Swapan Nayak

Swapan Nayak in conversation with Souvik Sarkar and Bishan Samaddar, 2011

BISHAN SAMADDAR: There are two series of photographs that you are exhibiting—one on the people who live on the temporary islands or char on the Brahmaputra in Assam, and the other on people from the different states of North-East India.
SWAPAN NAYAK: Yes, that’s on the five states, and the conflict in those states—ethnic conflict—which is a very regular thing in the North East. In October 2005, there was a serious conflict in Karbi Anglong district. It was something like Nellie massacre–
BS: Which was a long time ago . . .
SN: Yes, but this is a regular occurrence in the North East. Every two or three years, something really serious happens. The conflict is always on. On various fronts. Like between the Bodos and the Santhals, between the Karbis and the Kukis in Assam. Similarly, in Arunachal Pradesh, the Arunachalis and Chakmas are perpetually entangled in strife. But these things, these conflicts, carry on. So many people are still in refugee camps in west Tripura—tribal people forced out of Mizoram, the Reang tribe. Manipur too has had problems between the Nagas and the Kukis. This goes on. Like a flowing river. When something big happens, it becomes visible. It is then that people get to know about it.
BS: How did you land up here? From what I know, you have been based mostly in West Bengal . . .
SN: This opportunity came after I joined Outlook. This is my 12th year in Outlook. The Calcutta office of Outlook is the eastern zonal office. So automatically that includes Orissa and Bihar, plus the whole of the North East, including Sikkim. And I am the only photographer in this zone. That’s how I got opportunity to travel to these places. For the last 11 or 12 years I’ve been going to the North East quite regularly.
BS: So, did this portfolio come up over such a long period?
SN: No, this took two years. From 2003/4 to 2005/6. I travelled to the North East about five or six times. Each time for about two weeks. That’s all the time I’d get off work.
BS: Oh, so this is not for Outlook? Is this your personal work?
SN: Yes, this is my personal work.
BS: But it started through work assignments . . .
SN: Yes, when I went on official assignments, I learnt about the people, about the socio-economic structure and the issues in this region of the country.
SOUVIK SARKAR: You mentioned ‘issues’. What made you decide that you would want to talk about these issues through photographs?
SN: I wouldn’t say it was something particular. I have been travelling to the region. I came in touch with local people there. With local journalists. This increased my interest in the issues of the region. And soon I realized the need to do something about these issues.
SS: I can see that in your photographs depicting common people, there’s a sense of despair, of helplessness. How has the common man responded to this conflict?
SN: There is despair. Owing to the conflict, everybody has had to move away from his or her home. It’s not that they’ve had to move far away, to a totally different country. That’s where the pathos lies. If I leave my country completely, in a strange way that is comforting. But here you are left stranded just a few hours away from your own home, your own land. You can even see your own land, but can’t go there . . .
BS: They are torn from their homes, and left hanging, as if . . .
SN: They have lost everything really—their farmland, their homes, any kind of comfort they might have had—and they are having to survive in another place as refugees. What makes things worse is that in this new place there’s no scope for employment. You can barely conceive how they survive from day to day. You can understand a little bit of it only if you spend your days with them.
SS: Your photographs depict a lot of poverty.
SN: Poverty is prevalent, no doubt.
SS: Yes, but there’s also a lot of hopelessness, there is death . . . for instance, the photo of the girl holding a picture in her hand of someone who is evidently dead . . .
SN: That’s in the last conflict at Karbi Anglong. The father was killed. He was working in the field. They came as a gang. The rival tribe. And they shot the man dead in broad daylight. And this is a photo of his family. The youngest daughter’s holding the photo. The other girl’s unmarried too. The boys are also rather young.
SS: When something as terrible happens to a family and as a photographer, when you go and meet them, to document this tragedy, how does the family respond to that? Is your photograph a voice for their anger or protest as well? Do they think that the final photograph would achieve something, do something for them?
SN: Yes, of course. They do want things to be known, to be published. They want stories of such atrocities to come to the surface. That is a sort of protest. I went there as part of the Press. And they knew that. So I never faced any antagonism from these people. In fact, they eagerly tell their story. Because they have lost so much. And they know that the North East has always been neglected. It’s not part of the mainstream. It’s amazing how, when you are in other parts of the country, many don’t even consider Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and the rest of the North East to be part of India. And some people in these big Indian cities still think, ridiculously, that the people of the North East walk around naked in forests, as if they are savage and uncivilized.
BS: It’s almost a colonialist approach. It’s like how the Europeans looked at sub-Saharan Africans 500 years ago.
SN: That’s because of the physical, geographical distance. Like we have this idea of Kashmir as a really dangerous place. Many of us, who haven’t even been there, think that there are bombs going off all the time in Srinagar . . .
BS: But Kashmir has a mythic status in the popular imagination too. We have seen it in films, as paradise on earth and so on.
SN: Kashmir has been more in the media. But the North East has always been neglected. Which is why the sense of protest is very strong there. It’s not that the common man is creating the conflict. There are larger political forces that mastermind these conflicts. They’re plots made by a handful of people. But the common people, who you see in my photos, are the ones who suffer. This photo was also taken in a refugee camp (Orphan Brothers). Both these boys are students. This boy who looks at us studied in Class IX. In a missionary school. English medium. He is a good student. A serious one. But he, along with his family, has been forced to move out of their home, their town. They have been in the refugee camp for the last three months.
BS: School?
SN: It’s shut. There’s no question of a school in such a situation.
BS: There’s a lot of anger in him, this boy . . .
SN: There is. There has to be.
SS: This concern for the refugee as a concept has occurred a lot in the films of Ritwik Ghatak. Subarnarekha . . . Komal Gandhar . . . I can see some impression of that in your photographs as well.
SN: Well, the picture of the refugee camp is pretty much the same everywhere. A person who has lost everything seeks shelter in another place. That’s what being a refugee is about. So the basic character of such a person or his surroundings is almost always the same in any part of the world. Secondly, Ritwik Ghatak’s films are also based in eastern India, and there are recognizable similarities there too—cultural, topographical—between what he depicts in his films and the photographs of the people that I have taken. Like these bamboo walls . . .
BS: Yes, that’s like a leitmotif that runs through your photographs!
SN: Absolutely. This is essentially an east India thing.
BS: But what is different are the faces in your photographs. They are not what we see in the films of Ritwik Ghatak. There is a distance. These people look ‘different’, so to speak.
SN: I have not tried to capture the ethnic conflict, or the refugee crisis as an issue. That would be a more journalistic project. Here I have just tried to bring out the human predicament, of a person displaced from his home. And it is the character of the faces that speak most in such situations. The pain inside. The expression of that on the faces is paramount.
SS: This photograph of a young man playing the guitar . . . it brings out the truth that even in the middle of so much misery, there is music. People are still singing songs.
BS: Life goes on . . .
SN: Exactly. Even in Ritwik Ghatak’s films, the final message is that—life goes on. In Ajantrik, for instance, the boy keeps playing the instrument. Titas Ekti Nodir Naam ends with shots of a child playing a flute and running through paddy fields, symbolizing the continuance of life, the continuance of civilization.
BS: Did you feel that when you were with these people, when you photographed them? Because ‘life goes on’ is such a platitude!
SN: Well, I think I did. Such a feeling comes from an immersion into the lives of the people. The way I go about it . . . I obviously do some research before going to a place. And once I am there, I cut off all connections with the rest of the world. I always maintain that practice. My mobile is switched off, except when I wish to speak to my family back home. I try to blend in with the people in these lands, with their environment, their life. It’s not like I go, look and capture a few frames and come back. In official assignments, when I have to meet deadlines and follow specific instructions considering the layout—four vertical shots, four horizontal, some portraits, some half-busts and so on—my involvement with my subject is somewhat superficial. But what you see here is my personal work. For these, nobody asked me to do anything specific. In fact, I did this whole thing at my own expense. And it was an expensive project. Travelling in the North-East is not cheap at all. So, it is like a personal surrender to the ways of life practised in these parts of the world. The joys and sorrows, the everyday-ness of their existence becomes mine too.
SS: This girl here (Reality Protrait) looking at you, looking at the camera, looking at us, eventually . . . there seems to be a sort of frustration in her look. What exactly is the story here?
SN: It’s not just frustration. There’s more to it. She’s also a victim of ethnic conflict. That auto-rickshaw you see there, destroyed, belonged to her family. They took a loan from the bank to buy it. Her brother used to drive it, and that was the only means of income for her family. But they burnt the auto. They also destroyed their home.
BS: To what extent are these posed shots? I mean, your subjects are definitely conscious of being photographed. They are looking at you directly . . .
SN: Well, I talk to everyone I photograph. Unless you talk to them, you don’t get the right expression to capture.
BS: Is there ever a language divide?
SN: Well, not really. Everybody seems to understand and speak some amount of Hindi in these regions. And then, in Assam, the language is pretty close to Bengali, my own mother tongue. And there’s English too. Besides, you always find some local person to be the interpreter. It’s not that I went to all these places on my own. That’s not possible actually. I have taken help from different people—missionaries, local journalists, local administration, local NGOs and even political leaders.
SS: This picture is really appealing (Pain). Where is this?
SN: This is in Karbi Anglong, Assam. His wife was killed.
BS: It’s symbolic to have that deity there in the dark background.
SN: Yes, that’s probably an idol of Lakshmi . . .
SS: Is there still faith? In God?
SN: Oh absolutely! These are very common people in the sense that they believe in very basic things. They have a rather uncomplicated view of life . . . farming, earning their daily bread, family—these are the preoccupations in their lives. And there are rituals, religious festivals.
BS: I haven’t spent much time in the North East. I’ve just been to Shillong, Cherrapunji . . . more as a tourist than anything else. But I did make some friends there. In a local bar. Local young men. There was a perceptible resistance to the rest of India, although very subtle. In Delhi, you may hear questions like, ‘Are these North-Eastern people actually Indian?’, similarly, these people in Meghalaya mention ‘going to India’. Did you ever encounter that?
SN: Yes, a little bit. Not everywhere in the region though. Some parts are vehemently independent of the ‘India concept’. Like this really distant region in Arunachal Pradesh, where I went to do a particular story. Outlook was doing a feature called ‘The Four Corners of India’. I went to one of the most peripheral villages of Arunachal. These people are inconceivably different from the mainstream idea of the ‘Indian’. The government has its own way of appeasing them actually. For instance, these villages select or nominate a gaon-bura, or a ‘village elder’ as the head of the village. Traditional practice. The central government gives an ‘honorary’ coat to the gaon-bura. It’s red in colour, very official-looking. And the person who gets the coat is so insanely proud of it. It’s a tremendous honour. In a way, it’s cheating. The government does nothing to uplift living conditions in these villages, but uses the ‘honourable’ red coat to keep the people happy.
BS: The coat is a symbol of ‘belonging’. It’s like saying, ‘You belong to India’. But that is where it stops. It’s all very superficial. It’s a travesty really . . .
SN: And the sad thing is that these people do not even have the idea that they are ‘kept’, so to speak, in an insulated world, cut off from the rest of the country and its development. It’s a political trick. It happens in many lesser-known parts of the North East.
BS: At a personal level, I realize . . . because I take photographs as well . . . that I tend to gravitate towards the centre, looking literally for the ‘heart’ of things or places. And I do it quite physically. If I am taking photos of Calcutta, for instance, I always end up in central Calcutta. I also gravitate towards north India, UP, Delhi . . . as if this is where my country or my land really is. Maybe it’s a need to belong, an unconscious obsession with belonging in ‘India’. Your inclination seems completely different. You tend towards the margins. Is there a reason for this?
SN: It’s a personal belief, I must say. A natural tendency too. And I don’t do it consciously. I don’t calculate. You know, if I do calculate now . . . I did all this work on my own. Haven’t received anything material or financial in return. I did later get a National Foundation for India grant for my work on the char people. So, I did all this from a sense of personal belief. I have always felt for human rights.
BS: Where do you think that comes from?
SN: See, I have grown up in a village of Bengal. May be the purity and the traditions of the environment taught me all this.
SS: So, is your photography just for the sake of photography, or does it want to say something?
SN: To some extent, it is definitely about saying something. About speaking out. Something personal. A statement. Especially these works that I am showing. Because this is my weapon, my only weapon. I want to touch hearts and minds of people through my photographs. I want to express things. And there’s something about human rights violations that makes me indignant. And I’m drawn to work on such issues. My work in the tea gardens of north Bengal, for instance. So many deaths. I felt the need to do something. And these things are happening all around me. In my home state. Or neighbouring ones. Maybe I’d also feel the same about Kashmir. But . . .
BS: These things are closer home and more immediate—
SN: Exactly. I feel it is my duty to document these processes.
SS: I’ve travelled in North-East India. It’s ethereally beautiful. In your photos, I do not see the natural beauty of the North East. It’s the people and their lives and conditions instead.
SN: Yes. Ironically, we have another magazine called Outlook Traveller. I have worked for them too. And in the North East. And I’ve had to work in a completely different way—focusing on the natural beauty of the place.
BS: Maybe it is because you have to do such professional work —photographing nature—you feel more passionate about your personal work, about the human stories.
SN: Yes, it is disheartening to see all these terrible things happening in the middle of such natural beauty. These conflicts are created, invented, by a handful of people who have the economic power and privilege to exploit common people and get away with it. They create these conflicts for their own benefit, and keep them alive. That serves their purpose.
BS: Well, we have been talking about your political feelings. But I’d like to know where your aesthetic inspiration comes from? What is the genesis of your attraction for the visual? I mean, you could also have been a writer perhaps . . . that is also a form, a very powerful form, of self-expression . . .
SN: Actually, now that you mention it, the desire to write is really very strong. For instance, when I worked on the life of the people on the char—‘The Nowhere People’—I did it over years. I went there so many times. I felt a deep connection with that place, the people. A connection at the level of the soul. That work enriched me. The people, especially. And their stories. I often feel that if I were a writer, I would be able to do such amazing work on the people of the char. But I am not really a writer!
BS: You can do this much better through photography!
SN: Of course. But it is important also to be able to express oneself through the written word. The char is just so full of astonishing stories. I ran into a wedding party on one of the many temporary islands that rise up on the Brahmaputra. The people here are predominantly Muslim . . .
BS: Yes, I noticed a photograph in which people have gathered for namaaz . . .
SN: It was a Muslim wedding. They were going to the site of the wedding by boat, which is what they all use. I clicked some photographs and they asked me to join them, to attend the wedding. It wasn’t too far away. When I reached, I realized, not to my surprise, that they were really very poor. Out of curiosity I spoke with the uncle of the bride. I asked him how much money was spent on weddings like this. ‘Around Rs 20,000,’ he said. But he quickly pointed out that, on this occasion, they haven’t had to spend that much. I asked, ‘why?’ And he said, ‘well, that’s because our daughter’s passed the “pathshala”, the junior school.’ Which means, she is extremely ‘qualified’ and, so, they haven’t had to pay any dowry. So, just imagine . . . you don’t pay dowry if your daughter has passed Class IV. Such standards of living and of education are quite foreign to us. This incident touched me very deeply. And there are so many instances when I have felt so strongly during my work on the islands. And I always feel that if only I could write . . . for not everything can be brought out through photographs . . .
SS: Where exactly are the char? How did you get there?
SN: These islands are spread mainly over 14 districts of Assam. The Brahmaputra is massive. And as it flows, large islands get formed. Some are permanent, some temporary. People are used to the pattern of islands being formed and dissolved. It is their lived reality. They know when the water starts to rise, and when they have to move.
SS: They seem to be water Bedouins.
SN: Exactly! That’s the expression! The amazing thing is that new islands get formed in the process, and that is where the people move to, and start building their lives all over again. The distribution of land on the new island takes place through a pre-arranged system. It’s fascinating. Everybody gets more or less the same expanse of land that they previously owned. There’s never any conflict around that. It’s about survival, after all. And everybody seems to want everybody else to survive . . . so these are really strong stories. And I always wish I could write about them. I have great respect for writers. More so than photographers.
SS: But your photos are saying something. Saying so much.
BS: On the more technical side, when you are taking a photograph, I’d like to know how much of it is about the power of the subject and how much of it is about composition? For instance, I tend to be quite fanatical about composition. When I am looking through the viewfinder, everything around me seems to freeze or vanish, and the entire world gets concentrated into that rectangle . . . it becomes an essentially aesthetic exercise, where the subject is perhaps not as important. Maybe I’ve been able to do that because I’ve never done photography in critical places like conflict zones. I don’t want to sound naive, but I’d say that the subject, in itself, in some photos—in most photos —that I take is perhaps not as powerful . . .
SN: I’ve been a professional photographer for 14 years now. So, composition happens automatically. I don’t think about that anymore. It’s a matter of practise. These days, I am drawn more towards the subject.
SS: The content . . .
SN: Yes, the content. The rest follows on its own.
BS: And the fact that you have done this work in black and white . . . is there a reason for it? Or if not a reason, does black and white have any definite effect on the subject? Does it add anything specific?
SN: One reason may be that I felt that the lives of these people are almost entirely colourless. Secondly . . . at a very personal level, I prefer black and white. And I also think that with black and white, the challenge is greater.
SS: Your work on the tea gardens and the people there are in colour though. There must have been some conscious choice involved.
SN: Symbolically speaking, there was colour in the lives of these people in the tea gardens. There’s still colour. But it’s fading. I wanted to capture that. But again, personally, I am much more into black and white.
BS: You were talking about black and white being a challenge. Can you elaborate on that?
SN: What I mean is, it’s easier to compose in colour. It’s easier to draw one’s attention through colour photographs. That’s my personal belief.
SS: I’ve heard that when Satyajit Ray had shot Ashani Shanket in colour, he’d said that famine must be portrayed in colour if one has to do justice to its terrifying quality. It was a conscious decision. Because he was shooting other films in black and white around the same time, like Pratidwandi, for instance.
SN: These are really personal choices. When I’d started taking photographs, there was a lot of enthusiasm in me—you click and you get a photo eventually—it seemed like fun. But then, when I learnt a little more and started freelancing, it turned into a passion . . .
SS: Are you self-taught?
SN: No, I’ve had professional training. So, there was a passion working strongly in me. It also made me improve my art. I had this zeal to do better than others, to take better photographs than those around me, or to do something new and different. Now, after years of practising photography, age and maturity are factors here, I think—it is a sort of strong sensation about an experience. A realization. An epiphany. It’s much beyond enthusiasm or passion. That is how I started my work titled ‘Lives in Search of Lost Worlds’. I was deeply influenced by Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss. I went to north Bengal and started clicking. I wanted to express my realizations. And they came to me instinctively. Perhaps it had dawned instinctively on Mr Ray that he must make that particular film in colour. Someone else may have treated the same story in black and white. It’s art. It’s subjective. It’s hugely about the artist’s instincts. Art can’t have fixed compositions. It’s not like making rasagolla, where you have a pre-ordained recipe. The artist will think independently, imaginatively, and eventually will execute . . .
SS: Of course. On a different note, do you work in the digital format?
SN: These works are all on film. My personal works are always on film. But I do my official assignments on digital . . .
SS: There are so many young people who are starting their careers now with digital cameras. But I have heard people rubbish digital cameras. They say anyone can take photos with such cameras, and that there’s really not much talent involved. What is your take on this?
SN: Well, this is an on-going debate. I have just one little thing to say in this context. For a long time the debate was raging in my mind. I wasn’t being able to accept digital technology, so to speak. But I couldn’t figure out what the logic was or what the definition of this resistance was. I met an Italian photographer some time ago. A senior photographer, freelancer. He was visiting Calcutta. I met him at a camera shop. We were both there to buy films. He had two Leikas on each side. Very impressive of course. I asked him why he still uses Leika, and why he still shoots on film. He’s always looking for Kodak Tri-X 400. You don’t get them too easily these days. Anyway, he said that there’s a difference between spending a night with a prostitute and spending one with your beloved wife. In the case of your beloved, there is involvement. The very fact that I’ll click the shutter and the film will eventually go through a process; I’ll have to wait to see the results, which will initially be seen on the contact sheet, and then I’ll choose and edit it, and after all that, I get a print. It’s a process. It demands involvement. With digital technology, the results are far too easily available. Even when you click, you get to see the picture right there. That also destroys your concentration for the subject. And the science of instant gratification diminishes involvement.
SS: What about the images Bishan is clicking . . . you do digital, don’t you?
BS: Well, I started with film anyway. Because, when I started I didn’t have a digital camera. And while working on film, I was frustrated that I didn’t have a darkroom. I couldn’t develop my photos myself. I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t have space for a darkroom at home. And I didn’t like the fact that someone else —the person printing my photographs—should have so much control over what the final print looks like. I wanted to do my own post-production, as much as I could. So, I switched to digital. And now I feel much more in control of my art, and that is crucial for my personal artistic satisfaction.
SN: And also, film processing is very expensive . . . not everybody can afford it. Undoubtedly, digital photography has many advantages.
BS: If nothing else, digital technology has made photography more democratic. Anyone can take photographs today.
SS: I have always wondered, if I had a nice digital camera, wouldn’t I be able to click at least four good photographs?
SN: Yes, anyone can take photographs, but it is practise that makes one a master. One has to persevere. It’s not about clicking four nice photos. Photography is about doing something with dedication. With belief and honesty.
SS: What about different kinds of photography? I have seen, having worked in the advertising industry for a while, that there’s a lot of money to be made in commercial photography. Have you ever felt like branching off to advertising?
SN: No, that never attracted me. Besides, I do work on assignments for my magazine. So, that is professional and somewhat commercial in itself. And it has restrictions of its own. That is why I am so committed towards my personal photography. And I also feel that as a photographer, I also have some social commitment. And I think that photographers should be socially committed. I don’t think a photographer can be the same person as a entrepreneur from Burrabazar, or a shop-owner at a fancy mall. Being a photographer is an intellectual job. You can’t become an out-an-out businessman if you’re a photographer. You can’t be two things so disparate. I remember, when I was still a student of photography, I had read an interview of S. Paul in Sunday magazine. He was, at that time, the photo editor for Indian Express, I think. There he said, ‘I’m professional by faith, but amateur at heart.’ I have always felt the same about myself. And, funnily, after working ‘professionally’ for 14 years, this belief about myself has become even stronger. I have been professional by faith, but in my heart, I’m an amateur.
SS: When you decided to take up photography as a career, did you face any opposition from your family or friends? I mean, in our Bengali middle-class milieu, it’s very unconventional after all . . .
SN: Of course I did. The reaction was predictable. You see, in, say, Europe, people look up to artists, photographers, filmmakers. They are perceived as thinkers as well as doers, and hence respectable. In our culture, the story is different. Especially for photographers. Most people think photography is about shooting passport photos in a local studio. That’s what my parents thought initially . . .
BS: Such ideas are not limited to the older generation. I meet so many young people, professionals, yuppies . . . and they ask me if I take pictures at weddings. The truth is, I don’t even attend weddings!
SN: You can’t blame them either. Photography is just not very widely understood or known. Not in our country.
SS: But things are changing slowly.
BS: The commercial approach to photography is changing fast, but is that enough? I wonder . . .
SN: One of the first things that people—not professional, committed photographers, but general people—ask is what camera I use, where I bought it and how expensive is it. This is not photography! People aren’t interested in the art. Would they meet a painter and ask whether his paintbrushes were bought in Europe?
SS: What do you intend to work on in the future? Would you go back to the char?
SN: Maybe I would. One day you might be surprised to hear that I have built a hut on the char. Frankly, I feel a deep and profound connection with the people of the char and I do respect them, their simplicity, their struggle for survival . . .
SS: But isn’t the character of the char changing? New people are coming . . .
SN: The faces are changing, no doubt. But I don’t think the character of the char can really change that much. After all, there’s hardly any scope for development there. There is no room for building infrastructure. Because these are temporary lands. Besides, there is hardly any effort at primary education. For a society to develop, education is essential. And that’s what’s missing on the char.
BS: Yes, I saw quite a few photographs of children working in the fields or just playing in front of their abandoned school.
SN: There are schools, in the sense that there are school buildings. But it’s all pointless. The government sanctions money for schools, but it doesn’t reach the place. Even where there is a school building, the teachers are missing. They are mostly absent. I asked some of the children, and they said that they go to school only when the teachers come, and that’s not too often. Besides, the family would rather have the children work in the fields by the time they are in their early teens. That’s economically more viable. For these people, the daily existence is all there is. They do not think beyond that. There is no sense of investing in the future.
 BS: Souvik was talking about digital photography. The other thing that has become very popular of late is digital video. Many people ask me why I don’t do videography. It’s now become so easy to make films, I’m told. But somehow I just can’t identify with the medium. I love watching films. But when I watch films, I see it in terms of stills. For me, there is a certain romance, a certain pathos almost, in capturing a moment that is transient. As a still photographer, do you ever feel something like that?
SN: I don’t think I have such a reaction to the moving image. I do regret not being a writer though. There’s so much more you can do with words than you can do with images.
BS: But I feel that a photograph has the power of a few thousand words. It is more fully open to interpretation. It just shows you something without telling you anything in particular. It’s perhaps far less didactic than words.
SN: A still image can be very powerful, more so than the moving image.
BS: I also feel—especially as I see your work—there is a certain kind of ‘unreality’ about black-and-white stills. This is not how we see life with our bare eyes. Life is in colour; it moves. Making a black-and-white still image, somehow the real is made ‘unreal’.
SS: It’s frozen in time . . .
BS: Going back to writing . . . the way we use metaphors in our writings, or symbols, implying more than just the literal. Do you do that through your photography? For instance, in this picture taken inside a bamboo hut, there’s a clock that looms large above the hapless-looking inhabitants. I find it stunning. That, for me, in Barthesian terms, is the ‘punctum’ of the photograph. That clock is very symbolic.
SN: Yes, the clock is always a poignant thing. Actually, I’m trying to incorporate more of these elements in my latest series, ‘Lives in Search of Lost World’. . .
BS: Pictures that are symbols for something else. There’s something poetic about this endeavour . . .
SN: Yes, and it is definitely an effect of literature. I’ve been reading Jibanananda Das extensively over the last few years trying to grasp him. I’m trying to work on my photos in the same way I believe the poet worked on his poems. As you said, I am trying to make my photographs more poetic. So far I’ve mostly documented situations and conditions. But now I’m interested in expressing epiphanies, realizations.
BS: Maybe you are moving closer to ‘writing’ so to speak, although you are still using photographs . . .
SN: Yes, I do realize that about my new work. I am still drawn to issues, to human rights awareness. But of late, I have felt that I am moving towards more personal, more self-exploratory, self-expressive photography.
BS: Do you feel a little distant from the kind of work you have been doing so far?
SN: This kind of documentary work is happening a lot. Being passionate about photography, I don’t find it terribly challenging. So, now I am concentrating on work where I can express myself more fully, more subjectively—as expressions of self-realization.
SS: Consciousness . . .
SN: A certain kind of consciousness. As I said, I was deeply influenced by Kiran Desai’s novel. All the characters that ultimately end up being ‘losers’ in a way. Unfulfilled dreams. Such characters dwell in each of us. There are things we want to do, things we want to be. In most cases, we don’t become what we want to be. It is not a complete defeat.
BS: It is perhaps about that realization that one can’t be everything. That there are things you can’t ultimately do. It’s about living with that knowledge.
SN: That is what I have tried to portray here. That sense. That consciousness. That belief.
*Born in the small town of Ranchi in eastern India, Bishan Samaddar lives and works in Calcutta. He is an editor at Seagull Books, an international independent small publisher of artistic books, and works part-time as a photographer. His photographs have appeared in leading dailies and periodicals in India and beyond, including the Telegraph, Outlook, El Pais, the Asia Literary Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. Seagull Books’ recent edition of Roland Barthes’s Incidents has been published with over 100 photographs by Bishan. His first solo show, also titled ‘Incidents’, was recently held in Calcutta. Bishans work has been influenced by the photography of William Eggleston, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Dayanita Singh. Bishan is represented by the Seagull Foundation for the Arts.