each home simply by noticing who controls the TV remote! We cannot agree more.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 03-01-2010)


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