Right now, even simply existing –
just writing, just working, just thinking, just dreaming, just being – is an act to fight to breathe freely.
While outside – that fight is a reality embodied by the bodies of breaths our country loses in a battle we are not equipped for. So, those of us inside, we
Try to find a way through the impossible over-pouring of catastrophe,
Try to find obscure shells of memories of the past/passed ‘normal’ we floated through before.
Vinita Barretto, is one such creative, whose images have a cinematic crisp and concise framing that makes them so timeless. They seem suspended and frozen yet pulsating and tangible.Working with a medium that also inherently plays with time and its temporality – Vinita in what way has your relationship with time – its passing and its stillness – founded your dialogue with photography specifically?
Since the time I started to make photographs, it’s always been about the family, where I live and the space around me. More than anything, just trying to understand the basics of life, to take every day as it comes.
Even today, everything around me often becomes so heavy, and it becomes tougher to adapt to these changes we are faced with.
I think living each moment with even an ounce of appreciation and trying to improve my moments through this medium, helps me stay grounded and sane. Through the years of anxiousness and emotional turmoil, this form of image-making has been of enormous help to me- to articulate and comprehend what I often can’t fit in words. For example, when I photograph my family, I feel closer to them. In a lot of my images there are pets involved as well and there is also a lot of streaming light I play with. All of that compensates for the polarity and friction at home, the peace I seek out in the negative spaces and with time. So photography and how I play with it has helped me improve my mental state and balance as a person – take every challenge bit by bit.
Mithila, similarly, in your capturing of life, you create this framed space for the poetic existence of the smallest of things – from a stray flower petal to even a bowl with chopsticks sitting in its belly.When you capture yourself – what frame of perspective drives that narrative and how do you read this image holding your body within it?
I often dislike going back to the images and revisiting them. Especially when they’re populated with my own body. But, when I do go back, I often resonate with the same image in different ways at different points of time.
For example, if I capture an image at a time when I am feeling a growing conflict within me, looking back – I can pin that feeling and use that photograph as a way of expressing myself without a verbal dialogue. So, with work that I revisit, I see myself feeling differently within and with what is around me and I can find myself resonating with it in varied ways and perspectives. It wasn’t intentional at first, but I started to realise that I journal my day to day life with more images and less words. Like Vinita said, it has also become an outlet in the recent years. For me, this tryst with photography started at a time when I wasn’t at a good place, so it became a language of expression, understanding, forgetting what is around me but, also holding onto the precious moments for myself.
Slowly, I started seeing the small happenings of our bodies – like crying, which some see as a weakness, clenching your fingers, getting goosebumps – all of that, as acts of resistance, rather than a flaw.
With that frame, I started capturing my body, the bodies around me- like even that of my mum. And how I look at these images afterwards has changed – from viewing them as vulnerable and afraid to seeing the resilience and strength within them.
That brings us to Divya Cowasji’s often peopled images.
Within them- there is this palpable play with presence and absence – and not just of bodies and materials. Looking back, what are the present or lost moments, people or experiences that have helped you find your own language?
I’ve grown up in a really small town, in an ancestral home which is now almost 200 years old and has played a major role in my life and work. In a way, I’ve grown up amongst the dead. Bedrooms in the house are still referred to by the names of their original inhabitants.
In my narratives, there is a big emphasis on oral history, stories about the family charted through these images. I can still dig around and find buried treasures like my great-grandmother’s diary at the back of a drawer no one knew was there! And ever since I was a child, all of this was my play – all these lived artefacts were my tools to imagine, fantasize and dream in these ways. So, learning different histories in school, being so close to these felt histories in person, I grew up loving a lot of ruin and finding the beauty in it.
Even though he might not have an artistic bone in his body, my grandfather is and has been an inspiration to me and deeply influenced the way I see the world.
He introduced me to these stories and lives – to the beauty in the colour of each flower petal and the wing of each butterfly and to really just revel in being alive, while not letting go of where you come from.
An experience that had a profound impact on me was when this beautiful old red-brick bakery next door to us, where I spent countless moments of my life playing, was razed to the ground one fine day. Living in a cantonment town, taken over by the army – a lot of things I thought were beautiful and signifiers of what my town meant to me simply ceased to exist. So, there has been this paranoia since way before I became a photographer, that somehow documenting would help me save or capture what might not exist tomorrow. And I believe it has translated in all the work I do and create.
With a medley of relationships and exposures, the delicacy of lived stories is so alive in the passing moments of Riti Sengupta’s images too. Riti, how has it been to visually think, capture, create and imagine through a time of social isolation and quarantine?
I have been finding it difficult to make work in the pandemic and often struggle with the need to be “productive”. In the initial days of the pandemic, I was living in Pune alone. During this time I did make attempts to make work, to photograph spaces and myself – but it was always a struggle because I felt like I had become desensitised towards the visuals inside the house. I wasn’t seeing anything else. In order to let that feeling pass I tried to engage with photography in ways other than image-making. I started doing things which I hadn’t done in a while, like writing. It was also during this period of isolation that I began to communicate with other photographers and the collective gradually came into being.
The pandemic has made me miss people a lot. I like being around people. Much of my work is also about people. At one point I had felt particularly drawn towards the idea of being a conflict photographer. When I started making work about Gorkhaland, the Gorkhaland Movement was going on and there was a lot of unrest. The first set of images were direct images of people protesting and public buildings set on fire. When I looked at my own images later, they somehow did not feel like me. I also realised that one can capture conflict in many different ways, without it being a direct imagery of violence. Conflict is always nuanced. My work started to become more about my relationships with the people I met and the places I visited.
Since then I haven’t been able to travel much. After 6 years of studying and working outside Kolkata I came back home to live with my parents earlier this year. After coming back I started to look at the dynamics of my family in varying ways. I have started to question many things which I believed to be true for very long. I am in the process of understanding my mother’s life and everything she has been through. The burden carried down over generations. Maybe later, I hope I find a way to visually translate that.
Zahra in your images, as with your writing, there is a plethora of sharp and sensitive dichotomies. The images write novels with their stark compositions, but also drown in obscure silences with what is left unsaid or unheard. How does your writing mingle with/ change/ intervene with your process of capturing these images?
When I’m working with both – I’m not consciously doing it at all. In that moment, I question what I’m tapping into –
Do I want to take a photograph or
to satisfy the urge of spilling my words over onto the page?
It’s very subconscious- whenever I write something and then go to my photo gallery to visually find an image for the piece – there is always a photograph that will match it. Often, I already have those images before writing about them and my words find a way to correspond with that afterwards. I find it harder to look at my images and then write something about them. It’s always the other way around that works for me. I think this excerpt by Rebecca Norris Webb really sums up my relationship with writing and photography, she writes:
“Originally a poet, I found, my writing deserted me after college. Looking back, I think the kind of poetry I was writing then didn’t contain enough of the wider world nor my curiosity about it. My response to writer’s block was to buy a small camera and travel for a year hoping my photographs would spark my poetry when I returned. Instead, I fell in love with photography. I realised the eye focusing on the images in my poetry, was the same eye looking through the lens. I think Wright Morris, the Nebraska writer and photographer, said it best –
‘I don’t give up the camera eye when I write, merely the camera’.”
Adira Thekkuveettil’s buoyant photographs have a distinct affiliation with her personal ties to a place and time. They are anchored within these backdrops of a belonging – often of – a home. To you, how has living in the places you have and growing with/in them, helped locate your image making?
I didn’t realise I had these recurring symbolisms until I had three/four bodies of images that kept going back to the same places and questions. The problem is, which I think comes from the ‘design’ education I’ve had,I sometimes find it difficult to let an idea breathe without trying to solve it or sort it out. And that’s impossible to do with art – to easily solve or to give answers to the problems. What is possible with art is to layer these questions, and make a rich and complex, but meaningful space to think through questions.
My parents are from two different parts of India and growing up, it was always intriguing to keep shifting between the two. There were always these inquiries on belonging along with the flavours of different languages and different foods.
So, when I began thinking through images, not having grown up in a singular way, I wanted to situate myself in one location(of my own making), and figure that out. So, place – both Kerala and Bengal- is very important to my practice.
I start from family- since it is a place for me with the most amount of access and a way of questioning and digging deeper in a way that I may not be able to do with strangers. So, through that specific lens, I try to house a larger question. For example, in my works about Kolkata – there are two parts – one centered around my family and one on the city. So, starting from this very human place, it drives forward to ideas of land and systems of these cities and the generations of families negotiating in and around them.
Place, people, movement, migration – I keep coming back to them all.
Kirthana’s photograph works have these recurring motifs of spatial and intergalactic visuals floating within them. The map of each image is quite often peppered with lunar and solar themes and depictions. Kirthana you even have a page – @mojoandmoonbeams – as your ode to the moon. Tell us what makes you gravitate towards this orbiting enigma and has it been your muse through these often-grim pandemic nights?
It’s not just the moon – the sky, the sea. I’m drawn to vastness so it’s natural that these elements that exist within these spaces find their way into my images. I think all the fantasy fiction I read while growing up never quite left me and still influences the way I think. In the beginning of the first lockdown, I was making pictures at home and I decided to make an edit for a festival submission – I didn’t realise till then how much time I was spending staring at the sky. That happens sometimes – that I make pictures over but notice patterns later and become aware of the things that are drawing my attention.
@mojoandmoonbeams is something my sister and I started together from our shared love for the moon. We started with a moon phase calendar for the year but, we’re working on some ideas that capture the magic of the night.
Even within the body of photographs by Menty Jamir, there is a visceral choreography with light and identities. How has the lens of the camera helped you perceive what and who is seen, accepted and palatable Menty? And how has that influenced your view of yourself?
I honestly don’t know how to answer this complex yet simple question, because I come from a very small place that most people don’t even know exist. So when I started making photographs, I experienced life in its myriad emotions, transforming my own outlandish comprehension of me! Battling these differences is what makes me tick, to silently go about demystifying who I am and that is how my photographs lean on me, to reclaim who I am.
I don’t believe the medium can accept or deny someone or choose who can be seen or not. Within my photographs I look for an escape, a freedom. This light-headed-ness nudges me to capture what is around me and beyond me. I feel my images are being channeled through me yet there is always this need to undo, redo – to start all over. My constant state of mind is to run away or hide – hibernate for as long as I want to. But then I find these moments of courage to pour it all out – to translate all that consuming emotion within the work.
Pavithra, your photographs are populated with so much life and vibrancy and infused with such a beautiful intimacy. What draws you to these fixtures of hands around you and how do you navigate that personal and public space for the artwork to breathe in?
Growing up I was this kid who kept herself occupied by drawing/ scribbling/ cutting/ sticking. I also use a lot of gestures and facial expressions while talking. To me the hands are like beautiful extensions that reveal so much about people, even before one can interact. One can learn more about a person’s interest or disinterest about something, their nature, where they belong and what they hold close to them. Gestures can tell things one can’t actually spell out.
I also feel that a lot of labour gets done through our hands and is more often than not ignored. Endless hours that my grandma and mom spend cutting, cleaning and doing chores, are usually ignored because it is an everyday thing. Even showing affection is labour. So when I make photographs of hands, it is a way for me to pause and acknowledge that effort, to register that moment of labour that goes unnoticed otherwise.
I am not very sure if the dichotomy of personal and public exists or if I am trying to fit the images into either of these. Since this is my Instagram feed that we’re talking about – I see it as a journal of photos. Initially, I wasn’t very comfortable, since my intention wasn’t to give out the feeling of ‘cuteness’. Lately, I have become more accepting of the fact that despite all the generational gaps and our differences, people around me are very important to me and so are the images I make of them. These images are in a sense personal to me but also to everyone who has also experienced similar moments in their lives.
I believe each of these dynamic individuals, all multifaceted and deeply sensitive to the storms in and around them, coming together, are going to leave the face of Indian photography creatively charged and renewed. It’s time and it’s 8:30.