Friday, 30 December 2011

Chronicles of Loss [Interview with Samar Jodha] Art India

The Bhopal Gas Disaster, disappearing North Eastern tribes, tiger conservation and the afflictions of the elderly are all explored by Samar Singh Jodha in his photographs. He talks to Gopika Nath about what drives him to work on marginalised communities.

Gopika Nath: From advertising and high fashion to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy – how did this shift take place? Was it a prick of the conscience?

Samar Singh Jodha: I could make things look amazing using different techniques of photography. But that wasn’t enough. My father was an economist. Talk around the dining table centred on development, marginalization, food security, drought, and water and wasteland management. We travelled with him to Africa, South America, the Far East and other South Asian countries and so I had early exposure to important social issues. As I watched our society changing, with its new material way of living, its lopsided development, the marginalization of certain communities and the lack of basic amenities, I wanted to talk about it.

In 1993, I worked on a book with Aman Nath called Jaipur: The Last Destination and then on Costumes and Textiles of Royal India with Ritu Kumar. Through these projects I saw another India. In 1994, I started working with Mobile Creches and HelpAge India. The latter led to the work I presented in 1999, namely, Ageless Mind and Spirit: Faces and Voices from the World of India’s Elderly.

G. N.: How does your approach vary from other photographers? Do you make a conscious effort to be different?

S. S. J.: Photography is only a tool. Skill is not the issue. I try to give the viewer an experience that is authentic and as close to what I have been through. In many ways, it is the antithesis of commercial photography where you have one meeting with a client, get your brief, shoot in the next few days, bill the client and your work’s done. There is no process going on in your head.

G. N.: The Ageless project involved a great deal of patient, time-consuming observation over eight years during which you documented the lives of 400 elderly people all over India. Did you get involved in the lives of the people you photographed? Did you investigate their histories?

S. S. J.: My brother and I would spend anything between one to five days explaining to them what I was doing. I took three flights to Calcutta for one portrait of a person living in a joint family because everybody had to be convinced. It had nothing to do with looking through the lens, but respecting the subject’s space.

G. N.: You have worked on issues like Save the Tiger, labour exploitation in the Commonwealth Games and the Bhopal Gas Tragedy – all of which are part of our history of national shame. Your installation Bhopal – A Silent Picture (2009) has been criticized for packaging ‘failed activism’ in an attractive way. What has it achieved in terms of addressing the issue?

S. S. J.: Well, in the space of three months this year, the installation has been shown at the India Art Summit in Delhi, at the Kala Ghoda Art Festival in Mumbai and at Art Chennai. No curator or gallery was interested in supporting it. I put my own money into it. An artist puts his work out there because he has something to say.

I first went to Bhopal in 2004 to work on a campaign for BBC that raised awareness about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy 20 years after the disaster. I made countless trips thereafter and kept thinking about how I could bring this issue into the public domain. In 2009, I invited Bittu Sahgal, an environment expert, and two others from an NGO in Bhopal and one survivor to speak at a public forum at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai. I did all this because I believed that people should know about these issues and respond to them.

Independent monitoring has recorded that over 95,000 people walked through the box-installation Bhopal – A Silent Picture. There was nothing to sell in there, it was purely about advocacy. It is not that the installation will make the Supreme Court change its judgement, but it will educate a whole generation of people in this country who have no idea what happened in Bhopal. As a photographer, I am using my medium to show what corporate irresponsibility can do.

G. N.: Your portrait of the Tai Phake tribe of Phaneng Village in Upper Assam was a subtle but dark commentary on their impending extinction. The people were the focus of this project. In Bhopal - A Silent Picture, however, you have shown the starkness of an abandoned factory. Were viewers moved by this? And did you manage to make a point about the human loss?

S. S. J.: Shockingly, dozens of people, especially students, had no idea that the Bhopal Gas Tragedy had happened in their own country. Many urban Indians now live like Americans do – a certain section of the young population has started living very insularly. They only know what is happening in their region and nothing beyond. Many said, “Thanks for bringing this here. Can you bring it to our university?” As a photographer, I have used my medium to increase awareness of crucial issues.

G. N.: You are not a dispassionate observer. Your documentation of the Burj Khalifa project in Dubai, like your work in Phaneng, involved months of interaction and observation. Do spaces and people interest you differently?

S. S. J.: Human suffering or celebration does come into play when you are capturing an issue or an event. One has to deal with the human condition. But art is not about going into other people’s living rooms. It is about issues that get sidelined. My work is about how a certain consumerist way of life dominates our so-called development or, for that matter, double-digit GDP growth.

My Through The Looking Glass series (1997) was one of the first environmental portraits project which ‘excluded’ humans. The project provided a counterpoint to the various visual depictions of living spaces in India found in glossy magazines and coffee table books that emphasized stylized order and harmony.  One of the things it did was document the now-pervasive presence of television in Indian life.

G. N.: Why did you choose not to show the people of Bhopal when the gas tragedy caused physical abnormalities, transforming them in terrible ways?

S. S. J.: I did photograph people. I went to hospitals and found deformed third generation babies. I also worked in communities that live around the plant. These images would have been easy to sell but to me it was important how human dignity was preserved in the portrayals. I wanted the general public to experience a space they would never have access to. The plant has been sealed for the past 27 years. There is still a chemical residue there and snakes too. Hardly anybody’s been there.

G. N.: Presenting the installation in a container used for the transportation of industrial goods is a smart way of accusing corporations of environmental neglect. To go back to a question I raised earlier, does it speak, however, of the enormity of the human tragedy? 

S. S. J.: The ‘Box’ is at an angle and inside, there is total darkness, recreating that midnight in Bhopal when the trains were pulling into the station. People were gasping and running, and they had no idea why they could not breathe. The five photographs inside the box are lenticular images of what they would have seen through the train windows – images of the factory that was the site of the disaster. As you walk through the box you lose your balance. I had thought of covering the box with a satellite image of the factory, but eventually, put only the information about the chemical composition of the gases, the dates of the disaster and the number of the people who died, on it.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in New York has a room with just a pile of shoes. When you enter this space something intense happens to you. Instead of the pictures of the dead men and women you have only a heap of their sorry possessions. I believe in art that leaves room for the viewer to engage.

Review of Phaneng:  A Journey Into Personal Engagement

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