On November 8, India boldly decided to scrap its highest denomination notes amounting to 86% of the currency in circulation. Why is the picture looking so bleak after a month? Here’s the answer in the language of photography…
Art, technique and technology combine to make a memorable photograph, but India’s demonetisation story is lacking in all three.
Forget the aesthetics
Composition: Every good artist begins with a clear idea of what to keep in the frame and how, but the government seemed unsure of the objectives of demonetisation from the beginning. Was it an attack on black money, fake currency and terrorism, or a push for digitisation?
Black and white: It sounded like a colour shoot when the Prime Minister announced demonetisation was all about tackling terrorism, fake currency and black money. But then, the brief changed to B/W with the talk centred on only black money.
Mood: It is half the essence of any great portrait, but the government couldn’t have cared less at the time it pressed the button.
Subject isolation: Imagine Mona Lisa sitting in a packed stadium; would you notice her smile? If the government intended to frame people with black money, it didn’t know how to go about it. Result: every single withered blade of grass — the common man—in the background is in focus.
Immature, not amateur, technique
Perspective: Longer lenses are better for portraits because they compress the perspective, but the government employed a super-wide lens — a symptom of its selfie mindset — to get everyone into the frame. Now it is looking long in the nose and all the warts are showing sharp.
Aperture: Is the pipeline pumping new cash wide enough? The government is adamant on shooting a twilight scene with the aperture jammed at f/22. Experts foresee a six-month exposure in the available light.
Vibration: The big worry is that such a long exposure might produce a picture so shaky, the intended portrait of India’s economy will be unrecognizable. In its haste, the government forgot to set the camera on a tripod.
Shutter speed: The Prime Minister, though, gave only a 4-hour window to junk old cash on November 8 night, which was the equivalent of tripping the shutter at 1/4000 second speed. The first frame had to come out looking very, very dark.
Exposure compensation: Realising belatedly that its exposure calculations were way off the mark, the government tried to salvage the shoot with 1/3-stop exposure increments. Withdrawal limits and other rules were juggled, but all those steps were too little, too late.
ISO: The government’s answer to the exposure problem is a brand new ISO 2000 film — the Rs 2000 note — in pink packaging. But people who have tried using it complain it is extremely difficult to get processed on the street.
Now that the first digital scans are coming in, here’s your key to the different file formats.
RAW: Your net worth before November 9, 2016.
TIFF: Those who managed to convert all of their white AND black cash holdings into new currency now have bank accounts with a bigger file size.
JPEG: If you had to take a haircut on your black money hoard — getting only 600 or 700 new rupees for every 1,000 old ones — you sure know what image compression means.
GIF: The common man’s life in an ATM loop. Two or more hours every day. Played back at an agonising 30 frames per second.
Digital: The shoot still isn’t going to plan and the government has announced it wants to use a digital camera instead. Demonetisation is no longer about black money and other colourful stories. Is that a good thing? Maybe, if you can keep the batteries charged and viruses at bay.
Filters: The other good thing about digital is that you can make a pathetic portrait look better with instant filters and mood effects. Even if the camera eventually produces an image as black as the night, the government’s spinmeisters — it has many — can always graft a happier one on top of it. Not everyone can spot the sleight.