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By Tejal Pandey, originally published in The Hindu on 1/8/18

Photo quarterly PIX’s student issue explores the role of student, teacher and school in contemporary times

‘Here come real stars to fill the upper skies, And here on earth come emulating flies’. These lines from Robert Frost’s poem ‘Fireflies in the Garden’ are what inspired Chattisgarh born photographer Anupam Diwan to go looking for things “which glow in the dark”. What follows are surreal images of a statue bathed in neon blue and a swarm of fireflies lighting up the night sky. Kolkata photographer Swastik Pal borrows the title of Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide to document the last inhabitants of the sinking Ghoramara Island in the Sunderbans. Manish Paudel, from Birgunj, Nepal makes frames resembling abstract textured forms from close-up shots of labourer’s bodies while Mumbai based photographer Aishwarya Arumbakkam’s work, rooted in Khasi myth, is delicately constructed photo fiction. These works are part of 13 projects featured in The Student Issue (TSI) by PIX, a collective that thematically focuses on contemporary photography and writing emerging from India and South Asia. Of these, two will be presented this evening, following a panel discussion on pedagogy and practice, where PIX member Philippe Kalia will be in conversation with art critic and curators Girish Shahane and Gadihoke and photo artist Riti Sengupta.

Multi-disciplinary approach

Each work, created either as a student project or during a workshop, travels beyond photography, looking at myth, history, memory and montage to tell its story. It’s enough proof that photography today is a medium that operates on multi-disciplinary levels, borrowing from myriad resources. Keeping in mind photography’s changes in approach and practice, PIX in its latest volume gives the medium its corner for study, debate and dialogue. Supporting the photowork by the 13 emerging artists made across India, Bangladesh and Nepal are essays and interviews with noted names like Dayanita Singh, Shahidul Alam, Gayatri Sinha, Sabeena Gadihoke and Riyas Komu, to name a few. These explore the various tenets of photo education. Establishing crucial contexts, through which the volume finds its tenor, are pieces by members of PIX’s editorial team.

Co-designer on the issue, Sukanya Baskar — who earlier designed Witness — a photobook tracing Kashmir’s history, while studying graphic design at the NID, Ahmedabad – relates how the initial thought behind the design was to give it a “scholastic tone”. Like Baskar, every individual featured in TSI, is either currently teaching or has studied at one of the several schools the issue scrutinises, for its teaching methodologies and approaches. But one asks, does photography need centres of formal education? If so why, and what would these entail?

Understanding the medium

“The university remains perhaps the most important, radical place to exercise the freedom of expression and question notions around ethics, authenticity, originality and voice,” expresses Rahaab Allana, editor of PIX. The idea behind the issue evolved from a two day closed-door conclave, ‘Deliberating Photography Education in India’ at the National Institute of Design’s (NID) Gandhinagar campus, in April 2017. Allana shares how devising a format of interacting with teachers, students and known professional about their experiences, helped give the team at PIX “an entry point into [understanding] pedagogical strains and structures.”

From emphasising the importance of the history of photography, to learning how to frame an image, the featured voices stress on self reflection, conceptual learning and cognizance that come from familiarity to literature, cinema and other art practices beyond photography. While Sharbendu De, visiting faculty for photojournalism and documentary photography at AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia, encourages self-expression in his students, working issues like depression and body image complexes into photographic projects, Anita Khemka, Photography HOD of the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts & Communication (SACAC) shares how her students made self-portraits inspired by the works of Franz Kafka, Salvador Dali and Man Ray. Kalia, a photographer is also a co-founder of photo book collective BIND eggs students to turn to photobooks, libraries and museums as rich resources “…to do research, to observe, discover, develop their visual culture and tastes.” Just like the proverb – one learns painting at the museum, Kalia’s contention is that “one learns photography at the library”.