That lasting evidence

“We are the most important generation in the history,” declared photographer, photo historian and archivist Aditya Arya over dinner at his residence in Gurgaon. I agreed instantly. The same thought had been in my mind for a while. The ‘we’ he referred to included photographers who started out in the 70s and 80s and who are continuing to shoot even now. (Very few who started earlier are active today). We have worked our way through paradigm shifts in photography — from manual focus to auto focus and film to digital. Living through this ‘shift’ has really been a significant influence in our lives – a clear understanding of the past and strong technical foundation helps. We have adapted as the changes happened.

Aditya in fact proudly inherited his uncle Kulwant Roy’s negatives. Roy was one of India’s most important photojournalists. He chronicled our country’s pre-and post-independence times. Aditya set up India Photo Archive Foundation and scanned and restored and archived Mr Roy’s images. A book (History in the Making, the Visual Archives of Kulwant Roy) was published and a major exhibition opened in New Delhi’s National Gallery on November 14.

The 80s were interesting times. We photographed India’s growth or the so called ‘development’. Though we did not shoot as prolifically as we do now, the photographs from those times become the visual document of the modern history of the country; visual evidence if you will. Photographers are visual historians. There is a pressing need for all of us to begin to archive and catalogue our images.

Perhaps it is time to set up a museum of photography where all the images can be archived and be available for public viewing. Says Aditya Arya, “In an age when digital information is all around, it’s easy to forget that great volumes of historical images of India—journalistic, political, personal, developmental and social—languish in neglect in institutions and homes. Images of the Indian struggle for independence. The early years as a free nation. The dawn of industrial India. Personal collections of royalty and the Raj. Pictures of the common people, of travel and leisure, events and festivities. Scintillating moments in sports.”

A rather amusing sidelight of the 80s was the fact that owning more than one camera without paying the exorbitant (250%) customs duty was illegal. The only way to buy cameras, lenses and accessories was from the friendly neighbourhood gray market maven aka smuggled goods vendor. Most of us owned cameras without any papers. In fact, in 1992 a policeman offered to buy one of my cameras that was not entered on my passport at the Mumbai international airport.

As I look at my own archives, I realise that many images are now gaining importance from a historical perspective. Ramakrishna Hegde and VP Singh sharing a stage during an election campaign at a small town, funeral of the victims of the airbus crash in Bangalore in 1990, images of daily life in various parts of India, New York of 1992..and more are important visual documents.

The great renaissance man, Shivarama Karanth had published a picture book in 1934 called ‘Chitramaya Dakshina Kannada’ (Pictorial South Kanara – Dakshina Kannada or South Canara was the coastal district of Karnataka which now is divided into Mangalore and Udupi districts). There may be a handful of copies around now and the images from that book may be the only visual documents of life in the 30s of the area.

Another experience that I would like to share is meeting a photographer from the 40s, called Daguerre. An Anglo-Indian man, who lived alone somewhere in Frazer Town. On a rainy evening, my friend Patrick Wilson and I drove down to his house. It was pouring . We sat in my car waiting for the rain to subside. It was surreal, with sheets of water pounding on the windshield, reflecting and refracting through the streetlights. Daguerre showed us portraits from the 40s that he made using automobile headlamps as lights. Availability of everything was scarce during
those times because of the war and he had to improvise. They were truly awesome, very George Hurrel style. I didn’t do his portrait, I wish I did. I met him only once and the memory is like a dream. However, after Daguerre’s demise, all images apparently are lost. The loss actually is ours.

Because of the advent of digital technology, this is the most photographed decade in our history thus far. “The swift pace at which we create images is only matched by the pace at which we discard them and yet, paradoxically, we’ve never been more engaged with images. Photography is less about document or evidence and more about community and experience… and that’s not a bad thing.” says Stephen Mays, Director, VII photo agency. I don’t entirely agree with Mays, I do believe that a photograph continues to be a document and evidence of the condition of life itself and they must be preserved.

First Published in Bangalore Mirror on 23 November, 2012

A portrait of life gone by from the 90s. Barbara and Lt Col Thomas, in their lovely home on Convent Road, 1993. The property was exactly an acre, is now completely built up

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Amit Mehra’s KASHMIR

A reference to Kashmir evokes two kinds of imagery in our minds – guns, barricades, wailing women, trauma etc — in general, it’s all about unrest and chaos. The other, of course, comes from Hindi films of the 70s – post-card pretty landscapes. In the last few years as it simmered and tried to give peace a chance, there were few commentaries that gave us – the outsiders – a real glimpse of the land and the life. One was Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Nights and now a new body of work titled Kashmir by photographer Amit Mehra. An exhibition was opened recently in New Delhi’s Photoink gallery and a book will be released soon.

It is difficult to work in a conflict zone; it is even more difficult to find a narrative which is not about the conflict, but about the people who live there. Conflict zones tend to get very dark and layered and it’s next to impossible to find an anchor, let alone the serenity of life there. Working in Kashmir poses another problem – the inherent beauty of the land. It’s easy to succumb to the temptation of making it picture post-card pretty. Amit has traversed this photographically- treacherous zone well and come up with a poignant visual commentary.

This project took him 25 visits over a period of five-and-a-half years. Talking about the work, senior photographer Dinesh Khanna said “This is what a photography exhibition ought to be, years of concerted engagement with a subject, place and its people.”

Amit’s images reminded me of the great photographer André Kertész’s work. Many of them are quiet, snowscapes are stark. Some photographs show a hint of hope for peace though an underlying tension is palpable. The portraits of people such as aspiring footballers, business people in their homes etc are wonderful not only because of their photographic quality but also because they show a side of Kashmir that one has rarely seen. However, I felt that the exhibition could have done with a tighter edit. Amit’s work is a must-see for everyone. For people interested in Kashmir, it is a refreshingly new point of view. For the connoisseurs of photography, it’s a visual treat. Young photographers and students will get a peek into what goes into making a long term-photo project. It’s a great starting point for emerging photographers to understand the process of finding one’s voice. I hope that soon this body of work becomes available for a larger audience through his website or even a dedicated website for the project.

Talking about his work, Amit says that it was hard to ignore the complex political narratives of the separatist movement and the insurgency that followed. This was both a dilemma and a trap, he adds. Was it possible to make a different kind of photograph, which was introspective and not illustrative? Could the anguish and pain of two decades, and perhaps more, be expressed without repeating what had been seen before? Was it possible to represent Kashmir without photographing the presence of the security forces and yet be able to suggest what it was like to live under constant surveillance? These were some of the questions which preoccupied Amit during his travels in Kashmir. I feel that he has been able to do all this in this body of work. Kashmir is one of the finest bodies of colour photography I have seen in the recent times. I eagerly await the arrival of the book.

Amit’s previous book India a Timeless Celebration is a lyrical commentary on faith. His next project is Sufis: Messengers of Peace. He has also done a wonderful photo-essay on Javed Ahmed Tak of Anantnag for the second volume of my UNSUNG project. Javed, who became a paraplegic after being hit by terrorists’ bullets, now teaches computer skills to children with special needs.

Note: Delhi-based Amit Mehra has been photographing for over 20 years. In addition to editorial and advertising work, he has specialised in architectural photography as well.

First published in Bangalore Mirror on Nov 8th, 2012

Jama Masjid, Srinagar, 2010. Copyright : Amit Mehra

It’s Not the PriceTag

On January 1st, 2005 I was in Hikkaduwa, Srilanka. Known for its surfing beaches and pearls, it lay battered  by the devastating Tsunami. I had spent the new Year’s eve chatting with Heiner Koch, an indologist at a guest house nearby. He was actually under water but survived. It felt like Titanic sinking he told me. As I walked the beach that morning a bearded man clad in shorts and T-shirt walked up and introduced himself as K S Linayege, owner of a beach side restaurant called Red Lobster.  He was upset that he was not in a position to offer me breakfast or even something to drink as his place  was destroyed by the waves. So he picked up a small piece of coral the waves had tossed up and asked me to take it back a souvenir. It is still at home with other interesting pieces of art at home.

There are several kinds of photographs. Some inform, some entertain, some bring forth nostalgia and some titillate. But some are really not of anything in particular. They just evoke an impression within the viewer.  They register only which is incidental and peripheral so to speak. A viewer might even dismiss them outright. However on deeper engagement, the images do speak to the viewer may be in more ways that the images of the obvious. This is not really a new style, many European, North American and some Japanese photographers have done a lot of such work since the beginning of 20th century! This new wave of contemporary art photography is now being shown in galleries, promoted by gallerists and sought by collectors. Several photo-books in this style are getting published. However a large portion of the photographic audience and photographers themselves do not understand this style.

In a recent talk in Bangalore, the great designer Kenya Hara of Japan, spoke about the concept of emptiness and saying very little in ones art and conveying more by letting the viewer infusing her own meanings and thoughts into the art. Photographer Uta Berth says that her pictures are a “sort of empty containers and viewers begin to project into the space” Photograph need not spell out everything.  They demand the viewers to relate deeply into the photographs than the just a look.

The stumbling blocks in the dissemination of contemporay-art photography are many. Great dance, music, theater, cinema, writing and other forms of visual arts are easier to access by all. People can enjoy and experience these art forms easily but great photography is not. It is impossible for a common person buy a photograph to hang on his wall and difficult to access the galleries that show contemporary photography. Photo books are expensive and that they are out of reach for many photographers and the lovers of this art form. There is an acute lack of  enlightened curators, gallerists and mentors. The writing on this style itself seems to be convoluted and  many a times incomprehensible. The benchmark of great art photography seems to be the price a photograph command in the art market. Hence there are very few truly informed audience. Due all this many a times a lot of very ordinary work gets celebrated as high art.

Having said  this, let me also say that quite a few photographers are doing very good work in this milieu. But for really good photographic art to emerge there is a need for an atmosphere where the artists can work without the market pressure. We need to create generous grants for truly deserving artists. We need to create many public spaces to exhibit photographs to reach out the society at large. I believe that the wealthy amongst us have a responsibility and obligation to support artists. They must put a part of their  wealth for the serious development of art. This is easier said than done. May be the responsibility of making this happen lies within some of us who have been doing photography for a long time? “How are we going to save ourselves from being brutalised by the same market that feeds us and makes us celebrities?” asked the great choreographer Chandralekha many years ago.
I think the question is relevant today as well.
First published in Bangalore Mirror on 26 Oct. 2012

Coral gifted by Tsunami and K S Linayage

Great photojournalism is a change agent

On a hot afternoon of March 2007, veteran conflict-area reporter Jan Goodwin and I were sitting in front of a very high ranking diplomat at the British High Comission in Colombo. We were to go to Vakarai on the eastern coast in Batticaloa district the next day with a senior intelligence officer, escorted by Special Task Force commandoes. “Its too dangerous, please don’t go” she said. When we didn’t relent. She offered to talk to LTTE through back channels and ask them not to target us. We politely refused her offer. During that time Srilanka was considered one of the most dangerous places in Asia and we were going to a hot battle zone. We were in Lanka to do profile of a female suicide bomber of LTTE for Marie Claire magazine. The assignment took 6 months to set up, 10 days in the field and 2 months to recover from. We had to face the incongruities of being in refugee swamped, land mine studded front lines and yet eat a five course meal with army officers to discussing assassinations and bombings over drinks and dinner in the fortified police guesthouses, to name a couple.

As a photojournalist/documentary photographer all assignments have been inspirational and unique. Instances such as being asked by Menake, the captured suicide bomber of LTTE to help her live, to doing the last formal portrait of the first lady of Indian cinema, Devika Rani and in the darkest recessed of Orissa, while visiting the house of Deepa Mondal who lived on an income of less than Rs.15/- per day, witnessing her genuinely getting troubled when she couldn’t even offer us hot water. All were humbling experiences. And as Raghu Rai says, photojournalism is seeking a darshan of life.

However we have been seeing a decline in the quality and the frequency of great assignments these days. As television and citizen reporting proliferated photojournalism is dead said many and so are those epic photo essays. Young photojournalists in the media today toil under insensitive editors shooting routine pictures of netas lighting yet another lamp or page 3 celebs. Yet, I strongly feel that photojournalism is as relevant as before . I turned to the great photojournalist Ron Haviv. In an interview he had said “In this new world,there is a need content, there is a need authorship, there is a need for integrity and there is a need photojournalists” I couldn’t agree more!

Great photojournalism is a change agent. Photographs stay in our mindscapes longer and go deeper into our sub conscious than the ephemeral and rather mindless footage we see on television. They create purposeful intentions. For this to happen photographers have to develop stronger voices, both visual and audible. The great photographer Sebastião Salgado says, “You must have a reason to be there. You must be convinced first to your self that the story must be shown, must become your place, your way of life. In this moment, there is no space for doubt, for you, for the person you are photographing.” We have to work smart and hard. And as funds for photo-projects are drying up, we have to go out and raise funds, seek and develop new mediums to reach out to viewers and readers. photography succeeds only when it reaches out to people at large.

As a photojournalist, I have photographed people and their lives across India and Srilanka. I have witnessed sufferings we cannot fathom without actually being there. And I have seen people rise above all that and believing in people and life. It has helped me to see the positive and not be cynical.

For the context of this essay, the words photojournalism and social documentary photography can be seen as synonyms. However, I am not including tangential and tactile social documentary photography bordering in the realms of art photography.
First published in Bangalore Mirror on 26 September 2012

Vakarai, Srilanka, 2007

Who Do You Love?

I went to Delhi in October 1986, to meet senior photojournalists, show my them my work and ask their opinion about becoming a professional. I was still in college. The train trudged down to Palghat from Mangalore, turned around at the Palghat gap and started went northwards. On the second evening it reached Nagpur. A woman boarded the reserved compartment with her baby. It was full and she just had a general ticket. People objected. She begged people let her in and that her father was very ill in Bhopal and she had to go take care of him. People took pity on her and let her in. She occupies the ticket collector’s seat. As the train moved on, I began munching on a packet of biscuits, her baby was hungry and looked at the biscuit packet greedily. I shared some of it with the child. The woman started talking to me. She said that she had lost her mother during the gas leak and though the father surived he was in bad health. She got a telegram that afternoon that he was seriously ill and she was rushing off it take care of him. I asked her if she got any compensation. She said that the government had sanctioned Rs.10000/- but the dispbursing officer had taken Rs.5000/- out of it. “Dus hazar tho mila, magar panch hazar woh log kha gayen” were her words. I was truly upset at this injustice and it left a deep mark in my conscious. In more ways than one this incident shaped the kind of work I have done as a photographe and the idea of doing the book UNSUNG, about people who have contributed to society against great personal odds was born then, in my unconscious mind.

Why do I photograph? Well, the words of the great photographer Gordon Parks have always been like a beacon for me. He said “Those people who want to use a camera should have something in mind, there’s something they want to show, something they want to say…” We photographers loose the path at various junctures in our career. Fog rolls in and the guiding star vanishes, the compass whizzes around as if stuck in a warped magnetic field. I have experienced this several times in the last 25 years. Thats when you ask the question “why do I shoot pictures”?

I asked the question to a couple of photographer friends. Sohrab Hura says for him the key of staying the course is to be aware of ones motives for doing photography or not having a motive at all. He says that he strives to be honest and be aware of how he projects himself through his photographs. Clare Arni says that becoming an artist-photographer has helped her to find her voice and to work without the restraints of the dictates of a client. Amit Mehra said that his quest to photograph is mainly to share his point of view about society, to reflect its true conditions with the world at large as there is a possibility of changing people’s point of view. He added that sometimes he does capture the sheer beauty of life for the pure joy as well. It is at that moment of releasing the shutter he said, he feels no contradictions in life with his thoughts, vision and actions perfectly aligned.

Photography is not about photography, its about story telling, provoking a thought, inducing a feeling. Not just in other photographers, curators, editors and organizers of festivals but amongst the hundreds of thousands of consumers of this art-craft. Sometimes it is just to satisfy oneself. While earning a living is important for professionals, it is even more important for photographers to address the question, why do we photograph and who do we do pictures for?

Who do you love is a song written by the great guitarist late Bo Didley. I think it is a question photographers ought to ask themselves as they think about their next picture, next project or a book. I shoot to tell stories and for all the people who like to see, read and listen to my stories. UNSUNG did just that. Brought out in collaboration with writer Anita Pratap, it went on to raise over Rs.85 lakhs to the causes of the heroes featured in the book.

First published in Bangalore Mirror on 5 Oct. 2012

Railroad worker, Udupi, Karnataka – 1995

Visual Literacy

About three years ago I asked a writer friend why photographers aren’t invited to literary festivals, while movie stars are..She replied that the two fields are seen as too far apart and told me that it’s assumed there isn’t much synergy.. she added. We are a word obsessed society. Our educational system emphasizes on left brain thinking and stifles creativity and imagination.

Photography today is largely seen as subservient to the written word. When used in the media to illustrate a story, captions are mostly descriptive, they explain the obvious. A picture of a man feeding pigeons seems incomplete without a caption saying “man feeds pigeons in Cubbon park”. When we read prose or poetry our minds construct our own personal worlds, but when we see a picture, we demand explanation of everything even the obvious.

Till about late 80s photojournalists did very well in India. Iconic images and great photo essays were made and published, though all the action was confined to New Delhi. As the digital revolution advanced the place photography had in the media went out of the window. Today newspapers and magazines employ so many more photographers than ever before but the quality of images don’t match up. As digital cameras became easily available focus shifted to incessant ‘clicking’. We have begun to see a flood of pretty pictures, photographed without much of thought. Photography can be used to tell stories and inform, to bring about a positive change by activism or invoke deeper feelings by visual haikus or even pieces of fiction. However today, there are very few quality photojournalists. There are just a handful of activist photographers, very few poet-photographers and almost none who shoot fiction.

However, a decent amount high quality work happens in India but those images are not easily available for people at large to view, interpret and enjoy They are confined to galleries or expensive photo books, which only enthusiasts and connoisseurs visit. Almost all other art forms are easier to access. We need many public venues for photographers to showcase their work easily. We need many more unbiased curators and photo-editors to guide the photographers as well. In this context I would like to mention the work of Blindboys (blindboys.org) who have been exhibiting very good photography on the streets and making it really accessible to everyone. They are trying to bring photographers and viewers together

But for photography to tunnel through and emerge as a truly meaningful form of art and communication photographers must learn to see beyond the obvious. We have to go beyond the world that we can experience through our senses or the conscious mind. Photographers have to understand their sub and unconscious minds create images of that realm. We need to go beyond taking pictures of people and objects to involve in self- reflection. We need to convey our thoughts and feelings and tell how we see the society and our times with our photographs. Photographs need not be literal. They do not have to be of that decisive moment nor do they have to say anything specific. Even from this nothingness substantial can emerge.

Back in the days of the film one needed considerable skills to shoot a picture of that technical quality. Post shooting processing the film had to be done very carefully and to get the colours right in the print you really needed to be a master printer. Now you can take a phone-camera, point and shoot, work on it for about 5 minutes in Lightroom and print. A flawless print emerges. So, whats so great in becoming a photographer and how can one do great photography? how can one differentiate oneself from the millions of others who will be carrying similar light capturing devices The differentiation is one’s way of seeing. Can you see differently? Can you see better? Can you weave a great narrative? – this will make you a better/great photographer as future scenarios unfold. So as you are all learning techniques, the most important thing is to develop your minds by observing, seeing, reading, listening and thinking.

First published in Bangalore Mirror on August 24, 2012