Chirodeep Chaudhuri captured Durga Puja at his ancestral village in Bengal over 12 years ♦
Twelve years is a long engagement for an artistic project. But by saving up his vacation, Chirodeep Chaudhuri (formerly Time Out’s national art director), managed to capture Durga Puja in his family village of Amadpur over just such a length of time. He chatted with Sonal Shah about putting together A Village in Bengal.
The black-and-white photos recall a pre-Incredible India approach to shooting the country. Why didn’t you shoot in colour?
When I started the project, since it was completely self-funded, black-and-white was cheaper. I was also working at the Sunday Observer, where I had access to a dark room so I would print free of cost. [Later] I’d set up a little dark room at home where I would be processing my films late in the night. All of this allowed me, in those early years, to keep costs down. Secondly, I don’t think in those initial years I was very good at shooting colour – it required a certain kind of discipline. It would have been a completely different book; none of these pictures would actually translate in colour. The time when Durga Puja happens, it’s a very odd time of the year, the light is very bad, very harsh. I don’t think in those days I had the requisite skill to pull off something of that nature in colour.
This also recalls the atmosphere of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, which you mention as an influence in your introductory essay.
The one very important aspect of this whole work was this sense of silence, which you encounter in that place. It’s very hard to describe if people haven’t spent time in rural settings of a certain kind – obviously you get used to it, but on that first day, when you get out of the station and you’re making your way out of the market on those kaccha roads and stuff, after a point this silence kind of hits you. I thought that was a very important aspect to maintain. Colour would have added a certain amount of noise to the overall mood.
And typically, images of Indian festivals tend to suggest noise and tamasha…
This is something which I have been accused of very often with some of my Bombay work: “Your Bombay pictures are too quiet”. In this case, this whole setting is quiet; it’s also a very slow pace. I would imagine at least a third of the pictures are of people seated. I don’t think that’s necessarily a misrepresentation, but it was done as a very conscious decision to create this ambience of slowing down of pace. In Calcutta, someone like my mother, I rarely see her sitting down. [In Amadpur] I would see them basically kind of lounging about.
There’s also an unposed intimacy to these pictures of people lounging…
The pictures I’d shot of my family in those early years – people were very self-conscious. Most people didn’t really know me. It would be like, you know, “He’s come on his little exotic vacation”. It took me a couple of years for people to accept my presence. Towards the later years, nobody gave a damn if I was taking pictures. Some of my uncles would be like “Kitna tu shoot karega? Har saal same cheez shoot karta rehta hai.” After a point, I was as much part of the regulars as a lot of others. One of my really favorite pictures is of my sister-in-law talking with my niece, and she’s kind of bent over – those kind of pictures, I don’t think I could have done them in year two, or year three.
There are actually three different stages where this whole story’s being played out. There’s the complete public space, which is the village: you’re seeing cattle, you’re seeing villagers. Then you’re seeing this kind of common private-public space, which is the thakur dalan – where people usually assemble at certain predetermined times for reasons of worship and all that. After that, people kind of go off into their respective houses and things. I started going into those more private areas in a much later stage. After year seven, year eight, people just stopped caring – this was the guy [who] would have his bloody cameras and he would go gallivanting into the village… it became a bit of a joke in the family.
And you carried on shooting in film?
Except the last year, when I shot digital, because I lost my entire bag of equipment and didn’t think it made sense to buy a film camera, given the way the scene had changed completely. The last year was really about tying up loose ends – so digital helped, in the sense that I don’t think I had any more patience to say “Oh shit, ye hua nahin, I’m going to go back 360 days later and just do that one picture.”
Will you keep up the yearly tradition of returning to Amadpur?
I don’t think this is going to go on for too long. Most people have kind of moved out of a milieu like this. If it was exotic for me, for the next generation it’s even more exotic. I don’t think they would really ensure that it continues. It would probably just die off for all you know, however terrible it makes me feel. I don’t see it continuing into the next generation, unless there’s something dramatic that happens. West Bengal tourism, in Calcutta, have this thing where they take tourists around to certain old family Durga Pujas. From this year, supposedly, our family Puja in Amadpur has been included. Now I don’t know what this means for the whole thing – does it give it a new lease of life? Does it turn things on its head completely and make it into something very crass? I mean, a busload of 30, 40 people just landing up suddenly, I don’t know what it would become.
Do you see another long project ahead?
Most of the ideas I work on are long engagements, relatively speaking that is. I can be very very obsessive about ideas once I’m on to it. I realised over the last two years that I was finding myself getting tired a little quicker, so I don’t know if I would be able to continue with this in the village for another 14 years now. Also, in the course of doing this, there was a lot of wisdom that was accumulated in terms of photography and understanding various things about narrative construction and things like that. A lot of the stuff I’m doing now would therefore come quicker. With that project it was all kind of meandering around and there were things which I was figuring out.
The meandering style does suit the subject.
It just seems like the most natural way that this project could have have gone off – I’ve been looking at this first copy of the book since it arrived –I’m questioning it myself: why the fuck did it take like 14 years? This could have been done during one Durga Puja…
Yes, but then you’d be out there with a shot-list – it’s refreshingly not savvy in that way.
There’s a huge amount of reflection which kind of happens in those intervening 360 days each year. The weird thing is that it’s actually been shot over 60 days over 12 years – so it’s actually the amount of time which a lot of photographers nowadays spend on their projects. But I think they don’t have the luxury of those in-between spaces which I had.
Published: October 4, 2012
The new photojournalism ♦
In 1972, after a run of 36 years and more than 1,800 issues, Life magazine published its final weekly copy. The issue was a year-in-review, featuring photo essays on the last lunar landing of the Apollo mission and the approaching end of the Vietnam War. Within the glossy pages, which now appear slightly garish and grainy, were portraits of Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli, Idi Amin and Richard Nixon. “In part because of Life, we live in an age of pictures,” wrote Time Inc.’s then-editor-in-chief Hedley Donovan. “Magazines all over the world are different because of Life; so is the pictorial make-up of newspapers, the look of advertising, even some of the technique of T.V.”
In the following 30-plus years, Life was revived in various forms — a monthly, a weekly supplement to newspapers — but it never achieved the kind of status it had in its heyday. (Today, Life exists as a website in partnership with Getty Images and back issues are available through a partnership with Google Books.) Yet the magazine remains iconic in the history of photojournalism as a chronicler of war, entertainment and daily life. In the world of print, there is nothing like it today. Nevertheless, photojournalism itself, unlike Life or its less-renowned competitor Look, has not been killed off by TV.
To a certain extent, photojournalism still has a strong presence in print. While National Geographic is possibly the only mass-circulation magazine that still focuses on images, text-centric magazines likeVanity Fair continue to publish occasional photo essays while others, like The New Yorker, have added photography to their pages. MaryAnne Golon, who was Time’s director of photography, recalled, “Time became more photographic with the passing of Life.” And travel and in-flight magazines rely heavily on photographers, although they shy away from the news-breaking or political potential of photojournalism.
Beyond traditional print, however, photojournalism is finding a new home — or multiple homes — online. Digital cameras have improved print quality and cell phone cameras have enabled anyone to be a photographer. It’s anybody’s guess, however, whether the fragmented world of online photojournalism can propel photographs from images to icons, as Life did for such classic photos as Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1945 “Kissing the War Goodbye,” Larry Burrows’ 1965 cover photo of two soldiers in a helicopter, or Philippe Halsman’s images of celebrities captured mid-jump in the 1950s.
Bob Sacha, a photographer who has shot for Life and National Geographic, said that it was once his life’s ambition to work for such mainstream magazines. A few years ago, though, he was at an exhibition about the 1960s, where copies of Life were stacked in a corner. “As I flipped through them, they were pretty similar to what People is today,” he said. “They’ve been mythologized and their role has grown way out of the reality. Of course there was good work, but it wasn’t always great.”
Sacha was an early proponent of the Internet as a platform for photojournalism and was, until recently, on the board of the multimedia production company MediaStorm. He says the doom-and-gloom predictions of media pundits, educators and industry insiders obscure the fact that the still image still holds a lot of power. The challenge, everyone seems to agree, is figuring out how to harness that power online to support photographers and attract more viewers. While the form has changed in essence, photojournalists still strive to fulfill Henry Luce’s mandate for Life: “To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud.”
Stabs at building a new home for photojournalism are diverse. Newspapers are devoting more space than before to photography. Breakout blogs on major news sites, like The New York Times’ Lens blog andThe Boston Globe’s Big Picture, curate “visual journalism.” There are independent blogs, likeAPhotoADay, and cooperatives and media agencies, like MediaStorm and Talking Eyes Media, Redux andPolaris. There are self-styled online magazines, likeBurn, which is curated by Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey. Besides traditional wire services, there are projects like Demotix, a platform for citizen journalists. And there are individual photographers’ portfolio sites.
This multiplicity of forms means there are more opportunities for young photographers and for different types of projects. Alex Webb, a Magnum photographer based in New York, pointed out that “the individual photographer’s vision does not necessarily coincide with the agenda of magazines, whether in the ’50s and ’60s or later. If one looks back at issues of Life and Look, one is struck by how many uninteresting photographs were published.” Long-form intimate photo essays, such as “the [photographer] W. Eugene Smith stories — the country doctor, the Spanish village — were few and far between,” he said. Online, there is much more space for different types of work.
Along with democratization comes an increased responsibility, however. One challenge these platforms present is that of verification — of the subjects and stories captured in a photograph. The strength of sites like Burn and MediaStorm is their curation of emerging talent. In the case of Demotix, which gives citizen journalists a distribution platform, an editorial process is absolutely necessary. “In every meeting I have, whether it’s with Time or The Wall Street Journal, I always get grilled about verification process,” said Demotix’s Matt Pascarella.
Online platforms also face the challenge of funding. In the good old days, photographers were either staffers or were sent out on commission by publications. In a market that relies increasingly on freelance work, “a successful photographer practically needs to be an M.B.A.,” said Golon. Pascarella added that he didn’t know “what the future of being a full-time journalist” might be. “I think you’ll see journalists as individual brands who do their own P.R., cultivate their own audiences via social networking,” he said. Freelancers’ payment agreements range widely. Citizen stringers at Demotix receive 50 percent of the fee paid by papers. According to the service, earnings vary greatly and depend on the publication, anywhere from $20 to $500.
Few publications use the traditional models of commissioning, staffing and funding that were in place when Life and Look defined the market. Only National Geographic still has the ability to routinely send top-billed photographers to far-flung locales to produce pages-long visual essays. While Photography Editor David Griffin would not reveal freelance rates, National Geographic Traveler’s website gives an estimate of $425 per day on assignment. Last November, Newsweek let go of four of its photo department staffers, including the director and deputy director. And with web advertising an unproven revenue source, funding remains a major problem for photojournalism online.
Photographers and online editors have turned to new sources. Said Sacha: “Publications aren’t paying, it’s foundations and corporations.” When Burn ran veteran photographer James Nachtwey’s “Struggle to Live” series on tuberculosis patients, it was funded by a medical-technology company, BD. Sacha said that while a daily publication might pay $200 a day, a strong foundation or firm might pay $800 to $2,000 per day — but these figures apply only to very established funders and photographers.
One thing seems clear: Projects will be funded increasingly by a variety of sources. “What they’re doing is bundling things,” Golon said. “A photographer might get some funding from a publication and some from a website and some from a nonpolitical N.G.O. We’re moving from one print source to a network of revenue sources.”
In niche markets, this scenario is not unfamiliar.Aperture, the prestigious photography magazine, was founded as a nonprofit and has remained so for 58 years. Editor-in-chief Melissa Harris believes that for online platforms, trying to establish new for-profit models is naïve. And while she’s positive about the proliferation of photography online, she says she wishes magazines like Life still existed. “I prefer my information to be credible, contextualized and not reductive,” she said. “Many of the photojournalists in magazines are brilliant storytellers, they are not hit-and-run journalists. I have nothing against online, but I don’t think it should replace print.” Aperture covers production costs, but any fees to photographers beyond these vary too much to provide an average. On the whole, freelance photographers are becoming adept at juggling: producing video and text, applying for funding, working on books and so on.
According to Webb, even being a Magnum photographer is not enough. “Most of the photographers I know, whether well-known or unknown, are scrambling, trying to deal with the current ever-shifting photographic landscape. Finding funds to produce serious work is getting more and more difficult all the time.”
Finally, there’s the question of how many people view photographic work online. Harris pointed out that while Aperture has considered expanding its Internet presence, 95 percent of readers said they want the magazine to remain in print, according to a recent online survey. “I know that people collect Aperture — they don’t throw it out,” Harris said. “None of us have really figured out how to be online in a riveting way.”
“What I’m missing is mass circulation,” Golon said. “[National Geographic] is the last bastion of long-form visual journalism — a dying breed in print.” On the other hand, she said, “If you look online, you see long stories that used to be only the purview of photo editors.” In print, the move seems to be toward books or book-like periodicals that are published a few times a year. Pascarella is also the managing editor of Tar, a biannual publication that is more of an art book than a magazine. “Printed objects need to be collectibles of high production value,” he said. “I think that’s the future of print.”
But these are niche publications, expensive to produce and distribute, and available in limited markets and numbers. “Life and Look brought the world into people’s homes, a function that has increasingly been taken over by television,” Webb said. “In this sense, a still photographer seemed to play a major and essential role in the media of those days. Since then, the still photograph seems to have become more peripheral to the public at large.”
In the 1940s, Life routinely urged its readers to invest in war bonds. It also published Henry Luce’s “The American Century,” an essay on the U.S.A.’s need to enter World War II. It’s hard to imagine any online platform — let alone one based on photojournalism — that would presume to have such political clout today. Thirty years from now, any definition of our current time derived from a visual record will be far more fragmented than the way we view our monolithic past today.
Still, things could change quickly. It is “a tremendous transitional period,” said Golon. “It’s like, you break down the old house and everyone’s wondering, ‘Where are we going to live?’ But whoever figures out how to build the new house is going to make a billion.”
Published: May 12, 2010
The Modern Architecture of New Delhi ♦Rahul Khanna, owner of Below8 bar, and Manav Parhawk, a fashion photographer, teamed up to explore Delhi’s modern architecture. Their book, The Modern Architecture of New Delhi: 1928-2007, reads like a series of monographs. Sonal Shah spoke to Khanna and Parhawk about how they came to see their city in a new light – and why they hate palm trees so much.
How long have you been working on this?
Khanna: Manav and I got in touch in April of 2006. We did one building per weekend. Then there were issues with getting permission to shoot. Ironically, most of the embassies were the easiest to get into. Because they have architecture culture in their homelands, they understand what you want to do. But the Indian government buildings – it was all “are you guys on drugs or something?”
Did you ever get chased out?
Parhawk: Well, yes. That’s part of the reason I didn’t really appreciate the architecture of the city before the project, because you’re simply not allowed to go into buildings. Like the STC – the Cottage Emporium building – we had to lie our way in. The number of buildings we had to bluff our way into…
What inspired you to continue?
Khanna: There are so many great stories behind each building. We have living architects who’ve studied under the twentieth century’s greatest architects. If you go to buy a book – it’s almost as if after the British left, architecture died, which is very untrue. It’s not in our culture to debate architecture, though it’s very much a part of Indian art and its past. Somewhere along the line, that got lost and it’s not considered an art form anymore. Last year, when all these shows went on about 60 years of Independence, there was not a single mention of architecture. But there are these hidden gems – because Delhi’s not exactly the most superbly planned city.
How did you decide on certain buildings?
Khanna: At first, we made a conscious effort not to do any research. We’d just drive around and look at what we liked. I was surprised – out of ten of the buildings that we liked, eight were done by great architects like Charles Correa, Raj Rewal… Because we’re covering a big timespan, we didn’t want to make it a catalogue. We had to have a reason why the building stands out. In the end, we looked at buildings that were the best of their time, in Delhi.
Are there definitive styles in Delhi today?
Khanna: Not really, and it’s good in a way. Post-Nehru, in the ’70s onwards, people started building skyscrapers, dealing with cost-effective materials, mud brick and stuff… but nothing unified.
Parhawk: I think that’s also why we don’t have a definitive pattern that’s built into the city skyline.
Khanna: We just have an exhibition ground of stuff that’s coming out on its own…
You mention colony sprawl as the default development pattern. Can this change?
Khanna: It’s too late now for Delhi.
Parhawk: There can be cosmetic changes. There’s no place to do anything else. That can only happen in the NCR or certain parts of west Delhi.
Would you say development in the NCR very different?
Khanna: Mansingh Rana, who is about 92 and who built Nehru Park, Nehru Library… He studied under Frank Lloyd Wright and he was there when Chandigarh was being planned. He says that it’s still the best-planned city in India. Years later, why can’t they do the same thing? You have the template, but look what they did in Gurgaon.
Parhawk: And in [the parts of] Noida that came up later.
Khanna: He said that because of this whole “India is rich and growing” thing, architects lose the plot. There are palm trees in the middle of town. It’s like Dubai. [Rana] said before Lutyens made all our neem tree-lined avenues, he went to Agra to see what was around and brought saplings of neem from there.
Parhawk: And jamun.
Khanna: That’s foresight. He planned not only wide roads, but trees that would shade. [Rana] asked why Gurgaon should have palm trees from Abu Dhabi… Why should Delhi have palm trees? It’s not Goa.
But there’s so much talk of urban planning…
Khanna: Urban planning is just left to rhetoric. To be honest, Delhi is not a bad city. Parts of Delhi are beautiful. But parts have just been left to rot. They could have so easily had a heritage fund for Chandni Chowk, for example. Small things like that. Keep certain bylaws. Because of the red tape and the bad synchronisation between the Municipal Corporation Delhi and the government, people are left to their own devices. To say that it’s too late is very defeatist. But no city is perfect. Cities evolve and let it be like that. Whatever you can change, change – there’s no need to do anything radical. Bitching and moaning is just negative.
Still, any buildings you just don’t like?
Parhawk: The police memorial.
Khanna: Yes, though they’ve taken it down. All those tall buildings along Kasturba Gandhi Road. That new BSNL or whatever it is building opposite Hotel Janpath.
Parhawk: The entire strip of Gurgaon.
Khanna: All of Gurgaon. Hafeez Contractor – we have a personal vendetta against him. His ideology of architecture is: churn it out, like its coming out of a money factory. There’s no soul to it. All these pastiche buildings… It’s like Spain meets India meets a palm tree.
The Modern Architecture of New Delhi, Random House India, ₹495
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, January 2009.
Published: January 9, 2009