Protest posters that strike a chord: a conversation with Orijit Sen

Courtesy: Guftugu

Sneha Chowdhury (SC): Of late, one recurring feature of your social media posts has been the poster. You’ve posted several striking and memorable posters in response to social issues – the most recent being your poster-cum-banner for the #NotInMyName protest meets held across the country. Are social media posters different from regular posters?

Orijit Sen (OS): Technically, a poster is a printed object. Regular posters are printed and put up on walls in public spaces. In that sense, the term ‘poster’ is a misnomer for the stuff I have been recently sharing on social media. They are not printed first and put up in public spaces. The printed poster has certain physical limitations when compared to the social media poster. It always takes more time to print or reproduce a poster and circulate hard copies across spaces, whereas social media posters are always shared within seconds of posting them. Any social media poster, then, inadvertently becomes a new medium.
However, social media platforms also simulate public spaces in many ways. On the one hand, in public spaces, we see impatient pedestrians strolling and consuming images and texts put up on walls; on social media, on the other hand, we see impatient users scrolling up and down their timeline, consuming images and texts from their virtual walls.

 

SC: What factors contribute to, or affect, the making of such posters?

OS: I think one needs to be mindful of several factors, the most important factor being the nature of the image. The poster has to carry a strong image. One also has to be mindful of certain limitations: the impatience of users, the fact that there is already a deluge of images and texts on social media which are consumed by the users on a daily basis. Therefore, the image has to be very striking and catchy; something that instantly grabs their attention. The subject has to be topical – something immediately relevant. And finally, the image has to be accompanied by a caption. I ensure that the image and the caption are not self-explanatory, but the two put together carry forward the social message at large.

Image Courtesy: Orijit Sen

SC: The banner for the #NotInMyName protest meet went viral within seconds of your posting it on the event page. How did you come up with this poster?

OS: Rahul Roy, one of the organisers of the protest meet at Delhi, called me at 7pm one evening, and asked me to prepare a poster for the event. At 9:30pm, the same day, I saw that the event page was already up but there was no image or poster to go with it. So I put everything else on hold and started working on the poster. Within the next couple of hours, the image was ready.

Photo by Kishor Parekh / Image Courtesy: The Indian Express

While making the poster, I kept wondering what would make a strong image. I wanted it to be an image that directly referred to the gruesome act of lynching without being too literal. I was reminded of some images by Kishor Parekh from his Bangladesh series. One of them is particularly striking – it is an image of a boot on an empty street. That’s how I decided to use a chappal in the poster. The chappal – a mundane, quotidian object – spoke to me. It made me think of its wearer. A dead body would not have created as strong an impact as a remnant of that dead body, like the abandoned boot, the abandoned chappal.

SC: Are you also trying to counter the proliferation of violent images – especially photographs shared via WhatsApp and Facebook – through these posters?

OS: Nowadays, we are being constantly bombarded with graphic images. Most of these violent images are photographs which are circulated widely via social media. But the truth-claim of photographs is often undermined by these images because sometimes they are photo-shopped. As a graphic artist, I don’t need to compete with that kind of documentary evidence. Graphic imagery needs to induce reflection, and a poster can be the right medium for that. The poster should make you reflect, think about the nature of violence, think about the victims; not just see, consume and go past it.

Image Courtesy: Orijit Sen

SC: Another poster that was particularly striking was the ‘Modi Antoinette’ poster – Modi’s face superimposed on Marie Antoinette’s. What made you compare Narendra Modi to Marie Antoinette?

OS: I made the poster in the wake of de-monetisation earlier this year. I was aghast by the hubris behind de-monetisation. I was struck by Modi’s sheer power and arrogance, to say nothing of his uncaring attitude towards the poor. I was thinking about all of this and suddenly the image of Marie Antoinette came to me. Both Marie and Modi seem to be so drunk with power that they don’t care about their subjects at all. Everything that Marie Antoinette wore symbolised arrogance – her wig, her costume, everything. But her image in the poster is also an index for the time to come. We must remember that her reign was soon to be followed by the French Revolution. I wanted the poster to be a subtle reminder of the fact that an arrogant approach to ruling can eventually lead to one’s downfall.

Images Courtesy: Orijit Sen

SC: How did you come up with the ‘Azadi’ and ‘Ramjas College’ posters?

OS: I have been playing around with the metro-language for a while now. I feel that the voice one hears in the announcements is the voice of the State talking to its citizens, telling them what to do and what not to do. But what’s interesting and ironic at the same time is how neutral and detached the voice is. The voice is so detached that it’s almost ominous. There’s something particularly ominous in the monotonous ring of “Walking on metro tracks is a punishable offence” – it always makes me wonder what punishment I am going to get. Again, I made the two posters after the Ramjas College incident. I knew that the metro station imagery would be familiar to many students who travel by the metro on a daily basis, and they would easily relate to it.

SC: Finally, I’d like you to talk about one poster which will be etched in our memories for a long time – the Rohith Vemula poster.

OS: After Rohith’s death, I would often hear people say that there’s no point in killing oneself when one can stay alive and fight for a change. I feel only those who do not have to experience the atrocities and the oppression that a dalit person faces on a daily basis, can use that logic to make a case against suicide. I had to counter this notion – the notion that he was a loser. So while making the poster, I was constantly reminded of his poignant suicide note. Despite being a suicide note, the letter expressed a deep commitment to life. It was not written by a person who had given up on life. To me, it was a letter written by a visionary. Hence, I wanted to create an image that depicted this contradiction. For example, the clenched fist passing through the noose is one image that captures this contradiction. I wanted to show that a person’s ideas and beliefs do not die with the passing away of that person.

  • K SHESHU BABU

    An insightful interview. The importance of posters and their impact on the people is great! They can mobilise people