Between the pages

79 years ago, the renaissance man Kota Shivarama Karantha published one of the first photo books of this country. Titled Chitramaya Dakshina Kannada. The book about the undivided South Kanara district (In coastal Karnataka) of yesteryears gave the picture of the land and life of the district through the eyes of three children who go on a journey of discovery. The book featueres 96 black and white images reproduced exquisitely using photogravure technique in Germany. There are very few copies available today and the images are perhaps the only visual document of that era. The book was priced then at 75 paise only.

Not all photo books or photography-based books are coffee table books. Their purpose is not just to adorn one’s coffee table and to flip through or to use it as a conversation piece. Photo books are like time capsules, they have the ability to bring back to life those moments gone by or they are a compilation of deep personal thoughts of the artist. I sometimes feel that memories are the only reality in this completely ephemeral life and photo-books help the reader immerse in that reality.

Jaw dropping technologies of late 90s are not considered worth seeing now or in most cases cannot even be accessed on screen. I wonder if today’s technologies would suffer the same fate ten years from now. But photo books stand the test of time. A book produced eight decades ago can still be enjoyed, the photographs tell us so much more than words.

Prashant Panjiar, one of the senior most photographers of this country and co-founder of Nazar Foundation  says that it’s not just important but it is crucial that photographic bodies of personal, artistic, socially important issues and that of human condition get published and seen. While some photography-based books sell, hence get published but many others where the subject matter isn’t perceived as easily saleable, just don’t.

Photo books are expensive to produce hence are out of the reach for many book lovers. Prashant says that photo books need not be 11”X14”, they could be smaller in size and intimate. This will reduce production costs, subsequently cover price. If corporates are mandated by law to spend a part of their profits of CSR, why not publishers go of the beaten path and produce such photo books asks Prashant.

Editing, designing and printing a book is one issue, but reaching it to public is another herculean task, when you are not backed by a well-known publisher. Distributors do not touch independent publishers with a handful of titles. Just getting into an online store is not the solution, people should actually come to know your book exists and then loosen their purse strings and buy it.

I have independently published two books in the last six years, UNSUNG and Bengaluru/Bangalore – In First Person Singular. Both were made possible by no strings attached corporate support and pre-selling copies at special price. My third title, the second volume of UNSUNG will be out this year. It was made possible because of private grants by individual philanthropists and contribution of time and talent by several photographers and writers. I am now working hard at pre-selling a large number of copies to raise money to print. My publishing philosophy has always been to make the cover price as low as possible, so that it is affordable to many.

There are two other laudable efforts to make books available to those interested. Bangalore-based photographer Mahesh Shantaram and his wife, photo book designer Vidya Rao throw open their interesting and eclectic collection of photo books on weekends to those interested. In Delhi, young photographers Chandan Gomes and Vicky Roy run Open Library as part of their initiative Rang, which works towards creating an open and a democratic space for the study and practice of visual arts.

It’s important that all of us support photo book publishing and photographers by buying the books or pre-ordering whenever possible. And by supporting the efforts of organizations such as Nazar, people like Mahesh Shantaram, Vidya Rao, Chandan Gomes and Vicky Roy. These are significant efforts – for now and the future.

First Published in Bangalore Mirror on 15 Feb, 2013

Art is the answer

“How could you take pictures at a time like this?” screamed a young man at me. It was 1990 and I was photographing the cremation of the people who died in the Airbus crash in Bangalore. I stopped shooting. I still remember his face.

“I earn about Rs15 per day, my husband died in the super cyclone and I didn’t get any compensation, will your picture help me in
anyway?“asked Deepa Mondal, with great hope in a remote village in Orissa.

“For whom are you shooting these pictures for?“ asked a man whose shop was washed away by the tsunami waves in Galle, Sri Lanka and went on to ask if my images would bring in help from other countries.

Many years later in Colombo, Menake, a captured suicide bomber of LTTE, asked me if my pictures would help her escape the death penalty. “I don’t want to die, please help me,” said she, with tears rolling down.

For all these unrelated events and questions, I did not have an affirmative answer. All I could do was to mutter, “I don’t know.”

However, in these difficult situations, I have always told myself that I was there as a photo-journalist and I was only following my dharma to take photographs and then put it out to the world. I have refrained from getting involved in the situation and steadfastly remained an observer. Yet over all this time, I have wondered about the learnings from these experiences. I have asked these questions over and over to myself. At some point in time, I understood that they were asking me to turn the ‘lens’ inward and change the course of the journey into myself. I believe the experiences encountered over the last 25 years and the people I met have helped me in getting a better understanding of my life. However, I have not been able to adapt those learnings into my life, but I am aware of it and photography has played a big role in this process.

In the early stages of my career, I was influenced by literature and music. Now, it’s the human condition and the need to understand the human mind that drives me. Why do we do all that we do? Run after stories, awards, recognition? Many answers appear in the horizon and disappear. Sometimes, the answers stay with me for a while and go away.

Another question that has been bothering me for a while is understanding of success. When does an artist become successful? Is it when her photograph sells for a six-figure sum? Or when he wins a major award? Or when he makes enough to buy a fancy home? Or is it when our work really touches people’s heart? Or when it helps to build a kinder and gentler world? Shouldn’t our own pursuits become kind and gentle? Should we question the meaning of success or as philosopher Alain De Botton says, should the measure of success be that of our own?

I firmly believe that arts can help towards establishing a kinder and gentler world, which is needed more than ever before. But art and artists need support and patronage. I am the proponent of the thought that individuals of means must support artists financially. It is relatively easier to get someone to cut a check supporting a school in a village rather than supporting artists. Yes, it is so important to support education and healthcare, but it is equally important to support arts. Japanese designer Kenya Hara , talking about design, stressed on the quality of soil to be good for it to bear good fruits. This is the basic of agriculture but the truth holds good for all spheres of life. Our soil today is non-nourishing, we need to change that, make it fertile.

First Published in Bangalore Mirror on 31 Jan 2013

The tsunami waves shattered his life. Galle, Sri Lanka

The tsunami waves shattered his life. Galle, Sri Lanka

Deepa Mondal in Orissa

Deepa Mondal in Orissa