The Photoshop State: Image Manipulation, Visual Culture and Electoral Politics in Digital India

SRIRAM MOHAN — Department of Communication Studies & Center for South Asian Studies, University of Michigan


President Obama watching a live telecast of the then-prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s speech, Julian Assange vouching for Modi’s incorruptibility, G-6 leaders bowing in deference to the chief minister of a South Indian state – these are but a few examples of images that have gone ‘viral’ on online social networks in India and amidst the Indian diaspora worldwide over the last few years. Created using a variety of digital image manipulation software, these ‘Photoshopped’ images have found their way into political posters and banner put up on the streets of Indian cities, and have also repeatedly been put into circulation online as ‘proof’ for a series of claims relating to Indian political leaders’ appeal, integrity or importance on a ‘global’ scale. Such artifacts have also spurred counterefforts to expose and parody the politicians and political parties seen as resorting to such modes of publicity.

This paper seeks to critically evaluate these images and study how the circulation of such images online and the discourses generated around them, influence the vocabularies of the ‘political’ per se. Further, it examines how the availability and use of digital image manipulation tools contribute to the development of a rich intertextual field that is based on visual/memetic representations of established political debates around identity and development. Through textual analysis of these images and in-depth interviews with the designers of such image artifacts at a political poster and banner printing studio in Chennai, India, this paper aims to situate the role of mediatized understandings of political discourse, and the influence of proximate actors such as representatives from local political parties and other computer operators in determining the visual dimensions of political culture in these spaces.

Ultimately, this study points to how the ‘new’ visualities enabled by algorithmic image manipulation are crucial in helping to unpack the tensions underpinning the staging and mediation of cultural citizenship and contemporary politics on digital social networks worldwide. In addition, the focus on ‘local’ media production practices allows this study to attempt two interlinked moves – it relates such visual political content back to the material and social concerns guiding their production as a way to ground the analysis of their circulation via networked media technologies, and it explores how technology use in ‘local’ settings connects to global imaginations of power and popularity in the case of visual culture centered around political leadership.


Sriram Mohan is a PhD student in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His research revolves around digital media, cultural politics, and technology use in South Asian contexts. His work has appeared in journals like Television & New Media, and he is currently co-editing an anthology titled Digital South Asia with Prof. Aswin Punathambekar (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming).


Slideshow:  Mohan 2017 (PDF)