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Caught or not

This has been the most media-glutted election in Indian memory,with the proliferation of television channels and digital...

Written by Amulya Gopalakrishnan | April 10, 2009 11:16:14 pm

This has been the most media-glutted election in Indian memory,with the proliferation of television channels and digital,personal platforms. This year,as the Election Commission observers and micro-observers fan out across the country,sensitive constituencies are going to be video- tracked and watched.

The ubiquity of the camera means that every little infraction — from Rabri Devi’s smutty allegations to Lalu Yadav’s fighting words,from Mulayam Singh’s minatory manners to Jaswant Singh’s monetary largesse — is now captured for a country-wide audience. The Election Commission appears to have done more close reading and semiotic analysis of such clips than your average Film Studies 101. Also,for the first time,there is an abundance of “uncertified” personal images this election,on social networking sites,blogs and video-sharing sites. And yet,does the presence of many,many more cameras bring us any closer to the truth?

The camera’s level gaze certainly impacts electoral goings-on — it provides,in some measure,an arena where candidates are accountable for their positions. This is significant in a country without a strict sense of public record,where it has been standard practice to spin statements to suit different audiences. What was said during an election speech in a specific place and meant for a limited number of eyes and ears now screeches on screens all over the country. A gut sense of being watched presumably forces most candidates to regulate their own actions. Other times,this newfound visibility is thoroughly exploited — like Varun Gandhi’s stunning rise from the BJP’s pushy upstart to galvanic force and mascot,all on the basis of a single speech,played and replayed on TV,viewed several thousands of times on YouTube.

But the Varun Gandhi incident is instructive — he (and later,the BJP) denied the images,claiming that the CD was doctored. “As we saw it,we have no reason to think it is tampered. For me there is no doubt… He will find his own ways to show how the CD was tampered,” retorted Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami. This tussle too fits in with convention — after every sting operation,its targets go blue in the face claiming that the record is,in fact,a work of fiction.

That is,perhaps,a subtle shift of our times — reality isn’t what it used to be. Though the media is more personal and participatory than ever,the resulting documentary proof has never been so open to question. More and more of our public life is on record,but in a “post-fact” era,the image’s claim to truth is more uncertain than ever. Once,seeing was largely believing — there was empirical out-there reality,faithfully recorded by the camera. Now,in this age of Photoshop and Final Cut,we take the manipulability of still and moving pictures as a given. Of course,technologies of vision have always been accompanied by a fascination with illusion,but today,editing software makes child’s play of what were once great feats of deception.

Susan Sontag wrote after Abu Ghraib (a war where common American soldiers were themselves photojournalists,incessantly recording their experience): “for a long time — at least six decades — photographs have laid down the tracks of how important conflicts are judged and remembered.” Cameras have always borne witness — recall Abraham Zapruder’s 26-second video of Kennedy’s assassination or Tiananmen Square or Abu Ghraib itself.

But today,images are assailable,because we know how easy it is to create them,and how easy to manipulate them. Anyone who spends much time on the Internet has built-in bullshit detectors for user-generated content. And more significantly,we tend to select media that reassures our own beliefs.

Just look at the claims and counter-claims surrounding the Taliban public flogging video that recently shocked the world. A cellphone recording of Chand Bibi,a seventeen year old girl,being whipped in public by a bearded man as punishment for an illicit relationship has been watched across Pakistan and the world. Now,the video’s veracity is in question,and the victim has denied the incident. For most,this is confirmation of the Talibanic dystopia’s sway in the Swat Valley. Others pick holes in the footage,claiming the clothes worn in the video don’t reflect the extreme cold in the region,and that this was,actually,a two-year-old event that occurred in Afghanistan under Karzai.

This encapsulates the dilemma of our image-saturated times — photographs and videos are no longer another country heard from — we tend to see what we want to see,locked into our own partisan preconceptions. Farhad Manjoo,whose recent book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society deals with this crumbling of authority,writes that now,“photographs (and even videos) are now merely as good as words — approximations of reality at best,subtle (or outright) distortions of truth at worst.” Video is admittedly harder to fake than photographs,but it is not exempt from this suspicion of awful fraudulence. If it wasn’t for myth-squashing sites like Snopes,who’s to say that the 1983 picture of Dick Cheney and Saddam Hussein pressing flesh is the truth,and that of George Bush holding an upside-down schoolbook is a fake? Sometimes,a picture only prompts a thousand words.

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