Ritesh Uttamchandani on why the photography community needs festivals.
Am going to begin with a confession, which will hopefully filter out some readers. And it’s good in a way, not everything the Internet turns out deserves a read.
I have never been to the Delhi Photo Festival.
Ever. Maybe this year I might, time and our HR head willing.
Technically, my experience of a large gathering of photographers at a festival is limited to one and a half. One being, GoaPhoto, where Lola (Padgaonkar) and Ishan (Tankha) were kind enough to allow me to ramble about that sinful thing we call cellphone images. It’s also where Richard Kalvar mistook me for the technician responsible for messing up and then rectifying his slideshow.
The half being the sum of two quarters: 1. Goa International Photo Festival – I went there on a rainy Sunday, the ONE school was shut, so I jumped over the wall and saw the exhibits, a bit fuzzy for they were draped in plastic sheets and 2. One session on self publishing and books which was part of Focus Photography Festival in Bombay earlier this year.
I belong to and take great pride in what is probably the largest community of photographers who make a direct living out of pressing buttons, as a wise client once termed my profession – “Bas button hi dabana hai na bhai!” We are the often smelly, foul mouthed, fast paced, loud, greedy bunch of people in a newsroom and the technical term is “news photographers”. Our job demands hair loss and backaches so we surrender both body parts willingly. Our job demands political awareness and a nose to the grindstone and sometimes a magic hand of direction to stage photographs too. Come on, we all know the best of us do it!!
Our job also demands that we be aware of the kind of photography that goes around. Newer ways of approaching stories, making portraits, toning images with Lightroom – most times just an overdrive on black and white settings followed by the vignette tool. Selling YOURSELF, plucking out three wine glasses at openings – one for yourself, one refill and one for an imaginary friend are all skills that most of us could do with!
But we choose to stay away. Our self imposed artistic licenses and the idea of good vs bad photography that has been passed on from fossilised peers keeps most of us away from it. It’s become a sad “us vs them” scene.
At the risk of getting isolated severely for this, am going to go ahead and make a few observations, which are actually reasons why my fraternity needs to come out and attend festivals, however good or bad they are.
- The language of photography, still remains English, and a lot of us are ill equipped on that front. Nothing is more ironic than the fact that this text is also in English. The effort to uplift oneself has to be both ways. The onus of learning the language is on the photographer, and there is really no barrier to the age to learn. Since festivals are open to public, it would also be wise to have a detailed caption or artist’s statements in Hindi and a third language local to the region.
- We tend to look down upon work that is personal, ie, about one’s family etc – Not that much abused version of “Personal Body of Work”, where just about any visual blur makes it to the edit. The reasons given are quite valid – If you can’t make intimate photos of your family, well, you have failed as a human! But, let me quote from experience. Every time I used to visit my dad, I would make pictures of him, and he hated being photographed, so I swapped the SLR for a phone. And I made lots of grainy low quality images of him without him noticing but am sure he did. I also made photos of the things that were still around, inside what used to be my childhood home. I am never going to show those images to anyone, but midway through these flirtations, it was my exposure to Sanjeev Saith’s series and later Zishaan’s that validated the exercise. All of photography, after all is a flexing of the muscle of memory. Had I not seen Saith’s pictures, not at the festival, but in a magazine, I may have never had the desire to continue using the camera as a therapeutic device. It helped me observe better and in turn I managed to infuse the learnings into the work I do for the publication I represent.
- There are lots of people in our fraternity that are sitting on piles of great images, tucked away in hard drives and sleeves of poorly stored negatives. And their presumably indecisive mind is what keeps them from bringing those all together in a decisive book, or a show. I remember attending a poorly attended talk about photo book making at Muse Gallery, and all I could think of was how many books the many members of my fraternity could churn out. Books that chronicle the post Independence, post liberalisation history of this giant nation. Books that bring out the best and worst and subtlest of things that go into the making of daily life in India.
- Most of all, I realized that a photo festival is the beginning of a conversation, with oneself. It’s alright to dislike the works on display, it’s alright to hate the schmoozing and the sucking up. There’s really no need to take it upon oneself to call out a scam, all these evils and “charming” characters exist in every profession worldwide. It’s one thing to indulge in name calling, something am guilty of in the past, it’s another to use that disappointing experience as a bouncing board and creating something that is out of one’s comfort zone and repertoire. Hating something, is also a starting point – of wanting to do something new, of looking at things in a new light, contrary to the popular. After all, photojournalists are known for breaking rules. If you tell us we can’t, we will ensure we do!
- Although the Internet is a fine resource, but nothing beats the experience of getting exposed to different formats and techniques in person. It’s so liberating to see printed works of a select bunch of photographers across the world and of our own country and how they approach the mundane, the similar and often extra ordinary situations with the same tools that are at our disposal too.
- And lastly, it’s most endearing to see and interact with women photographers. I feel our profession has turned into a rancid sausage fest. Very few women stick around in a newspaper’s photo department, and those who do, my apologies, are expected and eventually end up shooting like men only. For the profession to move forward, we have to have a slightly more balanced gender ratio.
If I were king, I’d ensure that every newspaper and magazine send across their photo editor accompanied by a junior photographer and make them both type out a listicle when they return.
Ritesh Uttamchandani is a photographer, who works for OPEN magazine. He pretends to listen to Jazz, but cares only for the classics, Pink Floyd, Doors, Kishore Kumar etc. He mans the Instagram-based story telling feed called “Katha Collective”. Write to him at email@example.com. Photocredit (author pix): Vipurva Parikh
This edition of the Delhi Photo Festival opens on October 30 at the IGNCA, Delhi.