Teju Cole’s photography column in the New York Times is still going strong. In the most recent article titled, “A Too-Perfect Picture,” Cole draws attention to Coldplay’s recent video as an example of visual productions that “edit” out reality in favor of a picture-perfect, touristy idea of life.
The track in question is titled “Hymn for the Weekend,” and the video was filmed in India. Before Cole comments on Coldplay, he has been exploring the difference between photographs that “cater to life” and photographs that cater “to some previous prejudice.” He is essentially saying that some photographers capture life in all its complexities while other photographers doctor life with a ready-made and often prejudiced, market-driven filter. They produce “images that masquerade as art but fully inhabit the vocabulary of advertising.” Coldplay’s video, argues Cole, epitomizes this other kind of photography.
Here is how Cole puts it:
The song is typical Coldplay, written for vague uplift but resistant to sense (“You said, ‘Drink from me, drink from me’/When I was so thirsty/Poured on a symphony/Now I just can’t get enough”). Filmed in India, with a cameo by Beyoncé, the video is a kind of exotification bingo, and almost like a live-action version of Steve McCurry’s vision: peacocks, holy men, painted children, incense. Almost nothing in the video allows true contemporaneity to Indians. They seem to have been placed there as a colorful backdrop to the fantasies of Western visitors. A fantasy withers in the sunlight of realism. But as long as realism is held at bay, the fantasy can remain satisfying to an enormous audience. More than a hundred million people have watched the Coldplay video since it was posted at the end of January.
Art is always difficult, but it is especially difficult when it comes to telling other people’s stories. And it is ferociously difficult when those others are tangled up in your history and you are tangled up in theirs. What honors those we look at, those whose stories we try to tell, is work that acknowledges their complex sense of their own reality. Good photography, regardless of its style, is always emotionally generous in this way. For this reason, it outlives the moment that occasions it. Weaker photography delivers a quick message — sweetness, pathos, humor — but fails to do more. But more is what we are.
You can also watch Coldplay’s video to see whether Cole is right about his claim that Coldplay reduces India to mere prop for a western fantasy.
Post image via Coldplay’s Instagram page.