“I follow my feeling” An Interview with Fausto Giaccone

Italian photographer Fausto Giaccone’s works from his beautiful photo book ‘Macondo’ is the centre point of the Sensorium art festival being held at Sunapranta Goa Centre for Arts from December 6. In his book, Fausto has magically revealed Gabriel García Márquez’ literary world by way of photographs I had interviewed him for Navhind Times.

On his photographic process for Macondo
Fausto used a Rollie, a ‘Twin Lens Reflex’ analogue camera for this project. Wrierc Chiaramonte in his essay ‘Memory of Macondo’ writes about Fausto shooting while holding the camera close to his heart.

“It is a very nice interpenetration by Giovanni; however, it is a metaphor.  I started photography in the 60s and at that time the camera was Nikon F.  All my life I have used Nikon, a 35mm camera. The choice of Rollei for Macondo happened because I was trying to find a new photographic language – not that of a photojournalist, because all my life I have been a photo journalist.

“Photojournalists used 35mm cameras and I thought of trying to find a different approach, a different distance. I didn’t want to carry heavy cameras and lenses either. Rollei was perfect in all aspects. I was not interested in wide angles or tele photo lenses.

“Also, when I read ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ the first time I was very young. I remember that I could not place the story in a real world.  I was in South America and at that time had not been out of Europe. I was not able to put it in context.

“At the end of my work I realised that the choice of Rolleiflex and what came out of it probably was appropriate. Because the language I used was not really the language of today; it is not really very contemporary. It had the likeness of historical and classical photography. I am not a very organised photographer, I follow my feeling”, says Fausto

 On following his feeling
“I don’t know if it will work for everyone, but for me, I need to feel first. It is a kind of instinct. I feel when things are all right for me. Then I understand better what is happening around me. Sometimes I change; I adjust my way of working. But feeling is most important. I had worked in Colombia many times, always on precise assignments.  But, for Macondo I wanted to be totally free.

“It was not an assignment, it was just a desire. After almost forty years of work I wanted to do something more important than my professional work; something that spoke about me. Though the work was inspired by Gabo’s writing, this was kind of an outer portrait of mine, which perhaps all personal works of photographers are.

I read his auto biography and biography by Gerard Martin. In the beginning I started to capture the places that reminded me of the ‘100 Years of Solitude’. As I went on everything I saw reminded me of ‘100 years…’ and now all the pictures from the book remind me of the novel.

 On the experience of shooting ‘Macondo’
“The thing that was a big discovery was that everything that Gabo wrote came from a reality, and that it was not a fantasy or magical realism.   I understood it clearly when I went to Aracataca, the place where he was born. Gabo wrote: ‘At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.’

“I went looking for it and found that precise spot!  “There were many such instances. It was like discovering a key.”

His thoughts on photography today
“Yes, it has become much easier to take a single image today because of digital photography. The problem is not the shot, but the sequencing.  One must know how to sequence and tell a story, may it be for a book, catalogue or an exhibition. It is difficult, really difficult, to find the right way.”

 On his working style
I work slowly.  I build stories year after year. I have had just four books in forty years.  I like to build and rebuild things; it is important to me. I like to stay for long and find a personal vision. It is very important to find a personal vision. I become friends with the people I photograph, I keep in touch, and I photograph them over time. They become a symbol of the passage of time. For me the most important work is when life – my personal life – and photography fit together.  I like to work in places where it seems there is nothing to see. But I ask, dig deeper and see pictures where apparently there is nothing to be seen. The most difficult thing is to find things when there is nothing. Macondo is not only work; it is my life. Because it is a culture I like, I feel very close to.

Allure of film

Like all my peers, I started shooting on film. In mid 80s in India, B&W was much cheaper than colour and I could process it myself. It was easier to print than colour. Ilford FP-4 was widely available at Rs.20/- per roll if one bought a pack of 10s. Microdol-X was my preferred developer, diluted 1:3. So I shot a lot of B&W and later colour after turning a professional.

{However back then, in the 80s I didn’t ever think that there would be a day when one had to search for film in India, in the same way as I couldn’t imagine then that there would be a day when one can walk into a camera store and buy anything she wanted without paying customs of duty of 250%}

I have now begun to catalogue my work of three decades.  As I look back three decades and, the “Allure of Film’ pulled me in. The images shot on film, negatives especially look beautiful, poetic. There is an enveloping softness, something intangible in those images that tug your heart. Shooting with film teaches you the craft of photography, to visualize and patience.

The images recorded on the modern digital sensor are sharper than a Hattori Hanzo sword. However many of them seem to lack the craft that is required to make an image using film. The revival of film is already underway, with the success of Impossible Project and the efforts to revive other brands of film. Ferrania tried to raise USD250000.00 via their Kickstarter campaign and they already have USD281000.00 with eleven days to go!

The great photographer Eric Meola made a stunning image in Burma that changed his life. It was of a ceremony known as Shinbyu”–where young boys would become Buddh and would be initiated as novice monks.

In a recent Facebook post he said

“It would be several weeks before I saw the image because I was, of course, shooting film. But I realized at that moment that my life had changed and that I had been privileged to witness a precious few moments that also marked a passage in this young boy’s life. I remember opening the box, and spreading the slides onto the lightbox, and looking intensely through a loupe and seeing this image for the first time. That moment of recognition has changed. We glance at our camera’s LCD’s as we would an image on an iPhone–an image flashing a scene for a few seconds. The connection of a “latent” image hidden in the darkness of a film canister, is gone. That sense of something precious and unique is now consumed by the world’s production of imagery. Today, in the single minute it took to open the box of processed film and find this image, 210,000 images have been uploaded to Facebook. In the next 24 hours, another 302,000,000 images will make their way onto Facebook’s servers. Three hundred and two. Million images. In one day. But for that one moment as I looked through the loupe, I knew I had made an image that was important, and that had changed my career and my life, forever”

Copyright : Eric Meola

Copyright : Eric Meola

A winter morning in Laporiya, Rajasthan, 2004. Shot with Kodak colour negative film

A winter morning in Laporiya, Rajasthan, 2004. Shot with Kodak colour negative film

Delhi Photo Festival 2011

It was the first morning of Delhi Photo Festival 2011. I spotted Prashant Panjiar steaming in. I stopped and congratulated him. About a year ago, he had shared the plans for the festival over beer with Dinesh Khanna and Shyam Tekwani (Former India Today photographer who had done pioneering work in Srilanka). “Finally all set Prashant, congratulations” said I. “Set? Nothing is set..everything is falling apart” he huffed, puffed and sped away. I looked around, everything seemed allright to me. It was the first festival of such kind in India and Prashant had a reason to be harried. He didn’t have to worry, the next few days were intensely joyful for us. We saw lots of photographic work, listened many of them speak and exchanged thoughts. However the most cherished moments were sharing thoughts, ideas and our own vulnerabilities with peers over coffee, beer and dinner. This happens only during festivals when one is away from the day to day rigours and when serotonin flows!

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. 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 great work 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. Yet many young practitioners today are doing wonderful work in India but outlets to exhibit are few. Also the issue with photography is that it is not easily available for people at large to view, interpret and enjoy. It is 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. Photo festivals can step in to provide a platform. I hope Delhi Photo Festival and other festivals become conduits to take the power photography to people.

I witnessed the beginnings of the digital revolution in New York city in 1992, everyone in the industry spoke in hushed tones about and looked at it with great trepidation. Ever since then I have felt that we have been in the cusp of change. Today we have crossed the threshold but everyone talks about the demise of photography as we knew it. We talk about lack of budget but there is money. We need to find ne patrons, new avenues to raise money for projects, new ways to take our works to people. I am an eternal optimist – I believe that photography’s new golden age is about dawn. 

Re Imagining the People of India

We reached Sadar Bazar in Old Delhi by around 3 pm. My student-assistant Shivya and I took a cycle-rickshaw ride from Chandni Chowk. I called Prem Chand Sonar (a goldsmith) from the entrance of Galli Bharna. “Aap ki dukaan kahaan hai?” (Where is your shop?) I asked. A lady who picked up the call said, “Kalu Ram halwai ke samne hi hai.”  (Right in front of the shop of  Kalu Ram, the halwah maker) “Kalu Ram halwai kahan hai?” (Where is Kalu Ram?)  I asked again. “Arre…chaiwale ke paas main”, ( Right next to the tea stall) came the answer. It was mid-March and I was doing portraits Re-imaging The People of India (1850-2013), a photography exhibition, under the aegis of Neel Dongre Awards/Grants for Excellence in Photography by India Photo Archive Foundation.

A few minutes later, we were in Prem Chand’s shop. It was a village square in the heart of a megapolis. Even as a motley crowd started gathering, a ‘talkative man’ appeared. Clad in a suit jacket, he wanted me to have chai first before initiating my work. I told him I would shoot first and then drink chai. He would have none of it. He bombarded me with questions, asking about the details of my work —why, how, where and when. He was genuinely interested in knowing why I was there shooting pictures. He introduced me to his friends and even they enquired everything about the project. Itwas a truly beautiful village experience, I must say.

The People of India was an 8-volume publication compiled by John Forbes Watson and John William Kaye between 1868 and 1875. Originally conceived by Lord and Lady Canning, it was an early experiment with photography as a documentary medium. The original prints were made using a process called Albumen printing and the good news is that they are still around, very well preserved. The original People of India project was very significant as it was the first photography project combining street and studio.

India Photo Archive Foundation, set up by photographer and photo historian Aditya Arya, asked four photographers, Dileep Prakash, Dinesh Khanna, Sandeep Biswas and yours truly to revisit People of India in modern context. The geographical area was confined to the National Capital Region. We had the freedom to interpret the subject in our own way. I spent five days in New Delhi photographing 10 people. My thought was just to observe and photograph without making a comment. I love doing portraits; it’s like conversing with the subject‘s soul. It was a wonderful project to do some slow photography and formal environmental portraiture.

My first assignment was Shadipur Depot in East Dehi. I went to photograph Sangita, a peformer. Her manager, Prakash Bhatt aka Lakshman master, a performer himself, met us at the metro station and took us to his house. From Rajasthan, they lived in a slum. We had to walk on open sewer that served as a path to reach his house. I learnt that he and his troupe had performed at various festivals of India in Washington DC, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, etc. The living conditions were really bad. After the shoot, I wondered how could we collectively allow our fellow citizens and that too someone who had represented India internationally to live in such miserable conditions.

Dinesh Khanna had a different outlook. “I have had rather confusing thoughts about the caste system. The fact that it defines people as per their professions and vocations seems fine, but that these became shackles, which didn’t just imprison people but also caused social discrimination, is abhorrent. Caste should not dictate a person’s destiny and I wanted to make portraits of my subjects that showed them as individuals, recorded their professions and, most importantly, gave them respect and dignity,” he said. Dileep Prakash used an old wooden field camera, B&W sheet film and slow shutter speed to give an aesthetic treatment similar to the 19th century photographers. “Transposing them from their own reality would be to give them a forced identity. For me, they are not characters or models or ‘types’ – they are people who have their own identity. Their castes are not relevant to me,” said Dileep Prakash. Sandeep Biswas photographed with a small element of humour thrown in. He feels that the project gave him a new dimension towards his work.

The exhibition opened on Wednesday at the India International Centre in New Delhi. It will run till April 26 and showcase the rare Albumen prints of the pictures from the 1850s with the contemporary work. Curator Aditya Arya says the project was inspired by his passion for studying and collecting the images from the early years of photography, especially in the context of Indian subcontinent. It was a deeply fulfilling project for me, where I just observed and made the pictures.

First Published in Bangalore Mirror on 18th April, 2013

Archival picture of street performers

Archival picture of street performers

Sangita, a performer in Lakshman Master’s troupe, photographed at his house in Shadipur Depot

Sangita, a performer in Lakshman Master’s troupe, photographed at his house in Shadipur Depot

The exhibition at India International Centre, New Delhi

The exhibition at India International Centre, New Delhi

The exhibition at India International Centre, New Delhi

The exhibition at India International Centre, New Delhi

The exhibition at India International Centre, New Delhi

The exhibition at India International Centre, New Delhi

Musings

I) It was a surreal evening, many years ago. Patrick Wilson and I were sitting in my car waiting for the sheets of rain to subside, somewhere in Cooke town, Bangalore. Few meters from the road was the house of Mr.Tom D’Aiguar, an elderly gentleman who Patrick insisted that I meet. He was an amateur portrait photographer who practiced his craft in the 40s as an amateur.

If I remember right, he was a tall man very genial.  He used to The portraits of his friends and relatives he showed me that evening were outstanding. Mr.  D’Aiguar  practiced portrait photography in the 40s and due to WW II, everything was in short supply. He used headlights of motor vehicles to light his subjects and had to make do with whatever was available in terms of film, paper and chemicals.  I did not see him again.  His pictures were fabulous, lighting style was that of George Hurrel, the master glamour photographer of Hollywood of those times. Recently when I was working on my recent book on Bangalore, I asked Patrick about D’Aiguar and he told me that the gentleman had passed on and that no one knew the whereabouts of his negatives or prints.

The photographers of the 40s-50s were master craftsmen. One look at their negatives tells us how deeply were they engaged with their craft. Over time I have come across many a film stills shot in India in the 40s and 50s. All in B&W, all superbly crafted images. The prints of those times, still haven’t yellowed or degenerated in spite of being stored improperly. Photographers of those times lay a great emphasis on their craft. As I interact with a lot of students of photography, I see this aspect missing now.

II) In mid 90s, I came across some stunning B&W street photographs at a printing press. Later I came to know that they were part of a project called Picture Mumbai and photographed by (then) children . Sometime in 1996 the Getty Conservation Institute commissioned a project in which nine young people of Mumbai were given point and shoot cameras, B&W film, and were asked to shoot landmarks of their city as perceived by them. Under the guidance of photographer David Desouza, they photographed Mumbai over three months, on weekends. The pictures emerged were truly extraordinary. Haunting. And daunting. Daunting because it caused quite a few of our generation to reexamine our perspectives, and our commitment. So strong was its quality.  Well know advertising photographer Ashok Salian had commented “When I saw the pictures I thought they were shot by some renowned photojournalists. Their work is better than whatever I have done. It’s a great achievement, fabulous concept, brilliant and wonderful. Not many (adult) photographers could do better. Their work has great depth”. An exhibition was put up and a book produced.

III) A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a photography seminar at the end of the day’s session, totally by chance. The last presentation of the day was going on. The photographer defined success. “What is success?” he asked. “Decent number of assignments that pay, few interviews in the media and invitations to events such as this” he explained. Simple! For a long time I have been thinking about the definition of success, more so for a photographer.  Does it solely depend on the money you make or is it the impact your work or is it a combination of both? I think we must deeply introspect the meaning of success and develop our own definitions rather than going with the flow rather mindlessly.

First Published in Bangalore Mirror on 5th April, 2013