Self portraits were a large part of the just published archive of Umrao Sher-Gil, a pioneer in Indian photography. Young image-makers are now also beginning to train their cameras closer — to their home and the self. A report by Paramita Ghosh.Updated: May 04, 2008, 00:05 IST
A black mole on the bridge of the nose visually cuts up her mug in half. The hair sheared close to her skull show up an army of freckles. The eyebrows look as if they haven’t known a tweezer.
It’s a face that offers no comfort. But for the last four years, Siya Singh has been turning her camera on herself to capture it. Not for art, or drama. “Or to be documentative, autobiographical, narcisstic, cinematic, banal”, says the 28 year-old spewing adjectives as if each word was a chemical reaction to the ones that came before. “Do I fit in, was a constant quest”, she says. “But I figured I could negotiate the way I lived, through the images I made and I began to explore the boundaries of my own conformity and freedom as an urban woman. Now my questions are more complex. I’m grappling with new concerns and photographs help me vent this curiosity rather than come to any conclusions.”
Siya is either terribly interested in herself. Or not interested at all. But an audience is queueing up outside the gallery to understand what self-portraits mean and how they could take the place of the mirror, to mirror us. According to Devika Daulet Singh, the photo editor and director of the PhotoInk gallery, anonymous India is not the only side contemporary photographers investigate. “Photographers may look at the street, but they also look at themselves from the inside. It’s a shift of gaze and a generation turning around and investigating new ideas”.
Anita Khemka, a fellow-traveller of Siya to 2007’s Rencontres d'Arles in France, and the gritty documentator of the marginal, has used the camera not to flatter, but to brutalise herself. In a way. “Self portraits became a tool to tackle my demons. Instead of photographing those in conflict (she has worked with the mentally disturbed and struggling hijra communities), I decided to show my own”. Her repetition of the frame in the Train series reinforces her isolation from her environment. The focus, and literally so, she says of her work is to challenge herself in tight corners. Says Anita: “The camera more than anything or anybody else has given me the courage to confront”.
Anay Mann, shoots what he knows. His pictures of his wife, Neetika, feeding the child while listening to music on the headphone could well have be the snapshot of the new Indian family. On second thoughts, it could also serve as a case-study of the new Indian photographer whose interest in the medium is to discover the degree to which his own life is different from the rest of the country.
Anay, an advocate of the mise en scene, the staged photograph says being ‘contemporary’ is not about a time, but of thinking in a new way. “We have learnt to look beyond the Ambassador, haven’t we?” says the photographer impishly.
But if you are going to ‘expose’ yourself, there has to be a very serious reason for doing it, says senior photographer Sunil Gupta. “What we are seeing in the rush to create a ‘sophisticated’ indigenous photo scene is an emulation of what’s cool in the West. But that means we have skipped the processes that led to that state of affairs.”
Pablo Bartholomew, a former chair of the Forum of Contemporary Photographers, who brought out his personal photographs only early this year at 52, also raises a point about the relevance of dropping conventional tools. “Art died when photographers discovered photoshop.” If everything can be staged, why not make a movie, he asks. “Is such a work fiction and if so, what point is it fiction? And if it’s reality, whose reality and for what purpose?”
Last week, a 28-year-old photographed herself yet again: “I was sitting around with a hydrating face mask. For me, it represented the cinematic, horrific, surgical, disturbing, humourous and the resurrection”. For Siya Singh, the road to self-discovery might be overlaid with too many adjectives but I have trouble believing this is a girl who is facing the camera with an eye on the sales.