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Sunil Gupta | Interview

Anna Fox
Sunil Gupta
In Conversation, London 2009

SG:Should we start with this show? Actually the show started... this particular one started with you coming to India. How did that all happen?

AF:How did that all happen? I had been to India a long time ago, when I was studying at Farnham, with an Indian friend who was also a student. I was left with this feeling that I had to go back to this place. Possibly, not as a tourist, but rather with more involvement with it in some way.  So when the opportunity arose, all of a sudden, to work at NID [National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad] I just said immediately, “yes, I will definitely go.” You weren’t going backwards and forwards until recently, were you?

SG:True, I have a history of having left India in 1969 and never having gone back till I was a student at Farnham and won one of those Thames TV bursaries.

AF:What year was that?

SG:1980. In the 1980s I began to go back quite a bit to shoot for clients in London. I curated a show which was very exhausting.

AF:What was the show you curated?

SG:“An Economy of Signs” for The Photographers’ Gallery. It came out of that whole ‘Black Arts’ moment [in the UK] and ‘Autograph’ and so on. Public arguments took place then in photography. With race and culture [agendas] in the town hall and photography conferences, we were always having confrontational arguments with curators, especially, asking, “why aren’t we seeing these kinds [non-white photographers] of shows in your galleries?”  The gallery gave me the job to go and find people and I found eight photographers and gave each of them a thousand pounds to make a body work for the show.

AF:And those people were Indians or English?

SG:They were all people living in India, that was the way it was premised.

AF:We both studied at Farnham, you left in 1981 before I started in 1983 so I didn’t actually meet you until I did my first major commission which was at Camerawork Gallery and you were on their Board. Camerawork was really active in the political photography movement. When did you join Camerawork?

SG:Maybe, 1985 or so, I think. They, at the time, did have two things going; the gallery and the darkroom.

AF:And the magazine.

SG:And the magazine which had almost stopped by then.

AF:That’s right when I first went to Camerawork, maybe that was before you, I don’t know, I went there as a work placement from college. It was quite an inspiring place.
SG:Yes, it  was. In retrospect it was quite something! It was a place where a lot of discussion and heated debate happened and people really believed in the various positions that they held. I think in terms of photography then, there was this idea called ‘independent photography.’

AF:‘Independent’ photography, it is a word that always made me a little confused. The reason I got interested in photography was my father who was a very keen amateur photographer. I remember he used to always ask me, “so what is ‘independent’ photography, what does it mean?” Knowing that I didn’t have an answer because it didn’t really make sense. There weren’t
really spaces to show photography. The Photographers’ Gallery, that was the first.

SG:And in my Second Year at Farnham I did a project to get a show somewhere, going around London with a portfolio, not saying I was student.


SG:And I got one. I got into a group show, “Contemporary Colour Photography”, with The Photographers’ Gallery which was held at one of the first photography festivals that happened in the UK [Salford, 1980].

AF:A conference, was it ?

SG:It wasn’t a conference. It was just a group of exhibitions and The Photographers’ Gallery put on this British colour photography show, as sort of a response to that American colour that had arrived in the 1970’s.

AF:So, you were working in colour, very early on?

SG:Yeah, it’s what I was drawn to.

AF:And who else was working in colour when you were? When you started?  Because when I started working in colour we had been taught by Martin Parr and Paul Graham. What was the first, if you like, serious colour photography that you saw?

SG:It was all American. I had come from New York and I was very influenced by that. I was in New York in the mid 1970’s and I had seen lot of photography on gallery walls. I had seen dye-transfers in some of the early shows by Stephen Shore. That had become the new colour.

AF:America seems to have led the world of photography for an awful long time and been the first to recognise photography as an art form by having big museum shows. But also it seems to have remained focused on that idea of photography as a craft as well as an art, whereas in Britain, nowadays you often feel people are more interested in the idea over and above everything. The idea is the most important thing. Do you notice that difference?

SG:Absolutely, I think you’re right. You can trace its history in the twentieth century from that modernist period, lets say the twenties. When photography re-emerged as part of modernism in Germany. In Russia, it became part of an Utopian radicalism, lets say. Then because of what happened in Europe, with Stalin and Hitler, the people
involved began to go into exile. They drifted across westwards through Paris for a bit, to London, but by and large ended up in Chicago and New York. The US in a way inherited this European legacy of modernism along with the photography. Meanwhile MOMA [Museum of Modern Art, New York] was literally the home of that European modernist moment, by definition.

They see themselves as keepers of modern photography, so when we meet internationally, and I sense this from American museum staff, that they see themselves as the keepers of the flame. What’s interesting that today, in the 21st Century they are quite resistant to change.

AF:What made you want to make photographs for exhibitions? You said you had done some commercial work on Fleet Street when you first graduated.

SG:I’d grown up thinking that photography was humanist and documentary and about something, so when I was at Farnham, I thought I was going to do something like W. Eugene Smith. Having a cause and sticking with it over a long period of time, regardless of the money. But what I found when I came out of college to Fleet Street was that nobody needed those kind of pictures any more. Basically I was about fifteen years too late. Television did that.

AF:But throughout your work, you’ve always had a cause, albeit you’re not shouting it from the rooftops. It’s quite subtle in many respects. But there has always been that underlying political thinking behind the work.

SG:I quite like two things about documentary work, both because in a sense it’s a document so I quite like straight photography as opposed to manipulated and so on. But also I like the reportage, the story telling aspect of it. I come from a childhood of story telling, because I grew up before electronic media. I had a mother who told me bedtime stories.

AF:Me too … actually it was my father that read our bed time stories.

SG:I had a couple of sympathetic picture editors, at the Times for example, so I would get little jobs from them all the time. Then I worked for the Times Educational Supplement and stuff, but then there was the horrible Rupert Murdoch business in
Wapping. And, of course, I’d become very much more politicised working for the GLC [Greater London Council] and joining the NUJ [National Union of Journalists]. We went on strike and it was like, who’s going to cross the picket line to work for the Times?


SG:And, I didn’t! It was an interesting moment because half of us did and half of us didn’t. Those that didn’t never got a job from them again. It was interesting how politics became quite real. They were being discussed at Camerawork. It wasn’t just theory. And people’s jobs, livelihoods and opportunities depended on it.
AF:We haven’t really talked about the themes of the pictures at all.

SG:You’re showing?

AF:Three different series. There’s “Back to the Village” which was made between 1996 and 2005 and then “Zwarte Piet” [Black Pete] that was made in 1994 and ... 1997. Or 1998 even. And then “Country Girls” which was made between 1996 and 2002.

SG:Oh OK, like a ten year period then.

AF:I work like you, most of my series are over quite a long period of time. And I’ll have two or three going on at the same time. And I really value what I would describe as thinking space. I’ve also started some new work in India largely
portraying contemporary working women. But it would take me some time to try and work out a strategy about how I want to edit and show the work. I like having this thinking time, which is why I really didn’t like working on commercial magazine jobs. Because you’d be sent somewhere for a day or two days maximum and you make your pictures and you come back. There’s no thinking, it’s all about having a particular style that the magazine wants or whatever.

SG:I had a terrible time doing magazine work. Had to make a portrait in half and hour in a hotel room.

AF:Yeah, terrible. Absolutely terrible.

SG:With the interviewer trying to talk over your head to the person.

AF:So, you’re like a second rate...

SG:Snapper, that what they used to call us.

AF:I always thought film stills would be great, but apparently that’s even worse.

SG:I did that, you’re absolutely nobody on film set.

AF:At least when you make your own work, you can decide how long it takes. And I think that’s important, it’s important when you are putting it together as a book because you need to edit and sequence and build up the narrative. And it’s
important when you are doing an exhibition because you have to think about space, scale, print and all those things. So you need time to work those things out.

SG:So, your three projects have quite distinctive looks to them

AF:They do, I suppose a lot of my work does change from project to project. And they are made very deliberately to look a particular way according to what I’m trying to say. But the one thing that links them is that they are all about dressing
up and performing. Although “Country Girls”  isn’t all portraits. They are all about performing. The subject performing in front of the camera, and there’s all different meanings behind those performances. So, even “Back to the Village”, they’re just performing the village rituals like the pram race, nativity play and the Guy Fawkes and Halloween which, to everybody in that village, seems like regular life. But I am using them to act as a metaphor for what I see as a mythological representation of the English village. There is a mythological image, the postcard type, of this
rather twee, supposedly comfortable place, and really it’s all about facade and masquerade. I am using those masked characters to symbolise that there is something behind the idealised imagery of country life. And “Country Girls” is the same, it’s about being young women in the countryside. “Zwarte Piet” is totally different. That’s not about the UK.

SG:That seems more narrowly defined.

AF:it’s much more narrowly defined. And it was quite a difficult project to do.

SG:That’s a festival in Holland.

AF:Every year in Holland they celebrate the old fashioned Christmas. They have St.Nicholas who arrives in every Dutch city in November. He is essentially a priest-like character, he is a saint. He arrives on a boat. He is the patron saint of children and he came from Turkey, and in Holland he is accompanied by hundreds and hundreds of Black Petes or Zwarte Piets. It is quite a surprise when you see predominantly white women, blacked up as young boys. It’s quite a shock. When I investigated it, I found that it came from a period when the Spanish occupied that part of the world in the 16th or 17th Century. They had North African servants and slaves, and so when St Nicholas came, he always had his servants. They were Moorish, and when the Spanish left, they continued to celebrate by blacking up.
They tried having white Pete, blue Pete, red Pete and nobody is happy with it.

SG:So in the pictures are they actual people blacking up or are they people just performing it for the camera?

AF:No, I photographed them when they are getting ready and when they are performing on the streets

SG:So those are the actual..

AF:They are the actual people.  One of the biggest problems, I think, that exists with traditional documentary photography is that it’s very easy to entice the viewer to say, “that’s happening over there and it’s nothing to do with me.” They distance themselves from the imagery. It would be very easy for them to say, “look at what the Dutch do. They’re so racist.” That’s not what I wanted. I wanted them to be acknowledged, that kind of thing to be confronted and talked about and that everybody who looked at them would be implied within the stories. It’s about a European historical moment, it’s not just about Holland. Do you know what I mean?


AF:So [I made] these very grand painterly style portraits that look at you. When you are in a rectangular room, they are one metre square and they are all around and they all stare at you at the same time. People find them quite alarming. And
quite disconcerting because they can’t level any criticism, you know that kind of criticism that the viewer is free to do with documentary photography. Documentary photography makes a judgement in a way. With that series I wanted to
get away from that. And they have made people uncomfortable. They were taken off a wall in America in a show. There was a big argument about them  which is very interesting.

SG:And what about the “Country Girls” one? Do people respond like that about those?

AF:No, not really. Not the same way. I think that’s because they might be disconcerting as they are part glamour and part fairy tale and there is an element of danger and disturbance about them. And violence implied. But I suppose they are
much further away from anything to do with documentary photography, from any sense of reality. They’re about a response to how Alison the model and I felt about growing up in the countryside. So they are very much about a past. About the
1970s and what it was like then.

SG:How did they come about - the “Country Girls”? I mean what prompted you to making that work?

AF:Alison, who is a singer, she and I both grew up in rural Hampshire, where I now live again. We had been friends in our twenties, we both wanted to get out of the countryside. It felt totally claustrophobic and very frustrating. Now it’s different, but then there was no transport, no public transport, no internet, TV had only just started showing interesting things and very few. There wasn’t much happening and there was also a lot of small town violence. It was quite unpleasant really. We spent a long time talking and we both moved to London and we knew each other there. We both did Arts degrees so we had started to engage with various debates about this, that and the other. And, we both knew this story, a terrible story about a young girl who’d been murdered where we lived. The girl was called Sweet Fanny Adams. And we were aware of the phrase, “sweet fuck all”, which is a popular English phrase, everyone thinks it’s American, but it’s not, it’s English. And we also knew the history of where it came from. Sweet Fanny Adams, an eight year old girl, was murdered in the early 1900s in a town near where Alison and I lived. Chopped into pieces, really violent. There are all sorts of really unpleasant illustrations of it in our local museum It was a local bank clerk who did it and he had never done anything like it in his life. And he went back to work and of course, he was found, as he was covered in blood. He was the last man hanged in Hampshire. Some years after that the Royal Navy invented tinned meat and as some kind of joke they called it “Sweet Fanny Adams” - chopped up meat in tins.

SG:That’s a bit bizarre

AF:Very bizarre. And the sailors didn’t like it, so the sailors changed it from Sweet Fanny Adams to Sweet Fuck All. You hear people use it. I’ve seen it on billboards, advertising a Sony Walkman, six hours of sweet FA, I suppose doing nothing, just listening to music. For Alison and I that was a really interesting starting point the way this young woman, the story of this young woman’s chopped up body had been turned around and used quite flippantly in everyday conversations and advertising. And it acted as a trigger for us thinking about how we felt as young women in the 1970s growing up in the countryside. I suppose we were partly making fun of rural women in some senses and then taking it one step further and turning it into something nastier and more political. They’re narrative images. They do make you
feel uncomfortable. But they are not the Zwarte Piet pictures that some people in America found quite intimidating.

SG:That’s true, I suppose they are more direct: that action of blacking-up your face. The other ones are..., more covered up.

AF:Yes, we’ve chosen to do it. So you know we are trying to say something. Whereas the Zwarte Piet thing, although it’s not conventional documentary there’s an element of the document in it. Which is something we were talking about yesterday- this whole question about ‘is it art or is it documentary?’ Which one gets asked from time to time. Which is interesting as the photograph is so bound up with the notion of the document. That people get confused. Of course, now it’s seen as art as well as document and people see that those two things can’t exist together. I don’t know what you think about that in relation to your work?

SG:Generally speaking documentary got into disrepute here in England ever since Victor Burgin arrived and it’s only just making a come back. Personally I like documentary for its own sake, because it does those two things. And the response to this question on art vs documentary has been quite varied, it’s decided by the marketplace rather than by the intention. Because we’re now so used to seeing the art world extract pictures that were made commercially. But if you’re asking me
about my own interests now, I was very affected by the cultural, political discussions that took place in the Camerawork days and all that. So then I deliberately began to make my work in a constructed documentary way. Now when I show them
twenty years later in India, people really like them till they discover that they are ‘faked’. In their eyes they are fake. Lately, maybe because I am actually there, I feel more able to make traditional documentary work about the place [India]. But
they are also the audience. They are the subject and the audience. So it feels less exploitative to me. But I find the style of the form, the transparency of it very appealing.

AF:What’s interesting about the portraits is the way they are working. I see this very clearly in “Mr Malhotra’s Party”; there is regular life going on behind the scene and then this very deliberately posed person in the foreground. And it’s like bringing
those two worlds together. It’s like fact and fiction, blended. Together with that wonderful title, it’s almost like a work of fiction, it’s very literary. There are all sorts of narratives that come out of the series.

SG:One of the things that appeals to me about documentary photography or rather I should say the ‘street’ is that I’ve always found real life incredibly interesting and surprising. And anything you could invent doesn’t compete with it. But now I take, very deliberately, few pictures. But when I do I am always amazed sometimes, despite all my attempts at directing something or placing someone. At a certain time there would be something I hadn’t thought of that happens in that split second the picture’s made that I could not have thought of in the studio, that lifts it above all the other pictures. So in that series there are some like that, what is happening in the background comes together in a very surprising way. It’s like you look at your contact sheets and you see things years later, or the second time round, you see things that you may not have seen. Some things appear to have come together more meaningfully. I find that the craft of photography is exciting: that you go out with film in your camera, expose it, and process it in a certain way and get these contact sheets and they’re always a surprise. It’s this thing that most photographers had in common when they looked at their contact sheets.

AF:I’m really fascinated by contacts as well. It’s really interesting you say that because I agree with you. And the excitement when you actually see the contacts, after three or four weeks and again you have this space, this thinking space. It’s made you feel differently about the images, or forget bits and then when you see them again, you have a different relationship to them. It’s very inspiring, you don’t have that in digital, because you see it immediately on the back of the camera.

AF:So what are you showing in India? Tell us a bit

SG:“Mr Malhotra’s Party,” is about people who are out as being queer in Delhi.  There is a very complex debate about sexuality in India, which is that the notion of being gay is in fact an English speaking urban phenomenon. Other kinds of people don’t think of themselves like that, that’s why it’s political, I don’t think I could carry on using the label, I may have to rethink the whole logic of it. So, maybe it needs to be something else altogether. So where does identity come into it? You know what I mean. It’s quite interesting. The people in my pictures so far are all people we would understand as being lesbian or gay or bisexual.

AF:So you mean you are thinking of expanding the project to deal with other.

SG:I think it should. It might be another step or another thing altogether or something. I also think that with multiple projects, the end of one leads to the next one in a natural kind of way. More questions come up.

AF:But when you’re doing a body of work like this, I’m not saying that this is how I work, but I am interested in aspects of history, but I don’t research it methodically, I’m just wondering if there is anything that you do like researching the history
of sexuality in India does that become part of your work or not at all?

SG:I wouldn’t say that I am an academic researcher.

AF:That’s not what I meant. Just for background information.

SG:Going back to this project, “Mr Malhotra’s Party”, because of the politics of the picture maker being the subject and not about being the other; it’s very local to me, these are people that are friends of mine, that I hang out with and the party that I am referring to is the party that we all go to once a week. They are [active] participants in the project, that way. And I feel like it’s time to stepp over the class line now into Old Delhi and across the river to East Delhi where more marginal people live. Who don’t have jobs. who might be selling themselves on the street. They are my
own “other”, local but they are still different ... they find me interesting, I found something in common, lately, which is the [HIV] virus. All of us are affected or infected by it. And it’s given me a parity discussion I can have about how we are
affected by it.

AF:That’s interesting. What are the other pieces? That’s one series showing, what are the other ones?

SG:There’s “Country”, “The New Pre-Raphaelites” and “Love, Undetectable”.

AF:I haven’t seen any of this work.

SG:No. I am trying to locate it [“Country; Portrait of an Indian Village”] the story of my family, in the larger story of a region, so I saw it as a book project more than anything. There’s a lot of people with personal histories, portraits of fathers
and sons, mothers and daughters-in-law, because all the daughters are missing, they’ve gone to become somebody else’s daughter-in-law. They’re not there. There are no sisters. The mother and daughter-in-law relationship in India is hugely
populist and subject of our soap operas. And father and son, because that’s where the property is going. And all the men in this family are armed to the teeth, so there are guns also. It’s quite interesting. There is the landscape and the economics, which is agriculture. Finally there is the political history, becaus my family was quite divided; half of it was working with the British and set up sugar factories with their help and the other half fought the British.

AF:So there is another link in what we are showing, because my series is about the village that I live in now. And close to where I grew up and where my family came from so that’s quite intriguing, but I’ve never seen these pictures.
SG:No, it’s all kind of in-progress, maybe if you come I can show you some prints.

AF:That’ll be good.

SG:And they’re in colour. I shot them on digital as a first look and then I went back and shot them on 6x7 negative. It’s lovely, the light, in North India. I have this problem with shooting, it’s physically very demanding as half the year can be very hot and very rainy. Our village doesn’t have modern amenities necessarily, there is no power to speak of, etc.

AF:Where, which state is it in?

SG:Uttar Pradesh. It’s seven hours drive from Delhi towards the East. Bit North towards Lucknow. I find the state quite  interesting. It’s the cow-belt, like the deep South [in America], and like the deep South it’s where India’s political myths
come from. The national politics. Hindi speaking, Hindus, they see themselves as the salt of the earth. They see themselves as India. They’ve got the Ganges, they’ve got the river. They’ve got Varanasi. It’s for them that the whole thing is about.
Indian culture, they think they’re it. On the other hand, it’s a very bad state to be born in, it’s got the lowest life expectancy for an Indian state. [And it’s very crowded.] It’s got two hundred million people.

AF:I suppose that’s another thing that’s brought me to making work in India. I’m interested in the position of women in the growing economies of the world. And India has interested me most of all because it is full of contradictions.

SG:It is. Very feudal at one level, but it had a very powerful woman Prime Minister.

AF:I know, the second one in the world. So it’s really quite incredible. And all of the women that I have met in the various colleges, in India, that I have worked in seem so powerful in a way that funnily enough women in the UK just don’t. You
feel very empowered in India amongst academics when you go to the colleges. You feel quite extraordinary.

SG:Yeah. But you just can’t walk around in the streets [as a woman].

AF:No. Although I don’t know if it’s that different to the UK.

SG:That’s true.

AF:On the other hand there are all different states.

SG:Yeah, the South is much better.

AF:There are these terrible things that happen, there is information in the newspaper everyday about the awful things that have happened. But it seems to be confronted all the time, as opposed to being hidden, I think; yet, maybe there is a whole lot more that is hidden as well. So there are strange contradictions.

SG:And there are these strange gaps, that’s what motivates me in India to make these pictures. There’s very little to reference alternative sexual lifestyles. So people are often talking through their hats because they’ve never encountered one, other
than the reality they [choose not to] see on the streets. So part of the aim of the “Mr Malhotra’s Party” series is that they are slightly confrontational; they are looking back at you. They’re not afraid. That’s very important. And for an Indian audience to realise that these [queer] people are their own sons and daughters. That was part of it.