I often find myself wondering about the idea of “progress”. What does it mean to “move ahead”, as a person, as a society? Can progress be defined universally, or is it dependent on culture? Is progress just another word for growth? Oxfam’s recent report on economic inequality highlights that growth does not necessarily benefit many; can we truly speak of progress when countless people are left behind? Sometimes I find that the best way to explore these questions is to pick up a camera and see the contradictions reflected in frozen moments.
On the move (Hanover, New Hampshire, USA, 2009)
The other-worldly feel of this scene of a driveway in the American north-east captured my ambivalence about “Western-style” progress. I took this shot at a time of great hope, just months after the inauguration of Barack Obama; yet, this picture highlighted to me that no politician can fundamentally change the cultural patterns of our lives. Dynamic, yet frequently leading to social dislocation, Western pursuit of progress seemed to have anchored itself in technology and projections of a better future. The double-edged sword of mobility – the pursuit of the American dream and its environmental and human costs – crystallised for me in this shot. Is technological progress a means to social progress?
The Fountain (Mumbai, India, 2011)
This scene seemed like it could be a projection inside a cinema, where many Indians come to dream dreams of better futures. Except that the image is not one that many films would portray. Two and a half decades of economic growth in India brought unprecedented material wealth and access to opportunities to many. But it has also created new barriers, separations and inequalities. The current government of Narendra Modi talks a lot talks a lot about “progress” and “development” but will its policies truly benefit the poor? How much longer would those let down by the country’s development tolerate the neglect of their dreams and aspirations?
Bricks (Bhaktapur, Nepal, 2010)
Few would dispute that education is the key to progress in Nepal, one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world. This image reminded me of one of the contradictions of Nepali education: the pursuit of development through learning that eschews indigenous knowledge systems and local languages. The bricks in the photo looked like school books, the tools of homogenisation, their uniform shape and color reminiscent of the state’s conception of pupils as blank slates devoid of linguistic and cultural individuality. Perhaps education that is conceived of in those terms is a tool for development, but is it a tool for progress?
Concrete (Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2011)
What does progress look like in the context of a conflict zone? The town of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where many ruins have been left intact since the 1990s Balkan Wars, offers countless visual metaphors for the fragility of modernity. The site in this photo, once a hotel, mirrors the town’s effort to come to terms with its history: trying to move on, replace the old with the new, but stuck in a limbo. The sight of this hotel reminded me that progress does not have to do only with dreaming about the future, but also with understanding the past.