Photo Mail focuses on contemporary photography practitioners, their works, and its aesthetics in the broader context of photographic theory and philosophy
As part of the ‘Dilli Chalo’ protest called on November 26 and 27, lakhs of farmers, laborers, and small traders decided to march from Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and other states towards Delhi. During their attempt to reach Delhi, the farmers faced warlike resistance from the Indian government at two inter-state borders. Protesters occupied several miles of highway with their tractors and trolleys.
During the corona pandemic lockdown, India saw its migrant workers walk in an ardent will to reach the safety of their homes… History repeats itself, they say. Well, not exactly the same situation, but during Indian’s partition, thousands of Muslims and Hindus had to cross over – in search of a new home in unknown terrain. Seen through the photographic eyes of Margaret Bourke-White and Sunil Janah – the horrifying events of Indian Partition 1947 comes alive – once again in the Corona days – much more violent, cruel, and gruesome. It is a stark reminder that even after 70 and odd years of independence, India still has not healed itself of poverty, inequality, and oppression.
What we normally forget is that the lens of a camera sees more than the normal human eye is capable of. The clarity and the depth in a photographic image are taken for granted as we considered the camera as an extension of our eyes though what it sees is an abstracted or unperceivable image for the naked human eye. Seeing more or seeing in detail foregrounds the notion of abstraction because the form captured by the camera is only partially visible and its comprehension, in the normal course of our ways of seeing, is difficult.
Portrait photography is one of the areas where Raghu Rai has displayed mastery, and where he has revealed his own deepest convictions about the medium. Photomail investigates photographs of four spiritual and political leaders made by Raghu Rai, seeking to find what patterns run beneath the surfaces of these images.
Alessio Mamo’s series of photographs titled ‘Dreaming Food’ was shot in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in 2011, in which he tried to illustrate the contrast in the manner food was wasted in the West “especially at Christmas time”, and the widespread poverty that he saw in parts of India. The series was exhibited in Delhi Photography Festival in 2013, but when he posted images from the series during his takeover of World Press Photo’s Instagram handle as one of its awardees of 2018, a public debate erupted around the nature of his work and its political correctness. WPP has since issued a statement in which it clarifies the guidelines for its Instagram takeover, which is a benefit given to its award winners. But Indian print and online media subsequently took up the issue and it has been given wide coverage, with experts, photographers, and commentators weighing in from all sides. Now that all the arguments for and against have been brought out, PhotoMail takes a look at this issue in the broader context of poverty representation in India.
Photography, after the Second World War and McCarthyism, was consciously pushed into the sanitised spaces of Art galleries and Museums away from its past as a concerned, conscience-pricking tool. We were told by institutional gatekeepers like the Museum of Modern Art in New York that Photography was only about Itself. It was an Art form that was about navel-gazing photographers and about flattened formalist fields. Photography was not supposed to exist outside its own frame.
Does a photo carry a meaning? Like a memory which has a meaning, photo doesn’t in itself have a meaning. Stills don’t speak but they are not dead as such. They evoke memories and memory evokes the meaning behind the image. - NL Balakrishnan
Walls have been featured as subjects, or at least as integral parts of broader subjects, by many artists across various media, owing to its metaphorical significance, its role as a visual and spatial block, and also what its surface holds. Shanthi Kashi’s concern is the surface of these walls, on which the artist observes patterns, forms, and colours and composes them to achieve – not necessarily literal – meaning. Shot in Mumbai and Bangalore, Shanthi also merges an abstract language with some very real phenomena related to the individual, geography and society through the presence of moisture, decay, erasure and abandonment.
The Kalpathy festival is held over a period of 10 days, such that the last day of the festival falls on the 1st day of Vrischikam (Karthika) month. Vrishchikam is a period of rituals and festivals in many places, notably Sabarimala and Tiruvannamalai. Today, the Kalpathy festival is attended by many communities apart from the Tamil Brahmins, although the festival is conducted by the residents of new and old Kalpathy, and Chathapuram. Much like the rest of Palakkad, the Kalpathy festival has allowed for a mixture of what could be called the Chera culture and the Pandyan culture.
The realist discourse of photography believes that photographs capture the world as it is. As scientific, empirical knowledge. It is the Camera’s mechanical nature, which is supposed to give us the unchallenged, unassailable ‘reality’ of photography. It presents us with the image of photography as a mechanized form of perception.
For about half its life, the Indian film industry has been dominated by Bollywood, at least in terms of presence in society, popularity and scale of productions. Bombay took over as the major center of film production in India from Calcutta, and gave birth to the Bollywood – the name itself is a clear homage to the ideal it aspired to. Bollywood has since dictated the imagination of the majority of the middle class of the country, directly and indirectly; and in this aspect, the presence of the still photographer in the set is often underestimated.
Stairs to Nowhere is an opportunity to see the side effects of urbanisation. With complex migration and bloating population in the cities, there is a huge focus on development of infrastructure. In the name of development, we ended up razing old structures most of the times for larger projects; say the likes of highway expansion, metro train building, or sometimes even building an extra room in our homes. Stairs to Nowhere is an extrapolation of such developments, which interpret the current scenario to the near future, where we will have NO PLACE TO GO. Stairs to Nowhere is an ongoing project.
The idea of ‘documentary’ goes to the heart of the invention of photography. Historically distinct from painting, the iconic-index-symbol structure of photographs quickly impressed with its capacity to ‘document’ things, a function which today, in an age of photo-copiers and electronic machines that reproduce instantly, is so obvious that it seems banal to even mention it here.
Mukaish Badla is a form of embroidery, which at its peak flourished in the Indian city of Lucknow. At its peak in the 18th century, the art form travelled to different parts of the world, but is now restricted to a few narrow lanes of the old city of Lucknow. The art was introduced, by the Nawabs who ruled the city, to beautify another form of embroidery called chickankari — which still persists in the Indian subcontinent. Mukaish, however, ended up becoming an independent style and flourished across the city in the past.
Indian Jews, a small ethnic community, gradually diminishing in numbers, maintain their cultural identity in an otherwise deeply divided society such as India. Jews are believed to have come to India as long as two thousand years ago and now find themselves divided into different small groups. Being a microscopic endogamous community with strict religious and social traditions, most of the Jews find it difficult to maintain their unique culture and therefore, either acculturated with the larger Indian communities or migrated to foreign countries, mainly Israel. There are now barely five thousand Jews, in an Indian population of approximately nine hundred million in all. But those Indian Jews who still live in India or migrated to other countries, however small their number, struggle to maintain their distinct cultural identity—the Indian Jewish Identity.
Crucifixion : Body and Spirit was born out of the photographer'sneed to confront a horrific spectre that has started to haunt human kind. Response from society to this rotten absurdity is more alarming than the crime itself… blaming the betrayed, rather than the betrayer. The pictures in the media are all of the bruised, battered and torn bodies of the stalked, hunted, molested and raped till death flowers. They are visible to us , veiled as they are, by foggy filters, which decide that we are fickle to see the bloody meatiness of the aftermath of a bacchanalian orgy we ourselves have perpetrated and indulged in to our cocks’ hilt. The original innocence of the betrayed femininity is what matters more. That is what haunts the photographer. The eyes of the spirit within them, that gazes fixedly and unblinkingly… demanding to know why the trust was betrayed..!! You may mutilate the body to your wildest end; but the haunting gaze of her spirit’s eyes bores into you and you wake up in cold sweat to a scorching heat that scalds and sears you. The spirit of the betrayed child can never sleep again.
This series of Vineyard workers started taking shape when photographer Anila joined the team of grape-pickers of her neighbour and friend winemaker Pascal Potaire (Les Capriades) in September 2013. She had recently settled in the country side of Central France and, after months spent indoors, she felt exhilarated by the contact with nature in the Vineyard. She had to be up early and start the hard physical labour, which had rhythmic stretch, bend, stretch and bend movements... the feet and hand touching the soil. The amazing body and mind energy it created, as well as the bounding between the members of this motley crew of various marginal backgrounds, inspired Anila to capture and document the synergy. As she was also working, the remaining moments for the photographic project were left to the poses. Thus, after progressing slowly and painfully between the ranks, the relieved standing pauses of the Vineyard workers. A global village of grounded, yet often uprooted workers has come into light, as she learned that the vines, in their wild form, are not meant to creep on the ground but to grow free and entangled, in the forests and jungles.
Kulasekharapatnam, situated in present day Thoothukudi District of Tamil Nadu, was an active sea port of the Sangam period. This port was contemporaneous to the existence of Kollam, a Chera Port. Kollam served the Pandyas on the west coast while Kulasekharapatnam served them on the east coast, connecting them to Ceylon and the pearl fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar facing the Tirunelveli Coast. Kulasekharapatnam derives its name from the pandyan ruler Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I. The three hundred year old Mutharamman temple in Kulasekharapatnam is known for the grand dussehra festival. During this annual festival, devotees from various parts of Tamil Nadu throng the temple to offer special prayers, and on the last day, Soorasamharam, which symbolizes the victory of good over evil and is the highlight of 10 day festival, is performed at the beach. On this day, the Devotees who observed a fast for 41 days, dress like God/ Goddess, beggars, etc., and march towards the temple, and in a state of trance, they move around the temple complex. More than 1.5 million people gather to celebrate this festival, held on a new moon day.
Pipe dreams is a series of photographic works done by Shibu Arakkal in 2015. 'Pipe Dreams' was born as a fantastical hope of trying to relate in an ernest sense to his physical surroundings. And in trying to weave a story of an object that is physically and philosophically part of his life, Shibu hopes that he would learn more about his own self. Shibu says, "These photographic conversations with objects link my conscious and my unconscious, my seen and my unseen and what is real and what I think to be. In trying to create profound memories that reflect the depth of the current moment as well as the transience of our lives linked to the unseen debris or treasures of our lives, based on how we choose to see it, I came upon one overwhelming realisation. That we could be anchored to our pasts, expectant of our future or consciously and emotionally live in the here and now being connected to our surroundings."
In Abul Azad’s visual dictionary the word ‘still life’ is elaborated as follows: the objects related to and resulted by a person’s life and these objects are seen arrayed in a certain fashion as providence would suggest and these objects would remain in the same way as if they were caught in and frozen by time. Their stillness shows that the person who has caused such an arrangement is equally still or methodically careless.
Goldsmiths have been an integral part of Indian society for ages. In South India, the Vishwakarma community has traditionally been entrusted with the responsibility of practising the various crafts. The community mainly comprises of smiths, carpenters and masons, and consider themselves to be descendants of Vishwakarman, the celestial architect. “Achari” is a title used to address a skilled craftsman – a goldsmith is referred to as “Thangaachari”. Today, with the advent of machines, traditional jewellery makers are fast disappearing. Although believed to have better quality, the hand-made jewellery takes a longer time to make. This leads to its added cost, which results in less demand. The skills that were passed down from generation to generation are finding less takers, as more people are turning away from inherited occupations, leaving the traditional skills in danger of being lost. In this series, Lijo Lonappan photographs Ravi Achari from Tiruvannamalai.
Even when a photograph looks unmediated, without human intervention in the realisation of its image and hence signifying authorial absence, the absence itself is a construction. It is a construction at the interface between factuality and artifice or between simulacrum and point of view; and it is not an empirically given precondition of perception. In many of Ramu’s images, as in the Calgary pictures, the rigorously composed optic array within the frame and the randomness which it suggests of the physical disarray outside the frame (both of which are bound by a causal symmetry) create a subtle dualism.
Praveen P Mohandas, a wildlife photographer who chooses to stray from the beaten track of wildlife documentation. Like most of the other amateur photographers, Praveen too started nature photography with an intent to document animal life and landscape. But as he traveled to various ecosystems and understood them deeply, the desire for pure documentation gave way, and a need for an emotional representation of the system through the medium of photography became more intense. The presence of elephants are frequent in his photographs, the most popular and revered animal in Kerala. When asked, he said, "All flora and fauna hold equal importance to me. There is no special interest towards elephants as such. I have shot more photographs of elephants, owing to my frequent visits to Jim Corbett national park in Uttarakhand, one of my favorite national parks in the country. This place is a haven to watch and photograph elephants In India. Maybe there are other places with more elephants, but I have come across only this place in my travel. I still go there often". Most of his photographs are monochromes. He feels that feel black and white takes away the realism in the photograph, breaking all elements to its basic form.
These photographs of a traditional bull fight were taken in 2016 by Indian photographer Leo James, who is currently living in Dubai, in 2016, using 35mm film. Bullfighting’s roots can be traced to prehistoric bull worship and sacrifice in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean region. There were several variants of bull fights – man vs bull and bull vs bull, and variants among them. The earliest surviving record of a bullfight is in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which describes a scene in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu fought and killed the Bull of Heaven. Bullfighting is often linked to Rome, where many human-versus-animal events were held as competition and for entertainment. These hunting games had spread to Africa, Europe, and Asia during the prehistoric era. Bull baiting became common among the Aayar or Yadava people who lived in the ‘Mullai’ geographical division of the ancient Tamil country. It gradually developed into a platform for display of bravery, and prizes were introduced for encouraging participation. A seal from the Indus Valley Civilization depicting the practice is preserved in the National Museum, New Delhi. A cave painting in white kaolin, discovered near Madurai, depicting a lone man trying to control a bull, is estimated to be about 2,500 years old. These images were shot in Fujairah, UAE. The origins of bullfighting in Arabia are unknown, though locals believe it was brought to Oman by the Moors who had conquered Spain. Its existence in Oman and the UAE is also attributed to Portugal which colonized the Omani coastline for nearly two centuries.
Right from the invention of photography there has been a common understanding that it reflected the world as such or more exactly it was taken to be so intimately associated with the object depicted. The fin de siècle avant-gardism in art was, among a lot of other things, a reaction to this notion of the ‘photographed reality’. But at the same time one could also remonstrate against this by accentuating the ‘pictorialism vs. straight photography episode’ from the history of photography.
This is the essence of Project 365: each photographer creating according to his or her own desires, yet all working toward a common goal. The mix of approaches is the project’s strength. Variant perspectives give the wider view: from Jiby Charles’ exploratons of the areas ecology, to Dinesh Khanna’s obsession with vibrant colour and how those colours manifest in the faiths and lives of everyday people. M.K. Iqbal is making an intimate study of Tiru’s small Muslim population, while Leo James runs a parallel body of work lovingly portraying the even smaller population of Christians. R. R. Srinivasan is creating an intense “Archeological Mapping of Tiruvannamalai”. Srinivasan’s ambitious approach includes not only photographs, but detailed references to historical texts and written descriptions that read like an archeologist’s probing analysis of each and every image.
Anup Mathew Thomas gives a sense of non-commitment as he does not intent to divulge the personal narratives of these nurses. This series, in a sense stands opposite to what Parthiv Shah had done in his path breaking project titled ‘Figures, Facts, Feelings: Direct Diasporic Dialogue’ (2000). In this project, Parthiv had approached around thirty four Indian people who had settled in the UK for more than three decades. He asked them twenty questions pertaining to their lives. The answers were juxtaposed with the images of these people taken by Parthiv in the locations that they liked most in their habitats.
That said it should be acknowledged that the art projected in the biennials is informed by a particular historical rupture with the art of modernity which, in spite of its radical breaks, “manifests the hegemony of a geopolitical region and thus establishes political boundaries in culture as well. Global art, by contrast negates, ignores and destabilizes boundaries drawn by the state …” (Vogel, ibid) There is in principle a focus on the local life, history and culture, going by the paradigm of the local/global, which is expressed through on-site works that are commissioned around themes bearing on those aspects. However, the question remains as to how far these visiting artists can either identify the broad themes or understand the intrinsic ebb and flow of the life-world of the host country/society.