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Jasmeen Patheja | Interview

Geetu: Photographing people - is it invasive?

Jasmeen: It’s not invasive unless I intend it to be - for example, when I am photographing people who have violated me on the street - at this point the aesthetics of image transcend with the nature of the act - I have to ‘shoot-catch-capture’ the person/ get back/ strike a conversation/ intervene. Those photographs are then published on the Blank Noise blog and opened to public debate.

If I am walking on the street with my camera I believe I do not appear threatening – more often than not by being a female photographer on the street allows me to get in there. I would not call myself invasive because if I am shooting people on the street I like them to engage willingly with the camera. At all points I think that when I shoot people it’s their engagement rather than them as subjects that interests me, hence they become active participants and create the image with me.

I am also interested in what happens to people when a camera is placed in front of them - what is the performance that it initiates? How do they want to represent themselves?

I got thinking about the collaborator, the participant and the subject while doing a project in Leicester in 2001. I was about 21 years old and for the first time I realized how the camera made me feel in control. Birth Control involved a group of 9 young ‘heterosexual’ boys and men who were asked if they would wear women’s clothes and allow me to document the process.  The boys were between the age group of 17-22.
Three were slightly older than the rest, one included their college vice principal. For the first time in my life I was dealing with vulnerable boys - vulnerable because of the idea as well as the female photographer, the project, ‘Birth Control’ made them uncomfortable, yet they were adventurous, curious and challenged themselves. Most of them had not informed their parents that they were going to participate - one participant could not believe that his body could actually fit perfectly in a woman’s garment… He was stunned and did not tell his parents about his willingness to try on a feminine female garment.

I remember Vishal who was very excited about it. He called himself Roxanne who wore a wig for the shoot. By the end of it, all of them got strangely comfortable with their female personas and had also named themselves.

Geetu: Your interest in photography or your Blank Noise project - what came first?
Jasmeen: This is more like the chicken and egg story but strictly chronologically speaking I picked up the camera before I started Blank Noise in 2003.

Ever since I can remember I was agitated and disturbed by the hostility and aggression on the streets. In that sense it is hard for me to define what came first.  I suppose walking on the street with a camera gave me the license to be there- to be a single woman walking without a purpose - a female wanderer.

The camera allowed me to engage with the city in a way that most women do. I was walking, talking with strangers, engaging…that was an enriching process...perhaps one which also lent itself to Blank Noise. Both Blank Noise and photography are different modes of operation for me, but they constantly give me access to people and strangers.

Geetu: Your Blank Noise project is moving into the male perspective. These two seem similar in some way as you seem to be seeking understanding… an understanding of why street sexual harassment exists - from both sides.

Jasmeen: That is the current tone of Blank Noise. This is how we are ready to approach the issue now after establishing that ‘eve teasing’ violates. It’s not just a male versus female issue but a societal one. In the beginning it was important to start with a slightly angry aggressive tone - to create a ‘reaction’ - because you need public reaction and you need to make an issue out of something that is seen as a non-issue - and then move towards ways of being proactive and empathetic.

Geetu: You couldn’t be sympathetic towards it then at that point…

Jasmeen: Yeah. But now I feel that that is becoming a popular way of seeing feminism - which is dangerous. It’s like “ Oh, you should hate men, you attack men” etc. There are all kinds of people who join Blank Noise - Girls and women, as well as men and boys. Some boys say that “I am not a feminist but I understand this issue”.  There is also this distorted view of seeing feminism as something that is stereotypically perceived, as ‘you hate men’. Now I hope you are not going to ask me how I see feminism…!

Yes, so Blank Noise is moving towards being empathetic.

Geetu: Besides the fact that there was a perception of Blank Noise that was being inadvertently created, a very “pro feminism’ view, that you were uncomfortable with, would you have naturally progressed towards this understanding? Would you be in this position of seeking understanding, not as a reaction but because you want to alter an existing perception?

Jasmeen: Yes, Blank Noise is ‘feminist’. It is taking a stand, of course, and bringing people into dialogue…while hopefully altering or challenging people’s notion of the ‘scary feminist’.

Through our actions and interventions and the open debate on the blog, I think somewhere we are establishing that feminism is not ‘anti-men’ and that it is an ideology and the fact that there are male feminists too.

The blog does not sloganeer. Some of the debates on the blog raise questions on wooing. What is the kind of man you would choose to react to and why? Is it just a mismatch of cultural codes? If some guy at a discotheque looks at you in a certain way, why would you take it as a compliment versus an auto rickshaw driver? How many times are you reacting to a male because you are taught to fear a male, be it any kind of male? Or you are taught to fear an alien male and does this alien male could come from a different social milieu…

Geetu: Looking at it from the male perspective?

Jasmeen: There are all kinds of men…there are some men who could be ‘committing’ street sexual violence without knowing that they are. For some it is a form of wooing. And it’s not as though the street is a sexless non-flirting zone. There are attractions and people can even ‘fall in love’ on the street…

Some men are just not sure how to ask the girl out. A lot of this I learnt and understood just last year when I walked the streets of Delhi interviewing men. I just kept asking them what kind of women they find attractive - what do they do when they find an attractive woman. There were all kinds of responses. Some were flirting back with me because I was a female interviewer and if I didn’t have male co-interviewer with me the dynamics of the conversation would be completely different. There were answers like one guy started singing a shairee…“ gum hi gam hai zindagi mein meri”…and then… “ I fall in love with a stranger and that’s why I am so sad”. Or “I keep falling in love with women who are strangers”. I played this for a Blank Noise exhibition at Max Mueller Bhavan.. all these male voices.... I think it’s been on my head for the last few years and last year was when all fell in place.Another man I met was a shopkeeper in Sarojini Nagar market. “ If I find a woman attractive I go up to her and I ask her for her phone number and I give her mine”.

I know if somebody did that to me, I would probably be taken aback - I have my own drawn boundaries as ‘this is not accepted street behaviour’. I may not want a stranger male coming up to me even if it’s maybe in a place where everyone is from the same social milieu, of course all this is contextual and the response is based on the dynamics of that time, place, people and interactions. But sometimes it also raises questions on how it’s being done. The emphasis where wooing is concerned is on how that person is expressing rather than what that person is saying. So at a basic level everyone wants to get to know each other but how is this person making an effort. But that’s one kind of male. The other type of male has another attitude towards some women “Oh! This girl is dressed a certain way and she is ‘asking for it’” Again it’s another guy from another social milieu putting a girl in place. Saying “Sikha dena hai ussey”/ (I have to teach her a lesson).. which is literally ‘putting a girl in place’ because she could have been labelled as arrogant and haughty for the money she has, clothes she wears etc.

Geetu: Where is this attitude coming from you think?

Jasmeen: No one answer but it’s clearly a societal reinforcement. It’s been there for generations and generations…reinforced accepted male behaviour.

Geetu: So even he is a product of his conditioning as much as the girl is a product of hers?

Jasmeen: Yes, exactly. Being taught to fear men - seeing herself as a victim, would be one way of looking at this.
Geetu: Through Blank Noise you want to change the status quo, raise public consciousness, awareness, inculcate a certain kind of sensitivity… Does that stem from a reaction?

Jasmeen: It’s not a reaction in a binary sense. I think in terms of the approaches that we have had, it’s not been one reaction. The first phase publicly emphasized street sexual violence ‘exists’. This is not something that is normal. Not something that is trivial. This was the first step. The mainstream media has supported Blank Noise and now we find that there is a lot more talk about the issue of street sexual violence.

Geetu: Your relationship with your grand-mom…describe what it is without the pictures…

Jasmeen: Without the pictures? I don’t know what it is right now without the pictures! I was thinking just this morning, I don’t know whether what I say about her is really her because I’ve almost fictionalized her in my head. But what is evident I guess is that we make a collaborative team and we are serious about our project!

Geetu: I was thinking about this today itself - I just know your relationship through your photographs. I don’t know it through what Jasmeen has said she feels for her…

Jasmeen: Well, I look at her with a lot of fondness. Just the way she is. I mean, she’s always been this grandmother who has challenged the stereotype of a grandmother. Who has gone off to the US and come back in a pair of jeans - in the eighties. That was something no grandmother I knew of was doing. Or someone who has fought her way but learnt how to drive the car - and I still cannot drive one! Or someone who wants a laptop just because she wants it…is learning Microsoft Word and watching DVD’s on it. You know?! I love her spirit.

Geetu: So you admire her spirit. Do your photographs speak about this relationship or are they about her?

Jasmeen: I don’t think that you can remove my relationship from the frame because I am photographing her and she is my collaborator. Together we form a team that starts from being granddaughter-grandmother but is going somewhere else because of the camera.

Geetu: Which are the other media you work with?

Jasmeen: Well I’ve worked with video, blog, sound, text performance, people/ actor - based on where the idea is stemming from, I figure out the appropriate medium. Sometimes the medium determines the idea.

Geetu: Let’s talk about some of your favorite photographs.

Jasmeen: Right now my most favourite picture is of this girl going down the escalator. She’s really in her own world.. and very cold and distant. At the same time she’s very feminine, very fragile and yet strong and independent. Jasmine Hellmich is 4 years old. Formally also the picture has that kind of pink feminine quality with the coldness of the metal and going into something that you don’t see. You are not sure where this escalator is going.. it’s not stairs.. it’s just one slope escalator kind of thing. So I like that image - it’s stuck in my head right now.

Geetu: What about prior to this?

Jasmeen: I think I like some of the images about my grandmother, Indri. A recent one where she is just sitting…there’s something girly about her performances. She is an ‘elderly’ person’ with the spirit of a ‘young girl’.

Geetu: When you had started Blank Noise I remember seeing some of your posters and photographs with mannequins…Is there some kind of fascination that you are aware of?

Jasmeen: I was not aware of them while photographing initially but only when I look back at my images I realize that I photograph when I find something absurd in the everyday normal. Something about the markets, mannequins, shopping, men selling female underclothes in a sexually repressive urban society, male tailors for sari blouses - there are absurd ideas and thoughts and then there is an absurd image before you. There is humour in the absurd, something not fitting in, something missing, all of which comes to life in tiny moments.

(The interviewer: Geetanjali Sachdev is faculty at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. She is a close friend and distant cousin of the photographer.)