Increasingly, day by day, photography has seeped into every corner of our lives. Genres that were once the province of more dedicated, professional practitioners—fashion, still life, food—are now carried out on a regular basis by vast swathes of the (cell phone-owning) public.
Still, photography continues to be used in a number of remarkably diverse and mundane ways. Many of these applications are a far cry from what we see on our social media feeds or consciously register as photography in the world around us: passport pictures, driver’s licenses, school portraits, family albums.
In the first category, self-expression is the unstated goal—why else would we take a picture of that beautiful dinner we prepared if not to “reveal” (or show off, if you prefer) something about ourselves? The second category, though often overlooked, can be just as revealing of our identity, if not more so. Because of their very lack of pretense, because these images are not consciously expressive, they can uncover more fundamental, less self-conscious aspects of our identity.
This distinction is what makes the exhibition “Identities,” running now at the Tbilisi Photo Festival, so interesting. The diverse and truly quirky selection includes Taliban portraits, Stasi-era East German fashion, early 20th-century Swiss portraits, a slice of 1970s Indian studio photography and several more subjects not featured here. But tying together this idiosyncratic curation is the camera’s piercing power concerning our identity. As we range over a century of “identity pictures,” we can clearly see that the photograph’s revelatory capacity was as much present in the early days of the medium as it is today.
Below, we have included short samples from four of the projects’ texts. We encourage you to discover more via Photo Tbilisi’s website—or better yet, visit the festival if you can.
Fashion Photography of Stasi Period, East Germany, 1960-1980
East Germany may be most remembered for the activities of the Stasi, but now, for the first time, its secret flirtation with fashion is exposed.
Despairing of the drab, colourless apparel surrounding them, photographer Gunter Rubitzsh hired local models, chose the locations that inspired him—oil factories, worker canteens, concrete office blocks—and set about creating his own unique and daring style.
“Off the Wall” brings some of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik’s (DDR) most exotic fashion imagery to light. From blindingly bright, mod go-go girls to demure country peasants posed with the most German of animals, the llama, these images run counter to everything we imagined went on behind the Berlin Wall.
Was it intended as propaganda? A move to counter bourgeois Western values? Aspirational worker wear? We’ll never know.
Until recently, these fabulous collections have been hidden from Western eyes; but now, finally unearthed, these glorious icons of a lost world can be truly celebrated.
—Tbilisi Photo Festival
Taliban Portraits (collection by Magnum’s Thomas Dworzak)
In July/August 2001, I spent several desperate weeks waiting to get a longtime visa for Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. I was at one of their few consulates in Peshawar, Pakistan. I wanted to photograph there and a Western NGO had given me the “cover” to visit Afghanistan as one of their workers.
My project would be especially difficult given that under the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islam, photography—any depiction of living beings (mammals)—was illegal. They would allow the odd wire picture to be taken and sometimes gave out short-time journalist visas under tight control. But to my knowledge, it was the only government ever to ban photography of its leaders. And then, September 11th happened.
Suddenly, I returned to “free” Northern Afghanistan, where the Taliban-opposing Northern Alliance displayed a vast iconography of late Akhmed Shah Massed, and photography was no problem. We all photographed these villages up and down, waiting for an advance on Kabul and the fall of the Taliban.
Kabul fell, the North fell and by the end of December, I finally ended up in Kandahar, the former heart of Taliban power, the capital of the more traditional Pashto half of Afghanistan.
Kandahar had a long tradition of music and play, an almost feminine display of “sweet oriental life.” It was renowned for this all through the East…
Yet [or because of this], Taliban rule in Kandahar was the strictest. Road signs depicting donkey carts still had the head of the donkey and rider painted over; a bodybuilder advertising a gym had his head replaced by a map of Afghanistan [both depictions of mammals and thus not permitted]; imported cosmetics had the eyes sharpied out on the advertising pictures.
When I got there, outside my hotel in downtown Kandahar, a row of photo studios had just reopened for the wider public. They had been shut down by an early decree from the Taliban leader Mullah Omar and then partially allowed to work when the Taliban realized that they needed some form of photographs for IDs.
Now these shops were back in the pre-Taliban business of portraits…That’s where I found these pictures.
The photographers didn’t really understand my interest in them. They said that when passport photography had been re-allowed, a Taliban member would sometimes ask to pose for a more flattering, retouched portrait secretly taken in the back room of the studio.
The more expensive portraits were done in black-and-white, large format. They were developed in the studio, and then retouched and colorized. The cheaper version was straight color negatives over a Swiss, green-juicy-meadows-little-village-snowy-mountains backdrop. These were developed at 1-hour-photo shops in Pakistan and sent back.
None of the photographers really seemed to consider their customers’ act as something contradictory or hypocritical on the Taliban side. And they didn’t see their own work as dissident or valuable.
In fact, the only reason they still had the photographs was that most of the pictures were ordered by Taliban members who had them taken in early November but could never pick them up since they had to flee the advancing opposition and US bombings.
As there wasn’t a great chance of the Taliban returning to pick up and pay for the pictures they had ordered, the photo studio owners were happy to sell them. “Most of them are dead anyway,” one photographer told me.
Baghdad, October, 2002
Studio Suhag presents a slice of 1970s and 80s history from central India. The images, by Suresh Punjabi, are a testament to an era of hands-on studio photography when physical materials combined with the photographer’s ingenuity to stage and record astonishing and poignant human dramas. They present a space in which the camera captured not only “real” subjects, but also personae made over to meet the camera’s eye. Here are laborers and bohemians, villagers and townspeople, the devout and the cosmopolitan. All are depicted with the aid of a relatively fixed repertoire of backdrops, lights, and accessories.
The images displayed here are printed from negatives salvaged after a recent flood destroyed the major part of Studio Suhag’s vast archive of small-town life. Customers’ preference for full body images, together with the medium-format film’s square proportions, resulted in the capture of much extraneous (but revealing) “noise” on the edges of the negatives.
This “noise” was originally rendered invisible in the final cropped prints, which focused on the central subject. By returning to the original whole negative, we foreground the materiality of Suresh Punjabi’s picture-making practice, revealing the improvisational creativity of his artisan apparatus and method. He offers us not only a set of haunting documents of a neglected “Indian vernacular,” but also an important conceptual commentary on the way in which photographic contingency inescapably mixes artifice with the real.
Roberto Donetta (1865-1932) is one of Swiss photography’s great outsiders. Originally from the small, Italian-speaking region of Ticino, Donetta managed to make a living as a travelling photographer and seed salesman. Upon his death, he left almost 5,000 glass plates which were preserved merely by chance. These capture the archaic life of his compatriots in the Valle di Blenio, which at the time was totally isolated. Over a period of 30 years of work, we witness the gradual advent of modernism in a precise and sensitive way.
During this era of steady, precipitous change, Donetta became a unique chronicler of his surroundings. At the same time, he saw himself as an artist who—self-taught—experimented freely and knew how to master his medium. His pictures are penetrating and humorous, cheerful and deadly serious: be they of children, families, wedding couples, professional people, the harsh everyday-life of women and men, or of the photographer himself.
In this selection, titled “The Circle of Life,” Valle di Blenio becomes a microcosm: for Donetta, the mountain valley becomes the stage for a great Theater of the World. The exhibition features about 120 works from the Donetta Archive, many of them on show to the public for the first time ever.
This exhibition was organized in collaboration with Fotostiftung Schweiz / Swiss Foundation for Photography, Winterthur, and Archivio Donetta, Corzoneso.
Editors’ note: The Tbilisi Photo Festival will hold its opening week from September 13-20. Learn more on the event’s website.