Tell us about your childhood.
I am from Tirunelveli, born in Karukurchi, the village were famous Nadaswara Vidwan Arunachalam was born. My father who was working in the Co-operative Department used to get transferred to many places – Kumily, Vadaarkadu, Koodalur (KambamKoodalur), Arani(Arani, Kambam-Koodalur). We were always travelling, so I don’t remember much of my childhood. I can even say that I didn’t have any friends until my 8th standard. When I was studying in 6th standard, my father built our own house in Tirunelveli. Initially, my mother, sister and I started living there and my father used to visit us. Later, he applied for a transfer and we settled in Tirunelveli. It is only after this I started experiencing some stability. But then, because of my frequent change of location and school, I was not faring that well in my studies. My parents often used to scold me for my lack of interest in schooling. I joined Christhuraja School which was not that competitive, because of which I was bad at studies. So, I had to join a government school in my locality for completing my higher secondary education.
Finally, I joined St. Xavier’s College for BA Economics. Here, I was actively involved in the Fine Arts Club and started developing an interest in dance – there were other fine art groups, Rangoli, painting – but I was completely fascinated by dance. I was running a dance school after my UG. That’s my first connection with art.In this way, I also started connecting with artists. After my under-graduation, I wanted to become a cinematographer. Only then did I realize that for studying cinematography, I should have studied physics during my high school. That was the first time I regretted not studying well. I did my PGDCA from St.Xavier’s college, and then joined Mass Communication at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University.
How did you develop an interest in photography?
I would say that it was a conscious choice. Photography was not part of the curriculum then. Our department has a lab journal called ‘Thamirabharani’. Every student have to play an editor role to bring out an issue, and my senior Pon stalin was doing his turn. Our department had a Pentax K1000,an SLR camera. Those days possessing a camera was something not so common. There was a general myth that if you are a photographer, there is something very great about it. Everybody pays attention – when one walks with the equipment, the stand, the light – people look at you with admiration, a kind of appreciation. It was a pleasant feeling. Nabil is another senior who taught me the basics of the camera and started taking us to nearby places, and I enjoyed those trips. One time, Pon Stalin asked me to take a photograph a pothole on the road to the University, for the lab journal. It got printed in the Thamirabharani journal. Seeing my photograph printed was a great experience. Another Professor Natarajan guided me a lot.
So I decided to do my summer internship in photography, and I found a list of photographer names and emails through Agency FAQS. I contacted all the members in their list, expressing my interest to intern with them. I even got a response from Boman Irani actor/Photographer. This gave me a lot of encouragement, a hope that there is a possibility to learn more in this field and finally, I did my summer internship with Jatin Chonkar a Mumbai-based commercial/advertising photographer. I was still practicing dance and enjoyed that. But photography caught hold of me. That was also the time when Kanchanai film society led by RR Srinivasan was conducting many workshops and lectures on photography and cinema. One of my super senior, Krishna Priya received the first prize for the best photograph in International Journalism Contest on the theme ‘Right to Education’. The contest was launched in 1998 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by UNESCO. She was directly tutored by R R Srinivasan who selected one particular image shot by her during his workshop field trip and asked her to submit for the award. That created a wave here; a girl from Tirunelveli, receiving an International award!! Photography became the buzz word. Putting together the money that I earned from conducting dance classes and savings from my dad, I bought my own camera (Vivitar 3800N). I started photographing regularly. Later, Ravindran Gopalan Sir, who is presently the Dean of the Madras University, started a photo club called Shutter Bug. He used to talk very passionately about different aspects of photography, its techniques like exposure, and political philosophy etc. I also subscribed to Better Photography magazine and taught myself the nuances of camera and photography. During my final exams, Professor Mr. Arutselvan informed me that there is a photographer opening in Dinamalar newspaper. Usually, after the exams, there is a process of searching for a job and exploring different possibilities. But for me, it was as if the choice was already made. I got the job immediately and joined Dinamalar. I was appointed in Coimbatore and I worked in Coimbatore edition for about three months. Then I was showing interest in moving to Madurai edition to work on a supplement. After three months, the supplement was closed due to limited circulation and I was transferred to Tiruppur. It was an interesting job, but I wanted to do more than this. I wanted to do studio-based work. So I quit my newspaper photographer job and joined as an assistant photographer at Chonkar Associates in Mumbai where I did my summer internship. My sister was living there in the outskirts of Mumbai. I stayed with one of my childhood friends. That was a memorable experience. I would say that it was my period of exploration. I was very young and curious to take the camera and go on shooting. He wanted me to study the basics, lighting and read about photography; but all I wanted was to shoot. I blame it on the age, but because of this, I couldn’t learn much with this opportunity. I see that attitude in a lot of youngsters as well. I was there for about 8 months but eventually decided to get back to photojournalism. But getting a job was not easy this time. So, I started teaching Photography in the Hindustan College of arts and science, Coimbatore for VISCOM and MASSCOM students. That was the most important period in my career. I couldn’t stand in front of the students and talk anything that came to my mind. This made me very self-conscious. I started preparing well for my classes. There is also another important dimension to teaching – we get to spend a lot of time with the youngsters and naturally get caught up in their energy and enthusiasm. We took many field trips, experimenting in B/W developing and printing. A lot of my students are doing well now. Seven of them are already into photography. I was actually doing what Ravindran Sir did for me. I hope that I have inspired them.
I applied for Dinakaran newspaper photographer job. It was during that time Dinakaran was bought by SUN network and it was re-launched. Photo-journalism was not that lucrative and obviously a job as a professor has better social recognition. It was also very stressful with long hours. But, I opted to get back to photo-journalism, because of my passion for it. I was in Dinakaran, Bangalore for about two years and apart from my photo-journalistic assignment I used to be part of a Flickr group called Bangalore weekend shooter (BWS) that conducted photo walks. Photographer and friend VivekMuthuramalingam was leading that group. During this period, I got selected for the Angkor workshop (2006). It was an important milestone for me – an eye opener of sorts. It opened up beyond Henri Cartier-Bresson and things besides the Exposure and Composition. It is from here I started developing an interest to document stories. Until then my interest was to take “single images” that could be published. I realized that more than aesthetics, content is important.
This is when I joined Time Out Magazine. I worked there only for six months, after which I joined DNA National newspaper with the view of gaining National level exposure and experience. It was a wonderful team, I have learned a lot from the young team. I must say that I was quite lucky to work with great people like Vinay Kamat and late Selvan Shivakumar who allowed me to follow my passion. But, I missed the documentary style of working. The newspapers were not interested in such story-based works. Can you imagine – it was not even a decade ago, but things were very different. There was not much space for a series of works or photo-stories. I wanted to work on a particular subject over a period of time, which need more time than what I got it from DNA. This conflict was troubling me. It was during this time I got National Media Fellowship to execute‘Life in troubled waters’. At the same time, I got an opportunity to rejoin Time Out. It worked well for me, as there was lot of creative freedom. The Editor Jaideep VG was also interested to publish photo-stories. One of the stories was ‘Vanishing Tribes’ which was published in the anniversary edition, later I developed that story as a project. After four years, Time Out was closed down and I decided to do freelancing.
How has your experience been as a freelancer?
There is uncertainty.But then as saturated as the market is, there is also a demand. With the popularity of social media, anybody who starts a company requires a website and social media pages, which opens up visual content opportunities. If you are ready to deliver what the assignment-based project demands, then there are plenty of possibilities. One has to understand the difference between an editorial job and this one. I am also doing versatile projects. So, yes, I am surviving as a freelancer in Bangalore, living with my wife and two children, and I would say that it is possible if you have the knack.
Is there any other project that you have wanted to do, other than your professional work?
Life in troubled waters – I actually like to do it across the Indian coast line and feel that it alone is a lifetime project. I also feel that need to re-visit the places and shoot again. When I critically look at my own works, I feel that I could have taken some of the beautiful scenes as well. I was basically concentrating on highlighting the issue of pollution caused by Industries etc., and to document the changing coastal landscape. Now I feel that I could have done it differently.
Was it because the contemporary Indian trend was favouring the issue-based approach? The “decisive moment” trend popularized by Henri Cartier-Bresson and the likes…
My field is photo-journalism. So that influences my outlook. I was not looking photography so much as an art. I am from a place which didn’t have much exposure to contemporary art. I didn’t grow up looking at Salvador Dali or any such artists. In ‘Vanishing tribes’ for example, I have tried to adopt a different visual approach. Kind of ‘romanticizing the reality’. But, Life in troubled waters was classic documentary style.
Little bit more about ‘life in troubled waters’ – when I first heard about it, I thought it was something related to the troubles faced by the Tamil fishermen in the Sri Lankan coast. But most of the publications on this body of work were about the ecological disasters in the coast.
Actually, I started with that in mind. I kept that name because I was focusing on the issues faced by Tamil fishermen in the Sri Lankan coast. In the year 2008, I visited the fishermen families in Rameshwaram who were affected. It was more of a photo-journalistic approach. That’s how I started that. After that, I started visiting more often and exploring the other problems faced by them. In the year 2009, FOJO, a Swedish organization conducted a month long course on coastal management. I was one of the participants. That course and my frequent visit to fishermen villages gradually opened me up to their other issues including natural calamity, pollution, socio-political issues etc. I personally feel that photography has a lot of limitations. When you listen to a story or when a fisherman shares his tragic life, it is really touching. If you ask me whether a photograph completely captures this, I would say NO. Something goes missing, because as I said, the medium has its own limitations. The medium has a certain restriction and limitation. I still have those works of the affected fishermen, but I don’t think anyone wishes to publish this sort of works. If I send 30 to 40 images to the publisher, they hardly publish 5 or 6 images and even if it has images pertaining to the Sri Lankan issue they don’t select that. I don’t send it as a separate chapter, but send them all as one set, as they are all part of the issues faced by fishermen. Sometimes, I think it is my fault – as I am not sending it as chapters or I didn’t work as a chapter. I do understand that magazines have their priorities. I am not criticizing, but it is not getting published because that’s not part of their interest. If the magazine is interested in environmental issues, they are only going to publish stories related that. Some of them are interested only in publishing political issues. May be, I haven’t sent [my works] to any political magazines, but the images are there. There is also another limitation. The intensity that we can bring out in the text often does not reflect in the images. So it doesn’t strike them, because of the nature of the photography medium or maybe I am not capturing the right element to tell the story. Another problem I see is that the images are pretty scattered, in the sense that some images are from Rameshwaram, some are from Dhanushkodi. A few are from Cuddalore – so they are powerful as a project, but don’t weave as a single story as such. That’s why I think I must re-visit, and re-shoot – making it chapter wise. So, it will be easier for somebody to publish it. Also as I said before, I have mostly focused on the negative – not really negative, but focused more about their problems. In the future, I want to focus on the other side. For example, there are some people who are working to bring about positive changes. I want to bring out such positive stories as well, so that it will be balanced. Every year I plan to re-start the shoot, but it keeps being delayed, I don’t know for what reason. May be, I also need more clarity.
So ‘water as a connecting element’ – the gateway through which our region was exposed to different cultures.Will that dimension also feature in your future works?
As of now, I haven’t thought about that angle. But I am open to that. Actually, your question opens me up to that. As I mentioned earlier, so far I had focused mainly on the issues, economic, and political related – but now I think of focusing on the historical and cultural aspects. In Gokarna, I had documented a ritual that was done as an offering at the mouth of the river. This was a new ritual done to calm the violent sea. I am open to shooting more such cultural aspects too.
What are your thoughts on Tamil identity politics? In this present political context, is it holding on to false pride and narrowing down a diversified land whose culture was shaped by its rich maritime history and exchange of knowledge?
If we take identity politics, then even the Dravidian movement is identity politics. As such, I am against identity politics – of any sorts. The problem is to what extent we are against it. If we take our current scenario, we are continuously criticizing BJP. It is an identity politics. If we take the case of US, it is also an identity politics. Presently, identity politics is a winning game. Be it in the largest democratic country like India or “developed” countries like the US that we often refer to. Both are same in identity politics. In fact, if we look at it that way, we have always played this game. It is actually an open question for me. If a caste-based differentiation and politics is not correct, then how can ethnicity-based identity be considered right? Both are not the same. But, both are identities. In today’s Tamil context, there is a big challenge whether I can become a full-fledged Tamil person because I have been living in Bangalore for a decade. If somebody is living in Tamil Nadu for four or five generations and still they are considered outsider – then there is a problem. We think that ethnicity-based identity is a source of pride. I feel that we are taking up a position where there is no proper understanding. It is the same if we are talking about a national identity. In India, it is not that big, but in countries in the Middle East and Africa, they are very big. The entire crisis is because of the nationality or ethnicity. So, if we take Tamil alone and speak of it, then I don’t think it will work and it will actually hinder our growth and progress.
In today’s context the division based on language – Tamil, Malayalee, Kannada, Telugu etc. – is also becoming higher. The unifying lifestyle of the four states of ancient Tamilakam is also deteriorating. Take the Cauvery issue, for example. There is no water here. It is the same divisive strategy that is causing this problem.
Even if the four states join together and create a Dravidian identity, then neighbouring four states will join together and oppose this idea as conflicting with their identity. Whatever extent of unity we bring about – based on certain group identity, there will be a conflict or opposition at some level. Recently there was a big social media troll about “the United States of South India”. I feel that this would cause only more problems and I personally don’t think that this is the solution. I think it is more an individual thing and each individual should change. In my opinion, any sort of group consciousness will not resolve issues. I go to many places – to North Karnataka, Kerala – and if they look at me as a Tamil and show their dislike because of Kaveri or MullaiPeriyar issue, it will only sadden me. If am living exclusively in Tirunelveli, then it is ok. It will be kind of romanticization. But, when I am working in Bangalore, living in harmony is more important. ‘Yeethalisaipadavalthal’ (Thirukural: Other than fame due to charity, there is no other reward in life) – is what is said. Everybody must live in harmony. If I start relating to you, after probing your identity, then how far can I connect with you? We are living in difficult times. There are many who don’t talk to their family members, their own father, or mother. We are killing our own brothers – is there any identity crisis here? Both of them are from the same caste, same village, same religion. If you look at it at the micro level, I don’t think identity has any meaning. It is just an emotional statement.
The exchange of knowledge that you had mentioned earlier is our true culture. With so much sharing, if we were able to carve our name in the world, then it was purely because of our attitude of flexibility (Nekilvuvallkai). It was this character that allowed us to travel that far and welcome people here. I feel that “Tamilian” refers to somebody who could live with this value. We didn’t have any such problems then– but why do we have a problem now?
So, do you still dance?
I don’t know where you got that question.More than dance, I am very much interested in choreography. It was during my college days that I danced more. It was, in a way, related to college activity. After that, for two or three years when I was in Tirunelveli, I was doing choreography. It has more to do with symmetry – if you apply that to photography, it is the same. I look for symmetry in my frames. I often wait to get that exact symmetry. If I see some emptiness, I often wait for an exact moment for that to get filled – I wait for some person to come in or some other element to walk in to get that symmetry. It is the aesthetical part of any documentary work. Choreography helped me – it works at a subconscious level. I am always behind the camera or behind the stage. As a choreographer, after finishing the arrangements, I usually move back to the last row to watch the main event. When it unfolds, I look at whether there is any perfection. I keep looking through the camera. Also, when I download the images to see in the system, I always remember the sequence – like there was an empty space and in the 7th frame, I filled it. So I will go and pick that particular image. Probably, the medium is different, but the practice is somewhat same.
In the present context, there is a mushrooming of photo festivals. How do you see that?
Whether you are considering that as a visitor or as a photographer is the question. There are benefits of seeing it from both the perspectives. The democratic quality of the photographic medium has made sure that everybody has the potential to become a photographer. The technology has made this a possibility. You don’t have to worry about shutter speed, exposure or lighting etc. – the camera will do the job. I think it is similar to writing. Now we have speech text that can easily type what I speak, even if I don’t know how to write. After that, editing is not a big job. But because of that, one cannot become a great writer. It is a mere technological tool. So, just because everybody can take a photograph, it doesn’t mean that everybody is going to be a “photographer.” Because of that, it is not going to affect the medium much. May be, it means that a professional photographer or somebody who is planning to take photography as a career will need a direction. The way photography was practiced commercially 3 or 4 decades earlier cannot be followed the same way now. When we start photography, everybody is in the same place – I mean technically. But after that everybody takes their own direction. If you ask whether those who learnt photography with me have become a photographer- they haven’t. If you ask whether I started as a documentary photographer, then the answer is also a big No. Based on each person’s economical context, socio-political outlook, life experience and philosophy each would go in their direction. So even now, if 100 photographers learn photography, fifty might continue out of which 30 might take up a documentary style. Like that it would go on – apart from that nothing big is going to happen. I have a strong gut feeling that as much as the number of photographers increases – the demand also has increased exponentially.
So talking about festivals, when everybody is a photographer – there is a need for more venues. If there were only a few photographers, then a few festivals are enough. I saw the recent Indian photography festival exhibitor list – there are many new names, whose works I didn’t even know. In a way, it is good, as they are showcasing people in their circle – whom they know/whose visual style and subject fit into the exhibition- so we can see more people. If the same people are exhibiting everywhere, then how will the medium grow? If you look at EtP Tiruvannamalai project, there is diversity. Whether Shibu Arakkal and Selvaprakash can exhibit in the same kind of festival is another question. Take Visa pour – it’s purely photojournalism – you cannot see fine art photography or conceptual photography there. Hence, this sort of photography movements and festivals allows you to mix and match. Ok, Shibu can be there, Selvaprakash can be here, new talents can also be somewhere – these festivals are opening up this possibility. I think it is a good thing. Whether I am going to visit or exhibit is secondary. It is up to the individual. If you have money and time you go. It doesn’t mean that you have to be there. I think it is a good sign. New festivals will come. They might survive for few years or it with stand for ever.
What about photojournalist works, that were mostly commissioned and published in magazines getting selected as works of art for exhibition? I mean, they are published as photo stories and the same works are exhibited in festivals and sold in galleries. How do you see this?
As I said earlier, photo festivals are thematic. They work on a particular theme. So, photo journalistic works also gets shown there. But if you ask about them being exhibited in galleries – then, I can say that the trend is changing. But, if you ask me how I see that. Then it leads to a bigger question – what is art? If you look at the Impressionist painting or French realism, the subjects are of a class, the working class. I may be wrong, but that’s how I am seeing that. It was more about the life of the working class – about the subjects who were not much spoken about earlier. The content was a little journalistic, which I think is OK – but not too much”. So what happened in art is what is happening in photography. Contemporary art has moved in a different direction but photography is still in this phase – but it will also change. It will take its own time. The environment is also favouring such a shift. We had discussed earlier, even my photography was focusing on issues. It depends on what the western world would like to see and show. When I started photography, I could only start with Henri Cartier-Bresson. There were no other exposures or references where I grew up. For those who are starting photography now, they have a wide range of possibilities and exposures. They have quite a lot of avenues. They can start somewhere else. This is where the change is going to be. May be the next generation photographers will get there – in fact, many young photographers start with very experimental works. I don’t know whether it is right or wrong. I am not here to judge that. But they are starting somewhere else. How this will change this medium, what sort of photographs this generation will take after ten years,will it make any real contribution or again, is it an imitation of western photographic practice – these are questions that only time would be able to answer.
Maybe, organizations like EtP has the responsibility to tell the world about what is Indian art – it is again touching the issue of identity – but still without taking pride – it will be good for our next generation to know what is Tamil art – what is our visual language – that sort of art our ancestors had made – like a knowledge sharing. Then our youngsters will start understanding and developing a different style – I think EtP is actually doing that, by taking cultural subjects. It will be good if EtP could also take it up aesthetically.
When we were talking about identity, I wanted to discuss the recent issue with regard to the “beef culture”. The most important point made by the protesters was something like ‘It is my right to eat what I want’ – who decides that – elephant is important – Cow is not. Peacock is important, but some fish is not? If we are taking a stand from endangered species list – or we are talking from the bio diversity point of view, then it’s a self-centric idea. We quote Vallalar or Thiruvalluvar for everything. They have mentioned a lot of about this – about living in harmony – about accepting diversified values. I am sure, they were not claiming themselves to be ‘Tamil’ or any such identity.
All these people became an icon of Tamil only at a later stage. If you take Thirukural – for example, it is written in couplets. Song of Solomon in Bible is also written in similar style. Two thousand and odd years ago, if two persons from such distant locations adapting a similar style means, they should either have learnt it from the same guru or there was an exchange of knowledge. The maritime trade must have facilitated this…
What you say is a great example. The language Tamil also evolved by incorporating certain elements from other languages. There was mutual learning. There was openness. That’s why we were able to create such powerful literature. We had an open mind then. Valluvar had used the word ‘naakarikam’ which now means civilisation – But “naakarikam” Na-Agam-Iregam-meaning ‘speak what your heart says’. Not many are seeing ‘Nakarikam’ with this meaning. Culture is expressed with the word ‘Kalachaaram’ – kalai plus acharam – Kalachaaram -Art of living without harming others. But most of us see ‘aacharam’ as an ariyan or alienated word. This is a clear example of the prevailing practice of incorporating a style from another language or a culture. That is why such a powerful literature or art form existed in Tamil. It had the quality of adapting. Probably that is why this part of the land is known for its cultural richness and wisdom. If we resist other ideas, then progress is not possible. Right now, do we have such openness is arguable. “I am not ready to even consider or analyse another opinion because he is so and so” is not the right trend.
Tamil cinema is rich because it has a cultural mix of Malayalee, Kannadiga etc – whereas Kannada industry does not allow anybody else to get in. Conversely, if you look at the success of Bangalore – it is because they accept everyone. That is why it is growing. Our openness to this diversity – to accept different ideas is the reason behind this – at the same time it becomes our uniqueness – it is actually a journey. Maybe you are right – I am wrong. Aesthetics is secondary and cultural subject is more important. Choosing a subject that pronounces the culture of this land, and express it any aesthetics that you choose – may be eastern or western. I think that’s what you are telling – Is there a western market for such subjects is secondary.I also think that it is also our responsibility to create a market for that.
You started off with Henri-Cartier Bresson. Now, you are in your mid-career. Who are the contemporary photographers whose works you like?
The problem is, there is a criticism that we always quote only western photographers. By doing so, you place yourself somewhere else. So, if you ask south Indian photographers, then the problem is there is no market or medium showing their works. Including my case, my work is known outside purely because I am acknowledged as somebody who is working in areas that are preferred by Western media. Hence, the names I quote for Documentary and Photojournalism would also be the ones who are already working in the western media interested subjects. So I prefer to name some of the adept Indian street photographers Vivek Muthuramalingam, Mouhamed Moustapha, Gurunathan Ramakrishnan, SasikumarR amachandran, Soumyendra Saha, Arindam Thokder – there are many. I am able to name them purely because their works are available in social media. I am able to regularly see their work online. In documentary, there is secrecy. There are exceptions, but mostly we keep it secretly until it gets published. I remember the works of photographer Isakki. I only recently started following Abul’s work. When I was young, I got to know about Isakki and visited his place. His son had died in an accident and he had gone to that place where his son met an accident and took a photograph of the place. I cannot conceive how one could photograph that. I got to know about him by other friend and Photographer Kannan. But his work is not into social media or such online platforms. Abul’s work I get to see online. But there are many photographers, whose works are not accessible. Theirs don’t get to be shown in photo festivals. That sort of searching is not happening here. I guess that’s where we are having a gap. To fill that, it is important to have a portal or media where avenues are created to publish their works.