In her seminal book On Photography, Susan Sontag compares the earliest impulses of the mid-19th century photographer to the wanderings of the flâneur. The flâneur was a fin-de-siècle figure that fascinated both the poet Baudelaire and the writer Walter Benjamin. In wandering the city, the flâneur found in it something phantasmagorical, a chaotic arrangement of the grotesque, an exotic fascination with the unknown. Sontag suggests this sort of distracted and creative walking is a good metaphor for photography – an art form whose brilliance often lies in the art of juxtaposition, its curiosity for the extraordinary in the everyday and an intimate acknowledgement of public space.
Laid out across the expansive breadth of the open air India Habitat center, The Delhi Photo Festival 2011 allowed the wandering visitor to experience something of this creative pleasure in walking and wandering into a chaotic arrangement of curiosities. As the organizers put it, the exhibition hoped 'to bring photography, the real democratic art form, into the public space, thereby creating awareness of photographic arts and initiating dialogue amongst its many practitioners and lovers.' It was an adventurous, if provisional, foray into the world of 'public' art. To facilitate a spirit of participation, the festival made space for informal conversations, photographer-curated walks, portfolio reviews, artist-talks and evening screenings. As a self-conscious curative maneuver, at every turn of the festival’s lanes, big names synonymous with "Indian photography" sat easily alongside debutante photographers. For examples, read Manjari Kaul’s Artslant review about segments of the festival that showcased the outcome of countrywide workshops with under-privileged child photographers.
The festival was also 'public' in another very real sense: in how an enormously large and diverse body of work was laid out expansively, inviting visitors to turn corners, pause at dead-ends, and make their own interpretive and artistic sense of what was on offer. The provisional theme invited by the festival organizers was 'affinity.' But the juxtaposition of seventy-four photographers wildly disparate in training, technique and style, helped create an overwhelming sense that defied easy generalizations.
On the one hand, 'affinity' became an affinity with one’s own real and imagined self – the photographic gaze turning inwards. For example, taken in lonely isolation Abhijit Nandi’s photographs trained a surrealist sensibility upon his own body. Camera-less Amit Sheokand manipulated disused negatives to visually represent the emotional lobe of the human brain. Martin Bogren’s returned to the Swedish lowlands of his childhood to rediscover fragments of a past through black-and-white phantasmagoric images. Each called to mind a desire and nostalgia for an intimacy with one’s own self, a drama in which the camera became an enabling prosthetic. Sometimes this turning inwards was a political gesture, but not often as successfully startling as Zee Chen’s representations of victims of political persecution in China using their own bodies as a site of physical self-infliction.
‘Affinity’ was also often taken literally. That is - in the sense that the word means ‘being related to’ - the subjects of several series were families. For example, Ana Galan’s series that captured a series of couples caught in the same dance pose across a diptych-like landscape, Bhumi Ahluwalia’s creative close-ups of pen-and-ink letters from her grandfather, Sanjeev Saith’s cell-phone photos taken while caring for his parents, and Zishan Latif’s photos of his grandfather. Also along this vein, Sean Lee’s personal and playful photographs of his family played with the possibilities and strangeness of framing those that are often most intimate to us. Each demonstrated how the photographic encounter - often with objects and people already familiar - could become an imaginative process through which ties of intimacy are themselves re-imagined. As Sean Lee describes it for example, in how the sense of tactility we often lose with our families can be re-animated through the photographic encounter.
‘Affinity’ also comes to mean reaching out, a bridging of distance. Here, take for example Amit Madheshiya’s portraits that frame the fleeting pleasure of tent-cinema audiences as they gaze not at the camera, but at traveling movie screens. Or Kannagi Khanna’s portraits of women from an Ahmedabad slum nicknamed ‘Hollywood’ for the famed beauty of its inhabitants. In Khanna’s photographs, these women pose next to and mimic glamour-shots of Hollywood celebrities. These sets seek to capture something of the possible delight in the traveling of images as they produce their own wide webs of affinity and desire.
Of course, the problem and eventual limits of affinity at a distance has been a difficult question for photography and its politics. When Roland Barthes famously stared at the photo of his mother, it was the photograph's insistent quality of ‘being there,’ of her existing despite the shadow of her death – that captivated him. Barthes found in this ability of the photograph to call attention to the ‘concreteness of existence’ a possibility that could unsettlingly surprise one’s imagination of the world.
This play with the unsettling concreteness and ethereality of photographs was evidenced in several series in the exhibition: Bharat Choudhary’s photographs of Muslims in America, Selva Lakshmanan’s photos of an Indian rural exodus, or Lana Slezic’s floating, shadowy box-camera photographs of Afghan women were just a few examples. As was Laura El-Tantawy’s exploration of rural suicides that superimposed old images of now-deceased farmers with the land that was tied to their sense of life and livelihood. This series was placed right next to Salvatore Arnone’s portraits of endangered animals, each squarely staring down the camera with often unsettlingly impassive expressions.
In a somewhat different political mode, Sudharak Olwe’s series follows a commercial sex-worker’s transition into respectability as the wife of a client, following which she is then diagnosed with HIV. All this while, the husband himself takes up photography professionally after Olwe teaches him the skill. El Tantawny and Arnone’s subjects – ephemeral by nature - stand next to Olwe’s more enduring engagement.
Ultimately, one comes to understand both the possibility and limits of a photographic politics of affinity. The concrete and fleeting presence of the photographic protagonists often demands a sort of empathy; sometimes the unsettling concreteness of the portraiture gaze does speak of a possible politics between photographers, visitors and subjects. But at the same time, such photographs are often at their most effective when they call to attention the provisionality of empathy-at-a-distance; often, the unsettling quality of the gaze is successful because it calls to mind the limits of an engagement of affinity.
The Delhi Photo Festival’s hoped to bring photography into the ‘public.’ In its expansive thematic framing, through its use of space and its invitation of amateur practitioners, the festival did indeed allow a kind of interpretive and creative ‘public’ to wander into the traditional spaces of photography. We can only look forward to further widenings, even perhaps outside the environs of Habitat Center, and into deeper and continuing engagements with the spaces of the city that surround it.
-- Dwai Banerjee
(All images courtesy of the Delhi Photo Festival and the artists.)