Back in 2013, when I was trying to learn as much as I could about photography and seeing the works of stalwarts like Henri Cartier Bresson, Daido Moriyama, Raghubir Singh and others, I chanced upon a photo essay titled ‘Blow’ in a magazine, by a photographer from Kolkata named Shan Bhattacharya. They were rather simple images taken from everyday life, of a dead fish, a beverage can, a used condom and other things arranged in a diptych with X-Ray images, CAT scans and ultra sonograms of different internal structures of the human body. The strange thing about the images was that every time I looked at them over a couple of months, I interpreted them in a different way. You rarely come across photo essays which are visceral, directly hitting you in the face and making you feel the brunt of globalisation and rampant consumerism all over the world. It takes a while for the uninitiated to read the scans and the X-Rays to see that they all carry signs of disease, but that does not take away the beauty of ‘Blow’, rather it creates a veil of mystery around it, to be discovered by the viewer in each viewing. Shan has built a formidable reputation three years after ‘Blow’, having won the inaugural Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Grant for Photography from the Sher-Gil Sundaram Arts Foundation.
In a conversation with Shan, while we lazed around on the open fields of Maidan staring at Victoria Memorial and lapped up the evening cool breeze, he opened up about his close association with films and music and what ticked him off to pursue ‘Blow’ and his projects after that.
BongRong: Shan, tell us how ‘Blow’ happened?
Shan: Back in 2012, before ‘Blow’ happened, I and some of my photographer friends were planning for an exhibition. Most of them had completed their projects or were close to completion. So, I was watching some films before this, like some Sion Sono films. I watched this short of his which dealt with food consumption, global consumer patterns and effects of it. So that really stuck in mind and I started thinking along those lines, and that’s how I conceived ‘Blow’. I used to work at an emergency department of a hospital at one point of time, so I had access to CT scans, X-Ray’s and other radio diagnostic materials. That’s how I got the concept of disease and its relationship with consumption habits in my head and that’s how ‘Blow’ was finally conceptualised. It was kind of my take on the global effects of consumption and disease with the things I had in my hand.
You might have noticed that there are only ten or so pictures in that series. After the exhibition took place, many people asked me to elaborate it and do something more. But by that time, I had kind of moved on. I did not really see the point of expanding it when you can get what I am trying to say after seeing three or four images from the series.
BongRong: Is ‘Blow’ your first major work? Did you do any photo essays before that?
Shan: Yes, that was my first major work. I did photo essays before that but that was more like a random process. I used to click a lot of photos, then sit with them at a later point of time and select them, what we usually know as ‘table-edit’. I got bored of that process at one point of time because I felt I had to compromise a lot, let go of certain things and also trying to think about things which were actually not there in the images, which I felt was sort of restraining me. So when I did ‘Blow’, I approached it in a different way. The whole thing was planned and set up beforehand. So, if you see it from that perspective, it was my first major work. Also, after I did ‘Blow’, there was a lot of clarity in what I actually wanted to do. I was very confused before that. So, with ‘Blow’ my practice of photography also became very concise.
BongRong: What really made you decide the form of ‘Blow’, the use of diagnostics scans, the form of a diptych, because I remember the first time I saw it I was really struck by it because of the form and I thought here is something new. Is it something you planned from the very beginning?
Shan: Not from the very beginning. For me, both the form and content are very important and the form is a part of the content as well. It is really difficult to come up with a completely new form in the 21st century because so much has been done and experimented with. There is a huge history of image making, whether in photography, painting or cinema. So there is a burden of that history on you, whether you like it or not. I did have two or three forms in mind before I sat down and chose which would be really appropriate for ‘Blow’. While I was doing my research, I noticed a kind of similarity between the materials I had. By then, I had already decided that I would work on the theme of post consumption. The decision actually took place when I started looking at everything from a distance. The other forms I had in my mind did not have the ‘Visual Punch’ I wanted in the images. So I thought this would be the best form to engage the viewer.
BongRong: Coming to ‘Hiraeth’, which is an archive based project made from your grandfather’s pictures, was this also planned like ‘Blow’ was?
Shan: ‘Hiraeth’ was not a project which came out of an artistic exercise actually. Everyone has their old family albums which they see at some intervals; even I looked at them the same way. But my grandfather was an avid photography enthusiast; he photographed his family and other relatives for over 30 years, so he had a huge archive. He did it purely out of passion; he did not want to be a photographer or something. So after he passed away, I told my grandmother that she needs to go out so that she feels better. That’s where it all started actually; she wanted to go this place they used to stay in Dunlop, and then we just went to all the places they lived in Kolkata, even in Bangladesh. A lot has changed right now, the spaces, the people, everything. She wanted me to take my camera, because she is very used to having her pictures taken you know. So that is where the idea came from, to take her everywhere and shoot her. I wanted to engage with what my grandfather did. As I said, a lot has changed you know. I realised my perspectives are not the same as my grandfather’s, my techniques are not the same as his and a lot of other things. I wanted to engage with this memory and the spaces that they were present in. I gathered that a particular social economical class, primarily the wealthy ones used to do this. But my grandfather was not of that sort, he used to get only thirty five rupees as his salary, and he used to note down every expense, even film rolls and development. So I wanted to represent this engagement of his with photography and also wanted people to identify with their own family albums and at the same time realise that it is something different as family albums usually go. That’s how ‘Hiraeth’ happened, unplanned and rather in a very intimate way.
BongRong: I recently saw the whole photo essay you made for the album ‘Heart of Darkness’ by the Bodhisattwa Trio. Talk us through how that happened and the process behind it?
Shan: Bodhi and I are very old friends and I have been associated with the trio for a long time. I did a few photoshoots for them in the initial stage and even went with them to their Europe tour as a tour photographer. From the Europe tour itself, they were planning for their second album (Heart of Darkness), and I was also getting the vibe that it is going to be something very different from their first album. So I was kind of aware of the growth of the songs in the album, right from the inception to the recording. Also, the kind of events or issues which personally influenced him for the songs in this album, I am kind of in loop with them. He told me around January that he needs a visual accompaniment to the album; it’s like he wanted another musician to play in the album, but with images. I decided then that I would design their CD cover like a photo book and also work with the inherent themes in the album, which you can’t exactly put into words but can feel them. Around March, when the demos were ready, I listened to them quite a few times and discussed with him the possibilities and kind of explored the theme a bit more, because progressive jazz is very exciting, in terms of its mathematics and structure and not just because of the headspace and content. I didn’t really have a clear idea then of what the visuals would be, but I was clear on the visual language that I would use. There is a dirty, gritty and unrefined vibe in the images of ‘Heart of Darkness’. And they recorded the songs live in a very small, closed room, so there is a sense of claustrophobia also that I wanted to represent in the images. So I started with the idea of looking through because ultimately music is about self-reflection, for which one has to learn to see oneself from a distance and then move closer to it, otherwise you might just miss something about yourself. If you look at the cover image, you are just looking through a screen but it is at the end reflecting you only. I just decided that I would load the film in my camera and just go out. After a month and a half, I sat down with those images and started to look for a line and thread in those images, which goes with the structure and content of the album, something that represents their music. Then it came in my domain where I plan out things and go for it. Then I went out at intervals and started taking pictures. After it finished, I sat down with him and designed the photo book.
From ‘Heart of Darkness’ Album Artwork
From ‘Heart of Darkness’ Album Artwork
From ‘Heart of Darkness’ Album ArtWork
BongRong: Thank you Shan da for taking out some time for this interview and we wish you all the success for his upcoming projects.