Ryan Lobo interviewed by Shai Heredia for ‘The Wedding Season’, 2010
SHAI HEREDIA: Ryan, you are a photographer, a filmmaker and a painter .
RYAN LOBO: Yes, I have always painted and still do. I have also always enjoyed making photographs and have been taking them ever since I was very young. My father had an old manual camera that I would use when I was in middle school. I would get one roll of film and shoot it carefully as I would only have 36 exposures.
I quit a Master’s degree in cell biology from an American university and returned to Bangalore where I started an ad agency with a friend of mine. A year into that I realized I was thoroughly bored. I helped out with a documentary film where I met Eric, my present business partner for films, then an associate producer. After several conversations regarding all the stories that could be done in India, we made a pilot with a local naturalist. National Geographic liked what we had and, after doing couple of films for them, things snowballed.
They were hard times at first. There was blood, sweat, tears. Years of running around, being completely broke and worse. However, to cut a long story short, over the next 5 years we shot numerous films all over the world for various companies including National Geographic, Animal Planet and Oprah. Alongside the professional work I was doing, I found time to make my images, my own personal images of what I was involved in. Many of these images were used by the companies I worked with including National Geographic. They were still my own personal bits of work though, and quite separate from my film work. While the films often cater to the clients’ tastes more than my own, the photos are always mine.
I shoot documentary films and I enjoy that process but making photographs is what I have always loved. I get to work on my own and I find it aesthetically more pleasing. With professional documentary filmmaking, one is not totally in control of the politics or aesthetics of the client. With photos, the images can be your own personal work and I value my photographs far more than the films I have made.
With photographs you choose your frame exactly; the exposure is yours. When it comes to editing your work, it’s all up to you. So I have a lot more control, which I appreciate and enjoy. The films are often beautiful. “Well shot”. They are often cut a certain way which, of late, seems to have become more choppy and sensational. A film is not yours alone. Many people work on it. You cater to an audience with films. With photos, I cater more to myself, my own personal aesthetic.
SH: Can you be descriptive of your style of psychological portraiture?
RL: An art critic friend of mine told me that my photos contained moments where people were alone with themselves, in the middle of crowds. Removed. Contemplating mortality. Looking inwards without pretension.
Amidst crowds, I search for aloneness and intimacy.
SH: Yes, this is quite evident in the wedding series. I find these images beautifully melancholic.
RL: Well . . . some of the wedding photographs were shot at a time in my life, which was quite hard. I was sad. Maybe, that’s why I chose, as you say, melancholic moments. Sometimes I think that when I make a photograph, I am shooting myself in some way. The image can be a reflection of who you are or perhaps, what you are looking for at that point in time. However, a sad moment in the middle of a joyous occasion can also be interesting and I, as a photographer, might also make an image like that because it’s just that — interesting.
People are so similar. We are all part of the same biology. The same politics exist at similar social events. So, it’s liberating as well when I return from my travels and things take on new meanings — the weddings I used to roll my eyeballs at as a child have, all of a sudden, become exciting places because I see and feel the dynamics and history behind tiny movements, moments, gestures, raised eyebrows, old women looking on the same events with the same smiles on their faces . . . I know many of these people. I know them deeply. I like, love and dislike some of them. Weddings are microcosms. Everyone is present. Looking their best.
SH: Do you feel that making documentaries with National Geographic has influenced your personal photography of people and social structures in India?
RL: Yes, in some ways it has. But National Geographic Television itself has had nothing to do with it. The experiences I’ve had with different cultures and places have.
I come from an upper middle class background, well off, privileged. Having left this nutshell, having travelled to all those countries making my films and experiencing all those different circumstances and versions of humanity, one begins to see things differently once one is back home. The world grows larger and one grows smaller. One becomes more aware of one’s own mortality and the smallness, if you will, of one’s community and its history.
I had the opportunity to field-produce a film on an American supermax prison in Minnesota.It was one of the most soulless spaces I’ve experienced. A place with very little hope for most of its inmates. The prison guards seemed just like the people from my neighborhood — my parents, friends, neighbours. They went to church, supported their families, then went to work within the gigantic walls of a super secure prison where most of the inmates “just happened” to be black. The prison, strangely enough, reminded me of my neighbourhood in Bangalore.
The prisoners — black, Native American, and Hispanic, mostly —lived in some kind of limbo, in a world without hope. Once one is part of the prison system in the USA, it’s very difficult to get out. In India, we live within different walls and the bricks are our histories and class and caste structures. I look at neighbourhoods I come from and see how removed they are from other economic classes and communities.
So, such were the parallels that I observed. In the same way, in India, most of my friends are upper middle class or middle class – I identify with them, empathize with them. We rely on our communities and families a lot in India for protection and support. Communities are very strong forces here and they are separated by invisible walls. What’s interesting to me is that these different histories and philosophies live with each other, independently, alongside and mostly oblivious to each other.
So, yes, my travels do make me see all these lines far more clearly. When I travel and immerse myself in a story, I begin to see all these other systems and societies in other places. And then I come back and, all of a sudden, I start noticing how things are different. I see things I’ve never seen before and I realize I am a part of it all and that I am not really as socially independent as I imagine myself to be. It’s sometimes painful but liberating as well.
SH: Your home city — Bangalore — has clearly been a significant character in your personal photography. Stylistically, can you compare the recent series “Traffic” with the earlier “Koshys”?
RL: Koshys restaurant seems to have remained a constant in a very fast evolving city. It represents a Bangalore that has long disappeared. And the attraction to Koshys, for many old Bangaloreans, is nostalgia — the colonial-era bearers, silver pots of tea, high ceilings, the menu — these don’t really exist anywhere else anymore. Sometimes I think that pouring yourself a cup of tea in Koshys is a retreat from what seems to be chaos outside. When the “old” Bangaloreans disappear into the ether, Koshys will too or perhaps it’ll be the other way round.
Bangalore is changing fast and not just architecturally. Hungrier people are at the door. People from all over the country are moving here for work and a better life. At one time, I would think I knew everyone who belonged to a certain English-speaking class, if you will. Now it’s very different. Billboards dot the roads; the traffic jams are horrendous and beneath all these ads for products most people cannot afford, the vast majority of Bangaloreans, the lower economic classes, walk and ride to work every day.
I was surprised at the violence after the death of the Kannada actor, Dr Rajkumar. It was unbelievable! And what intrigued me was where this came from. I don’t think it had anything to do with the man but more to do with the vast majority of Indians awakening now, with whatever’s on offer, to a state of mind where they want more.
Koshys and what it represents will be the first casualty of that awakening.
SH: Do you prefer to shoot digital or 35mm? Do you make an aesthetic or practical choice when you decide to shoot in one format and not the other?
RL: I shoot mainly 35mm, but it depends on the project. I believe that the impact a photograph has on a viewer is most important. It depends on what you want to achieve with your images. I’ve seen images shot with point-and-shoot digital cameras that were amazing. Some photographers own the most expensive cameras but take terrible images.
SH: Does the work of any particular photographer inspire you?
RL: I like the work of Antonin Kratochvil and Jonas Bendiksen. My tastes have changed with time. When I was very young I would sneak out to Select Bookshop in Bangalore and leaf through books by Raghu Rai, Henri Cartier Bresson and Raghubir Singh. Their images were beautiful and I would imagine being in those places.
SH: Have you exhibited your work before?
RL: No. This is my first photography exhibition.
*Shai Heredia, Ryan’s interviewer, has been the Festival Director of Experimenta, the international festival for experimental cinema in India, since 2003. She has rapidly developed the event into a significant new forum for artists’ film and video internationally. Heredia holds an MA in documentary film from Goldsmiths College, London and has recently shifted from Bombay to Bangalore, where she has joined the India Foundation for the Arts — India’s only arts philanthropic organisation — to make arts grants under the Extending Arts Practice programme.