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Stirring hidden emotions with B&W photographs

Nirmala Govindarajan talks to photographer Santanu Chakraborty about his deliberative engagement with the form and context of his nature of documentation in this “click fix” photography era.

Nirmala Govindarajan  4th Apr 2015

Image from Santanu Chakraborty’s Death and Deliverance in Kolkata series.

Q. As your Death and Deliverance in Kolkata photography series readies for another solo show at NCPA-Piramal Gallery, Mumbai from 20-30 April, tell us about the novelties in the extension of this story.

A. Death and Deliverance in Kolkata was first shown at Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in Bangalore, and then at a solo show at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. Both times, I was surprised by the depth of reaction from a cross section of viewers, across the social spectrum. The work itself is deeply personal, dark and sometimes despondent, with only a few flirtations with hope. Beginning the work required that I delve into parts of me that are difficult to acknowledge even to my own self, let alone to others. So, the whole act of showing the work itself was surprisingly tough, something I was unsure about.

The connect that so many people expressed very strongly made extending the work slightly easier. In a personal work of this nature, even repeating your ideas is revealing. The extension of the story stays strongly with the personal, but moves away from the idea of a single visual style, genre or language to tell a story. Of course, I must also reveal more of myself in both the ideas I return to and the ones I did not have the courage to touch earlier. I have continued experimenting with unconventional methods of representation, where my thoughts map onto my images and the images in return map on to my thoughts.

Q. Why is analog your personal choice?

A. I have always felt that one must engage with all technologies, not just one technology. Film was the default when I began. It involved a lot of struggle and a recurring appreciation for the craft. Analog images have a unique feel, offering a chance to imprint the resultant photographs with one's own signature: something that stands out in this world of mass production. Interestingly, technical quality comes so easily in high-end digital that one is forced to think about visual languages. Moving repeatedly between the two media has been a force for growth.

Q. The result of your choice has renowned artists like Yusuf Arakkal applauding how you "search for the trivialities of life around, and bring them out into brilliant light". How has this search become responsible for the evolution of the story?

A. The set of ideas that Yusuf is referring to came to me first as I looked upon a bouquet of dead flowers, largely white lotuses washed ashore by the Ganges. I did not have the courage to take it up immediately. Yet, some time after the first encounter, I started shooting objects, many of them discarded and at the end of their lives, as representations of ideas beyond themselves, and a whole new world opened up. One which has touched many artists, collectors and viewers. I remember many people identifying with the images. Some are etched in my mind, like the young lady who took me to an image, something as apparently mundane as a cup on a staircase, and said that one look at it and her hair stood up on end, going on to describe events in her own life. Even a loner like me is moved by such connect, which infuses certain energy into the work that is hard to continue.Image 2nd

Q. With pertinence to cultures across borders, Death and Deliverance lends itself to online exhibitions as well, currently featuring in the Tasveer Journal, The Stand and 1in20 selections. Do these online formats play a role in engaging niche and newer audiences simultaneously?

A. Thanks to online formats, the amount of work I am exposed to today from around the world would have been inconceivable a while ago. I am happy about the exposure Death and Deliverance in Kolkata has received after being featured in The Stand, an impressive startup agency that acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning war photographer Greg Marinovich and others have formed, on the New York based photographer/photo editor Marvi Lacar's 1in20 selections and on Tasveer Journal. Personally, the important role of the internet has been its ability to transform me into a member of the audience to some wonderful work that I might otherwise never have witnessed. I hope such exposure improves and inspires my own.

Q. How has your own sensibility of deliberative engagement with the analog format evolved, leading you to establish that "click fix" can be passé in comparison to establishing the story, frame by frame?

A. Both meditative and spontaneous methods of exploring a subject have their own important roles. My exposure to analog was via 35mm film and SLR cameras, both suited for fairly quick work. I have since worked with larger formats where the process is slower and mistakes hurt much more. I am more patient as a result — with process, with space and occasionally with myself.

Q. Could you tell us a little about your desire to help more photographers engage with photography as a combination of art and science and with processing film?

A. Art and science have come to be thought of as different in our age of machines. Yet, in the European renaissance, artists and scientists were often the same people. Individual fields often require different modes of thinking, of experimenting, and a certain rigour, which can be inculcated through exposure and teaching. We benefit greatly by engaging with a variety of ideas on concept and craft. Moreover, experiencing the limitations of one way of thinking can keep us more honest; something that I think is important.Image 3rd

In my teaching, both personally and at the NGMA in Bangalore, I find that students are excited by the partial unravelling of what otherwise seemed impossibly mysterious. The first roll of film is exciting, in part, because it combines apparently disparate disciplines and, importantly, reveals the innate ability in each student, which he/she thought only rested with the other.

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