Images: Satish Sharma
Rotigraphy Images: Satish Sharma

A new lens

Satish Sharma describes a new visual language for the streets of Southasia.

Satish Sharma is an Indian photographer, curator and cultural critic whose work focuses on urban life in India. Kabita Parajuli, with the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange in Kathmandu, spoke recently with him about his view on photography and representation.  

How did you start working in this field?
I was coming across art spelled with a capital 'F' as in 'Fine Art'. So I switched from that to journalism. I saw photography mostly from the perspective of text, not as an image which is purely about itself and about art. That was the first real take-home point: that photography is about text, writing with light. Now I write – but I write about photography. Because all these experiences have come together I can understand the cultural politics of photography, and the cultural space it inhabits. This is much more important for me than just what is in the frame.

When you first started writing publicly, there was a lot of very strong reaction to what you were saying. 
My argument was that knowing the history of photography's aesthetic growth is not the same as knowing photography as a medium. And what Raghubir Singh and most photographers ignored when they talked about the history of photography is the colonial use of photography. Too many photographers were and are just continuing the white, male colonial gaze, in the so-called documentary tradition. It is still the upper class looking down at the lower classes, fixing certain identities, and fixing socio-political spaces. That's when the questions about documentary emerged. They upset the status quo because they were uncomfortable questions.

What did your critics say?
'He's just an intellectual' – this was a dismissive term. 'He's a frustrated photographer.' I used to go through these phases; I kept shooting, but I didn't publish, or I didn't show. I was writing. Which meant people would say, 'Oh, he's a former photographer.' But it was all trying to fix me in one identity, as a photographer and nothing else. I had one well-known photographer turning around and asking, 'Who's given him permission to write?' Like you need permission to write. It was alright if I wrote for his exhibition, but I couldn't write anything critical. He asked me to write for this exhibition he was having, and so I began with this line that photography is a cultural construct. And he got very upset because he has a habit of constructing his pictures, arranging them. And so he said – 'I want you to get rid of that…word.'

You said something very interesting earlier: that photography has been a colonial medium. Do you think it's possible to reappropriate photography?
Yes – totally. And that was my major project: to reclaim that space. What I found fascinating was that photography arrived with a totally realist discourse. So what happens when it meets a culture that doesn't believe in reality and realism, that talks about the world of maya, that talks about life as a leela – as just a play? What happens? It gets reappropriated. But it gets appropriated not in the mainstream power circles that actually practice and control photography, but in these small little studio spaces, where people have reclaimed the right to represent themselves.

What are particular ways in which this could happen?
Writing is one way to take charge of the discourse around photography. And this is where you can't separate photography from its textual base. It is not painting. People love to think of a photograph as a painting: as one frame within a gallery space or on a wall. And that's what they aspire to. Photographers want to be called artists. But I see the image as a text. As writing that says something.

Can you tell me a little more about how you developed your Texts and the City project, and how you decided to take those photos?
I read everything. I read all the signs on the road, I can't stop myself. And I find that reading those signs probably tells me more about a city than reading all the books about it. If you learn to read between the lines and behind the signs, then you can learn a tremendous lot about what some people have called the psychogeography of a city. That's the world advertisers construct around you, to control your emotions, and to get you to buy. For me to look at that space is to see how identity is being formed. You see the transition points that Kathmandu is in, or that Canberra is in, that are in Delhi. In this very strange way it fit into what was happening at Occupy Wall Street.

In what way?
In reclaiming spaces. The basic message coming through is about power and money in too few hands. The project was also about looking at the idea of greed. The whole system over there works on promoting greed – through advertising, by creating desire. Living in the land where the Buddha is born, it's about realising that desire is a cause of pain. So let's cut down desire. Their system works only if you promote desire. Let's occupy that space of greed and desire.

What did you see or learn about Kathmandu while taking these pictures?
For me the most fascinating was the first picture that I actually shot. I was near Patan Museum and I looked out and saw this beautiful, unbelievable, structure. And right at one end of that frame – or in the middle – was The Third World Restaurant and Guesthouse. That said a lot about how much this part of the world has internalised that identity – of being the third world. Whereas in reality, if you look at the architecture, this is the first world. That architecture is not produced by a 'third world' culture.

You mentioned earlier that if you were organising an exhibition, you would want it to be online – but then you've also said that online fora such as Facebook promote isolation and insecurity. So how do these things go together? 
It'd be online, but with a new discourse. There are new shows that are being curated. There were two awards given in the World Press Photo, the first time they were given to photographers who did not shoot the pictures: they actually put together what they called data mining, or hard drive mining. They went to Google, and they looked at all the pictures of women – streetwalkers – waiting on the street, pulled them together, and made a book.

So yes, there are all these images out there. But you can mine them. It's what I did when I picked up a lot of my photographs from the flea markets, or from the studios. You have all these pictures, what do you do with them? How do you give them another voice, or allow them to take on a new language?

For one example of changing the language take my email address– 'rotigraphy'. I was working on this project of acquiring photos from studios and flea markets and we had made friends with a lot of the local studio photographers in Old Delhi. They used to see my byline and stuff, so they knew me. I asked this photographer, 'Can I see some of your photography?' and he says, 'Photography to aap karte,' meaning, 'You do photography.' 'Meh rotigraphy karte huh,' – I'm just doing my photography to earn my roti. So that's where the word comes from. And that's a much more honest word. I love that word.

I noticed high levels of saturation and the multiple layers in a number of pictures –  the layers of colour, in particular. I remember the visibility of the pink in the temple shot, for example, which could easily have been lost.
For me that's what it's about, eventually – to stop being afraid of a certain way of living, culturally. Do we love colour? Yes, we love colour! Why are we told, 'Because you love colour, you're not as evolved as we are, we are a superior race.' Colour is fun. Colour has certain values. You can dress in certain colours and it'll affect your mood.

There's a very fascinating history of colour. A book that I read a few years ago was by the British artist and historian, David Batchelor — Chromophobia. It's about the West's fear of colour. Why does the west, in the art world and the fashion world, fear colour? His [theory] is that at the stage when a lot of the colour textiles were coming – at huge cost – to England and Europe, the people in power felt there was too much money going out, we need to stop people wanting all these incredibly beautiful calico [fabrics] and stuff. [They reasoned that it was] women who buy most of the clothes, that women were not as evolved as men, and thus they liked colour. So the theory was that people who are not evolved, within the Darwinian sense of the growth of mankind, are people who are going to like bright colours. The sophisticated people will prefer pastels, and the other more sophisticated, quieter, shades. That was the message that was passed on, as Batchelor writes in this chapter called 'John Blank', which meant 'John White'. This idea was transferred onto the natives. The natives in other lands, unless they're evolved people, will like bright colours.

So then what you've called 'unseeing' is not so much blocking out or ignoring, as much as it is reframing…and then looking at the same image within a new context.
With an awareness. It's not enough just to see an advertisement and read what it's telling you to go and buy – but what's behind a Vaseline whitening cream ad or facebook app? What is it all trying to tell you? That people who are whiter are superior in some way, and that people who are darker are not? That they're closer to the ape?

What were some of the reactions to this exhibition in Kathmandu? Did people give you their responses?
Actually, no. But it doesn't surprise me, because half the time people are so used to seeing photographs in a certain way that they expect something. Half the problem in India and around most of this part of the world is that most of the teaching spaces are actually teaching shops. They're meant to produce professionals who can make a living. But there are never people who will actually have a course which will make you understand a lot more about the media, about its history, about its uses, and then work from that point. It's much harder.

Believe me, for years when I first started getting into the theoretical work I stopped shooting. Everything I shot was 'problematic'. But then you begin to say – now I understand this, how do I address it in my work? Take the idea of cameras, which objectify, take the very male purpose of photography, the very phallic purpose of photography. Think of the way that cameras treat people, how they almost violate people's identities.

You have this visual example of feminising the camera – with some very essentialist feminine tropes. What else will this project look like for you, in terms of the photos you'll be making or creating?
There are two or three things that start working out. One is feminising photography in the sense of going back to Durga, her use of light as a weapon, to use photography as a weapon again. The second is to stop objectifying. For most male photographers that I know of among my own contacts, women are just something to be photographed – not even as a person, but her body. And that's one of the biggest achievements for Asian photographers: when they do nudes. There's Prabuddha Dasgupta in India and a few others. Other photographers go, 'Wow, how did you do that? How did you get that girl to strip?' But that's the male phallic purpose of photography. For me, the goal is to turn it around. You hand over the right to photograph. In fact, a couple of projects I've worked on have been to gift people lessons on how photography works in terms of objectifying women. Get the new photographers to question it – preferably you're working with women photographers. Hand over authority; let them determine how the camera works.

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Himal Southasian