CONVERSATION: ON PHOTOGRAPHY EDUCATION
Q. Photography has become a space where everyone has an entry point but on the other hand it has become a territory of great factions. Perhaps we need to think about what its strengths and weaknesses are today. If the University is trying to make an intervention in the life of an uninitiated student who needs to press on, into this world of international photography then what’s happening is that photo schools are making festivals benchmarks of contemporary trends. So perhaps there are worlds that need to exist together — the scholastic, studying the history, and the experiential — following someone’s history. These are all competing, contending parts of the contemporary, but what according to you are the main challenges confronting photography education today?
Photography is finally what it set out to be —a universal language. Beyond literacy, beyond geographies. But we need scholars of the image, and we need image studies to be taught at the school level, along with geography and math because we are communicating more and more through images. As a photographer, I am very aware of what all I put into the image and what that says about you (the subject). So, when you’re looking downwards you are a different person, when you look at me you’re another person. Each slight shift in my angle changes the reader’s impression of you. Everything in the frame is adding to my experience of you. Even the chair you are sitting on. But, we rarely analyse the image in such detail because the viewers of it are so disparate. Of course there are cultural differences and readings of images, but photography is certainly the language that unites the world. Yes, we urgently need image studies to be taught. In earlier times, the people who knew about this kind of image reading were the advertising people like Mohammad Khan’, who could say to you that the painting behind your head cutting through means such and such thing.
Then there is the history of the medium that needs more exploration because there are different histories of photography to be told. So, if one starts the idea of photography with Hippolyte Bayard (1801-1887) and the first set up image, then we know photography is a he from the beginning…how does that affect our reading of the image?
I often dream about a history of the medium which starts with Anna Atkins, the botanist who made the first photo book in 1853, and who used the tools that Daguerre provided but made her own form from it. Could she then not be the mother of photography? I could even say creative photography was the domain of women. These different readings of our medium are so important in order to enlarge the somewhat linear discourse.
I don’t know what it is about photography but somehow imitation seems to be its second nature. It could be the medium itself because after all when I am making a photograph, I am taking an impression of the light falling off you, right? So, I am imitating you into my camera. Photographers are very prone to this trend. And, I don’t think they see it as a problem. So we have versions of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and then versions of versions of him, and who ever may be trending now. I am not interested in the ‘versions of photographers. I am much more interested in each person’s own voice — not a borrowed voice that one sees so often in photography. Maybe it is the burden of the medium that leads to replication?
But if we look at photography and where it is now and we look at the people who aspire to it, I don’t think they (students) know an initiative like Provokes I don’t think they know why those high contrast pictures were made. That is, was a response to the politics of the modernist tradition prevalent in Japan at the time? You know when you only have 400 ISO film, you had to push it to get the pictures at night. This post processing then made the high contrast gritty pictures. It was not an ‘effect’. I think of Antoine D’Agata’s early intervention at the Angkor workshops and suddenly all the boys want to go there and everybody wants to visit a prostitute and give her a little love bite and then take a picture of the love bite, have her on the street, the crumpled bed sheets, the blurry orgasmic shot. If there’s water and you can have the flash on the droplets and that’s great. Her face is blown out with the flash so she looks like a ghost. The problem with trends is that you can smell the trend.
At this time, to my mind, there is nothing that qualifies as ‘Indian Photography’ other than how we live with the image. I was exasperated with `Indian Photography shows’. It’s not like we had a `Provoke’ movement or the Dusseldorf school, or the Yale school, then why this focus on ‘Indian’ photography? Yet how we embrace the image, how we garland and worship it might suggest ways to study the image in India. It was with this in mind that I made a Museum of Photography, a repository of photographs of how we ‘live with’ the image, rather than how we ‘make’ images. That is the PhD I would like to see from India. Then it would be adding something to the larger photography discourse. The lives of images.
Q. How can we enlarge the ambit of learning photography?
I suppose it’s time to roll up one’s sleeves and start talkinglteaching…even mentoring. In my imagined school of photography there could be a module made in 3-4 parts, but even before that, just to try and teach students how to construct an image. We take this skill for granted and then when you go to student juries, the level of sheer image-making is quite shocking. Not even talking about editing and form. The course would certainly have a module on literature and another on cinema, but even before that, there would be a book-making course. It’s not about whether a book is published or not, but the book-making process helps you ‘see’ your work, and to be surprised by it, to find new directions within the work. To me, images are raw material. It is when you build a book that the work is realised. You might later give it another form, but a book is where it starts for me. I suppose it’s like the editing table in cinema. That’s where the film is ‘reahsed’. Can you be a photographer without understanding editing, sequencing and how to tell a story? Book making is 1<ey to ‘becoming’ a photographer. You may not ever publish a book, but it’s a way to understand where your work is going, where it is drooping, where it needs a rupture, the gaps, the overlaps. Making images is the easiest part.
I often say to aspiring photographers —do the MA in literature and then come to photography. How else can you bring vast resources of life experience to your work? Reading is key. As is cinema. And then of course it is crucial to know the history of the medium but it’s such a young medium that a week is enough for that study. Only when you know the history can you challenge it, otherwise you risk reinventing the wheel. If we were to look quite objectively at where photography is now, making a living out of photography is difficult, not impossible, but tough. Yet, documentary photography is something we will always need, every society needs it. I would want do something to support that. It is perhaps the most essential aspect of photography and we have to keep it going.
The festivals too, for instance, could be a time for mentoring. I hope Kochi Biennale Foundation starts a 3-month school where different artists run workshops. All you need is one faculty to run the programme. Dhaka Art Summit has proposed an educational pavilion, where I will teach a workshop on making a Shoe Box Museum. There are several ‘faculty’ choices for a group of 30 people. The importance of mentoring cannot be stated enough but I don’t mentor anybody because photographers today go to about ten different people and aim for a common denominator. So, if ten people have liked this photo, it’s a good photo! To me that means it’s mediocre, it does not shift a thing and it just follows what was seen before. Photography takes time, give yourself a decade before you run to have books or exhibitions. Who would listen to such advice? I would like to call my imagined school Slow Dancing With Photography.
Having said that, I am trying to do a photo book residency for five women photographers in my house in Goa this March. Let’s see how that works out, and then perhaps it could become an ongoing thing. Ideally, I would like to do 3 workshops with the same group over the year.
Q. The photoboolc is also now a growing trend. Do you think it has taken root in India yet?
Well it is certainly starting and I am sure in a few years we will have festivals and exhibitions of the photobook. The book, is after 211, the most suitable form for viewing photographs. But just this morning I finally understood the problem of the book dummies I have been seeing in India. Photographers are not making hand-made dummies, where one cuts and pastes actual prints, editing and sequencing, building the book, then taking it apart and rebuilding it, with one’s own hands. The photographers go straight from cameralhard drive to InDesign and drop their images often into pre-existing templates, and see the bound version only when they pay INR 50001-to the digital printer. I find that shocking. No wonder the books feel awkward, as though they made themselves in some app.
The second problem is that the photographers eager to make their first book (totally understandable) don’t look at it from the pubhsher’s point of view, they don’t look at the ‘book world’ point of view. They are just trying to make a diary of themselves. This is perfectly fine if you are self-publishing, but if like me, you love the mass produced aspect of books then you have to think like a publisher. How is someone going to publish my book if it’s not even communicating? Seeing a series of beautiful pictures is not enough to make a book (there’s enough of that on Instagram) but they look for that which will make viewers engage with the book again and again. Is that not why one actually buys the book versus flipping through it in a book shop? Then the book needs dissemination, the book needs distribution. That is the most tricky part and there you need the publisher. It is only when self-publishing works out its own distribution, that we will have an alternate publishing scenario in India.
Q. What are some of the key components that institutions should focus on?
Anita Khemka from SACAC actually asked me to come and speak about ethics. At first I thought it was cliched, but in between I had an NID course, and then I thought actually, yes, ethics is very connected to photography because it is such an invasive thing that you’re doing to people. And old fashioned as it might sound to talk about morality, one has to think about these things because if your ethics aren’t questioned then you’re not going to get access. People can smell your intentions both in being photographed and in viewing the pictures. I certainly can.
As mentioned, institutions attempting to teach photography need to focus on literature and cinema as much as making the still photograph. The new forms of photography will arrive from these cross pollinations. They too need to realise the importance of the book as a way of ‘becoming’ a photographer. And most of all institutions need to focus on form. For example, in NID when you look at student proposals, they seem great because they have all the right references and lots of research. But when you finally get to the jury and see what was produced, it is somewhat disappointing. I was concerned that they did not seem to know how to construct an image. Is that something that can be taught? I think so. How can we be photographers if we don’t understand the image? What can teach us the image better than cinema? Are students looking at prints of great images even just in books?
Another realisation upon seeing students’ work was that there is little understanding of the ‘print’ as most students outsource the printing and then make prints that look like their computer monitors —almost garish and over saturated. So that’s a serious problem when you don’t understand how to construct an image and how to actualise it in the print. So I am afraid the very basics also needed to be stressed in institutions. I was at NID many years ago, and did the full five-and-a-half-year course in visual communication, not just the photography course. I studied textiles, product design, ceramics, furniture, exhibition design and then came to visual communication where once in a while I could work with photography. So, NID actually gave me more than any art school could have given me for what I wanted to do—about problem solving, about thinking out of the box. Sent a Letter6 comes entirely from all these aspects that I learnt at NID. We had a foundation course with Mohan Bhandari that was really about opening up the mind. Then I went to photography school in NYC, but there was not much there in terms of finding a voice of ones own. Maybe that one has to learn on one’s own too? Or have an excellent mentor. ICP taught me all the skills but not the ‘thought’. I wonder how one teaches rigour? Certainly it is the first thing that is taught in Indian classical music, in the guru-shishya parampara. How a photo school might instill rigour, I don’t know. But without rigour, it’s quite impossible.
Before NID or alongside NID there were all the travels with the musicians. Now, if you have a genius like Zakir Hussain as your mentor then nothing is good enough, no book and no exhibition is good enough. He was always there to rap me on the Knuckle and he said, that ‘the day you start to believe that (you have achieved something), that day it’ll be over.’ I still listen to him.
Aperture wanted to make a monograph of my work in )997 and Walter Keller7 (my mentor) said ‘absolutely not’ and that it was way too early. Can you imagine saying `no’ to Aperture at that time for a monograph? Today, I can’t get young photographers to believe me when I tell them to just go out and work and that means making an edit and sequencing and not getting bogged by books and exhibitions for at least a decade. Who will listen to that Kind of advice? And so I don’t teach. Everyone wants photography to be instant and in some ways photography is about instant gratification, but that is not enough. Photography in itself is just not enough. You have to go outside the medium to go deeper into it.
INTERVIEWED BY RAHAAB ALLANA
LEFT: Anna Atkins, Sargassum plumosum Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Halstead Place, Sevenoaks, England: Anna Atkins, 1843-53. The New York Public Library, Spencer Collection. RIGHT: Louis Daguerre captured the first ever hoax photograph shot.