Monday, August 28, 2017

The view from behind the lens

Mahesh Shantaram is an independent photographer based in Bangalore, India. Working with personal and subjective documentary photo series to study complex systems, societies, and institutions, particularly with reference to contemporary India, Mahesh tells stories that leave you with food for thought. Here is his story in his own words.

The formative years
One of the defining experiences of my child hood is that I grew up in Kuwait for the first thirteen years of my life. We had to leave suddenly because of the war. When I see scenes of refugees and all that, it is an experience I was just old enough to remember as we were refugees, evacuees of war. It was not as traumatic an experience as you see right now. We didn’t have to take a dinghy and travel through the sea. It was very well organized. I think India does not really have an experience of these real wars as such. That was part of my experience and that was how I started my life in India. It started very suddenly and was not a smooth transition. It was not very easy a childhood, growing up like that, when you are asked to adjust to a totally different environment suddenly. I started my life in India in the eighth standard, finished my college in Bangalore, worked for three years or so in Bombay, and moved to Washington DC for a couple of years, studied photography in Paris, and moved to Bangalore in 2006, and have been a photographer since then.

I think I always had an affinity for the visual. Even as a child, I used to make comic books, cutting out pictures from magazines and paste them into my scrap book and make stories out of it. In some way, what I am doing today is very much what I did when I was eight.

On personal and subjective documentary photography
That one statement itself comes after ten years of reflection on what I do. When I started photography, I was not really keen on doing photography as a professional normally does – which is, having a client who dictates the shots they want. That model didn’t appeal to me at all. Of course, one has to do that now and then to earn. But what I was interested in was personal and subjective documentary photography. I didn’t know it was called that, but discovered artists who were doing it, so I sought them out. That way of being a photographer appealed to me a lot. You make yourself an integral part of the whole event, or ethos you are documenting. You are a part of it. If you are doing a story on the environment, how can you not be a part of it? If you are doing a story on drug crimes, you can’t be a neutral observer. I don’t believe in objective photography. Whoever you are, you can’t be neutrally observant. You can’t be in a war and be neutral. You are a part of the problem, the system and the society you want to document. So, when it comes to working on this year-long obsession with Africans, I tried to become part of the whole thing. I am not just a photographer. I am not about “you do this for me and I’ll capture you from behind the camera.” I completely get involved with what I am doing and whom I am working with.

The challenge in this is that people are not quite used to this form of photography, so you can’t go to a magazine and sell it because they may not be able to use it. It doesn’t find much commercial use. It takes years and years and years to get done. If you have to understand anything at all in this world, everything is complex – so it will take years. I work in long-term projects. Anything I do of any value is long-term and I speak in terms of years. Some of my favourite photographers are like that, working for ten or fifteen years on a project.  That requires a lot of determination and motivation, and the fact that you can’t just lose interest halfway. You need to pursue and be persistent. You are the only one driving your own car. It is not like working on an assignment with a specific shot list that you are getting paid for. I’ve done many of those – but they don’t have much to take note. What I talk about is what I’ve invested in with blood, sweat, toil and emotions. That may not always find a commercial audience. 

The African Portraits
This started like most of my projects without me realizing that there was a project. You will remember the attack on the Tanzanian woman last year, and you will remember how you felt at that moment. It was the Nirbhaya moment for Africans in India. We all remember where we were and what we were doing at that moment. It was a disturbing moment to say the least. Life rarely presents us with an opportunity to do something about something that we read in the news. That incident happened on January 31, at night. It made the news on February 3 or 4. It took three days to make the news. There was intense debate and soul searching, and then on February 9, if you remember, India moved onto something else completely different – the JNU sedition case. We got caught up with that. What happened to that? What was the resolution? I was not satisfied with what we did – we just moved on, but did the people themselves move on? 

Around February 12, I went to the area where Africans live in Bangalore – it is a place called Soladevanahalli. No one had heard of this place, when I asked around. It is that far. I took my bike and went there, and talked to random people. I asked journalist friends for an introduction. One thing led to another. The people I talked to that day are my friends now. That’s what I mean by personal involvement. If I was a journalist working for a newspaper and had to do a story when it was a hot issue, I would go there, spend an hour, talk to people, get a sound-byte, get my piece filed and be done with it. As a photographer, though, that limitation doesn’t apply for me. I can go back there again and again, which is what I did – I went back five times over ten days. I met the same people, and even today, I can go back there, call them and meet them. I am not manufacturing this bond or closeness. It does exist – and grows organically.

Many found their own ways to engage with it. On the first level, whenever there is an attack on Africans in India, which has happened with surprising regularity in the last year, the media feels the need to reference my work. But I think it’s like the media trying to find a way to show that it is participating in this discussion and is furthering it, and so they use work that already exists. So with that, my work has been featured across many newspapers, some of which have also stolen my work. My gallery contacted me and said that they wanted to run it as a five-city exhibition. That’s another way of engaging with the work. People coming in to see the portraits gives them a chance to talk about the project and what we can do about the issue. The project has also been written about by art critics and analysts, who have referenced the work in their writing. 

Most importantly, Africans have also engaged with the work when they feel like – the fact that an Indian is doing something to highlight stories that need to be told. It’s not like Africans are being beaten up and so they must raise their voice. They are here in India as students, coming here with the purpose of finishing their studies, and then get on with their lives. They are not here to become freedom fighters or rebels. The story is not about Africans, it is really about our racism as Indians. That is what I want to highlight. Since this debate is so raw and new, we have politicians denying that there is racism in India, and they use vicious arguments against it, this work has been important in keeping the debate alive. It is just one of the many efforts - there are documentary filmmakers and writers working on films and books.

Portraying Identity
When you make a portrait, you point a camera at a human being. It is the act of seeing. The moment you look at a person, all these questions kick in, in your mind, all of which center around identity – the who, what, where, when and why. If I point a camera at a person from Nigeria, and make a portrait of them, we ask ourselves why this person is important enough to be portrayed, and what his story is. Photography and identity are so closely related in the field of portraiture.

Each portrait has a story behind it. Nothing is in isolation or just a whimsical “I-want-to-take-your-picture.” I meet them and ask them questions and listen to them. I once met a trans woman who had escaped her homophobic country, there are many in Africa, to come to India ostensibly to study, because it was suffocating there. He came to India and discovered he was a she, and came out and transitioned. It was the first time in my life I was meeting a trans person. I met her in a mall in Jalandhar, and she spoke to me for four hours. It was draining. 

But she was a great story teller and I listened in rapt attention. She didn’t finish the story, so I met her the next day for two hours. It was the most amazing story – she had contemplated suicide   twelve times. I photographed her in front of the boys’ hostel where she wanted to jump off from the top floor. Her father never accepted her transition. When he enrolled her in university, he enrolled her in the boy’s college. Her ID card shows she is a boy. It is one thing to read about transgender issues in magazines and another to listen to a story. I celebrated my last birthday photographing her at midnight.