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Auroville Today

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Auroville Adventure

Oct 2000


Looking at Auroville
through photographers' eyes

by Shanti

Many Aurovilians and visitors see the large, color photographs hanging in the new exhibition on Auroville in the Visitors' Center. Still greater numbers of people see photographs of Auroville in Auroville Today or on the Auroville website. These images are meant to give people a sense of Auroville in a way that simply reading or hearing about the community does not. After all, everyone knows the old cliché, "A picture is worth a thousand words." What we don't always realize, however, is that pictures, here and everywhere, conceal as much as they reveal. Hidden from view are the processes of selection and edition made by the photographer and later by exhibitors or publishers.


The issue is an important one as Auroville relies increasingly upon visual representations and their accompanying texts. Auroville is presented to the outside world through brochures, postcards, books, T-shirts, videos and CD-ROMs. The motivations behind such representations vary, ranging from the pursuit of art or education, to fundraising or personal profit.

Olivier considers this picture of the bonfire at the amphitheatre as one of the best for representing Auroville. Says he: "The people gathering together, the Urn symbolizing the aspiration for human unity, the bonfire symbolizing the spiritual aspiration.there is no better way to portray the essential Auroville."


OF COURSE, not everyone working with images in Auroville is attempting to "represent" the community. Nevertheless, these images may also come to be associated with Auroville in the minds of viewers. The Joy Postcards sold throughout India and the travelling slide-show, "The Genius of India", are not meant to portray Auroville. In the case of the postcards, however, the address on the back is enough for customers to make the connection. As for the slide-show, the presenters' acknowledgement of coming from Auroville, in addition to the philosophical nature of the show can forge an association for the audience. As a result, such materials come to form part of the constellation of visual perspectives that outsiders identify with Auroville.

Challenges in selecting Auroville images

In investigating the processes behind the production of images on Auroville, the first thing one encounters is the is a relatively anarchic approach to the various forms of communication. Since there is no one body vested with the authority to generate official representations of the community, the visual materials that exist circulate largely through the efforts of specific groups of interested individuals.

These groups are frequently trying to do their best under considerable constraints. The team behind the Visitors' Center exhibition is no exception. Franz, who was closely involved in this project, explains that the problem was not only insufficient funds. When it was time to select images, the team had to deal with the scarcity of photographs. It is only in recent years that there has been an interest in maintaining an archive of photographs of Auroville. Much visual documentation, particularly of the early years, has been lost.

Whatever the aims of the presenters may be, many of them face the common challenge of attempting to capture some aspect of spirituality. This is no easy task. Spirituality, an abstract concept, is not easy to convey in a single image. As the photographer Sven notes, "People, both visitors and residents, come to Auroville for the inner experience. But how can you possibly represent the inner to the rest of the world?"

This is true even when presenters are working closely with a spiritual text, as in the case of the "Genius of India" slide-show and exhibit. Team member Christine tells it, the impetus behind the presentation was to "put Sri Aurobindo at the forefront" in celebrating India. Seeking to illustrate the tendencies that Sri Aurobindo attributes to the ancient Indian mind, the team was able to choose from a wealth of photographs in the collection of Olivier, who has been capturing the beauty and timelessness of ancient Indian art for years. Even so, when it came to a particularly complex concept, such as the tendency towards synthesis, the group faced great difficulty in deciding which images would work.

How are images chosen?

In spite of the many limitations and challenges, however, those who create and present images are making choices, although to some of them their choices may seem somehow "obvious." The decisions they make depend upon their intentions, in addition to the relationship that they want the images to have with a written text. In the case of the Visitor's Center, the team's primary goal was to educate the increasing numbers of visitors, primarily Indian tourists to Matrimandir who know nothing about Auroville. The exhibit text was guided by suggestions from Kireet Joshi, the current Chairman of the Auroville Foundation. Kireet had observed that the three questions he was most frequently called upon to answer were: "Why Auroville?" "What has been accomplished in 30 years?" and, "What is the community's organizational structure?" The Visitor's Center text was an effort to respond to precisely these questions. The accompanying photographs, commissioned from John Mandeen, were to illustrate the text as closely as possible.

Given the educational aim, it is not surprising that the panels of the exhibit remind one of a museum display. The documentary style of the photos, the straightforward tone of the text, and the addition of statistics about the community's size, etc. work together to give the impression of a factual and irrefutable account of the community. What remains hidden to the eye of the observer is that there may be many other points of view.

A different approach to images was taken by the creators of the newest version of the brochure, "Auroville: A Dream Takes Shape." According to Alan, a member of the Publications Group, which oversees that all brochures are up to date, the creators of the booklet prioritized the images over the text. Working once again with John Mandeen, the group gave the photographer the written document and not only asked that he come up with apt illustrations, but also encouraged him to create images which could actually replace specific sections of text. "In the past, brochures tended to be very text oriented," says Alan. But after seeing the impact of the exhibit at the Visitor's Center, we thought that there was something we could say better through pictures."

The photographs for the new brochure were selected with an eye to showing Auroville as an ongoing process. This meant in part eschewing a rosy tone and incorporating images that the team felt acknowledged the "down side". "We selected a photo which showed commercial development in one of the villages," says Alan, "as well as one that showed the motorcycle-car aspect of life here." At the same time, the group wanted photos that portrayed a kind of intensity in human interactions. For example, they selected an image of a Western man training a young Tamil man in a workshop based on this criterion. .

Viewer perspectives

The same photo could, however, be read in a different way. Some people are quick to identify what they believe to be racist or colonial, especially when looking at images that appear to affirm that foreigners have nothing to learn from local people. Alan admits that it did not occur to the team that viewers might read this photo in this way. This problem reflects the fact that images do not have any intrinsic value, because they always depend upon the myriad possible interpretations that specific audiences bring to them. This problem is particular in representing spirituality. One case in point is the Auroville boutique in Paris. When the shop opened, its window displayed large photos of Mother and Sri Aurobindo. Within days graffiti appeared outside with the condemning label, "sect". The boutique management responded immediately by replacing the photos with a display of products. Whereas in India, people expect to see visual references to the reverence for a guru, in countries such as France and Germany, where the population is concerned about the dangers of brainwashing and authoritative organizations, the photos of Mother and Sri Aurobindo do not have the proper context for their public display. The fact that there are many different audiences for Auroville images is something that all presenters must keep in mind, and this is particularly important when the aim is public relations.

The Auroville we don't show

Given that many visual materials are produced to "sell" the community, there is an impulse to show Auroville as perfect. Perfection, however, does not always sell. For example, as a German Aurovilian pointed out, people in Germany would be more interested in seeing how people living in Auroville are facing challenges. This raises the question of what could potentially be of interest to some people, but which is not being presented. When we look at the body of images as a whole, whether documentary in nature as can be seen in brochures, or artistic as in the case of the portraits of Ireno, it is clear that cultural diversity, harmony, spirituality, and the environment have been the priority. Other versions of Auroville have remained hidden, if not purposively marginalized. This is not because these other dimensions of life are unimportant. In fact, they are quite central to the ongoing challenges of living in Auroville and struggling to make Mother's dream a reality.

Among these themes are labour relations with the local people, work in progress (finished products are usually what get depicted), conflict and conflict resolution, a range of human emotions, and the sheer diversity of attitudes. The first response to this is usually that the community feels threatened and as such is unwilling to portray anything that could be seen in a simplistic, negative light. The situation, however, is more complicated. Some feel that the problem arises from the insistence on the part of some Aurovilians that all public presentations be kept on the ideal level. It may also be a function of growing pains. As Carel comments, "How a community represents itself is a maturity factor - the more mature you are, the more you can accept failure and complexity. If not, you need to show only beauty. It is only now that Auroville is becoming more mature in this regard."

Seeing into the future

It would seem that in the end, any visual representation of Auroville can be problematic. After all, no matter what the power of images, they only present partial truths. Moreover, it is impossible to control the messages they broadcast, as their meaning depends equally upon the perspectives that viewers bring to them. For Auroville it is important that its visual representations are never accepted as obvious or natural. Instead, Auroville should constantly ask what its representations try to achieve and what is consciously or unconsciously hidden. Part of the solution lies in encouraging more Aurovilians to get involved in this field. As more images come into existence, the greater the potential to resist what are supposedly authoritative versions of Auroville and to represent the full diversity and complexity of the community.

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