Hailed as the most democratic and relevant art form of our times, this past decade has seen photography really mature into this identity. From artist-led platforms linking young artists to innovative festivals popping up across the globe, the international photo community is growing and diversifying by the minute.
In a world of hyper-connectivity, the opportunities to share work and link up with like-minded artists online has transformed photography, giving power to practitioners and paving the way for new and experimental voices to shape the way the medium is headed. There’s no doubt that the Internet has opened the floodgates onto the possibilities of photography for artists and audiences alike. But with it comes a need for a physical framework that brings these new ideas and networks off the screen and into the real world for everyone to see. It’s no surprise that the festival is an important meeting point for the international photo community; a physical space where artist and public make contact and new ideas and collaborations come into play. It is in these real spaces that the medium comes into motion in weird and wonderful ways that respond to the immediate surroundings.
With a rich and varied photographic history, India is not short on young talent. Photographers like Sohrab Hura, a recent Magnum nominee from Delhi, and Sushant Chhabria, a Mumbai-based artist shortlisted for last year’s prize at Hyères International Festival of Fashion and Photography, are producing exciting work that is making its mark internationally. Publications like PIX and Motherland keep an eye on developments in the contemporary photography scene and a slowly growing number of galleries are beginning to show interest in the medium. But with only several schools region that offer dedicated photography degrees – neighbouring Bangladesh is home to one of the best, Pathshala South Asian Media Institute – and a lack of museum participation in photography, people have taken matters into their own hands and clubbed together to develop innovative platforms for fostering and supporting emerging artists and building a solid photography community.
Images by – Sushant Chhabria
The photography festival has been an important part of this movement. Over eight were launched in India over the past five years. In Delhi, there is Delhi Photo Festival, Mumbai has FOCUS Photography Festival, Goa has several including Goa Photo and Goa International Photo Festival, Pondicherry has Pondy Photo and most recently launched are Chennai Photo Biennale and Travel Photo Jaipur. Each with its own nuances, they seem to share a joint aim of creating a platform for artists to make and show work and building an audience through an innovative use of public space. Bringing together international members of the photo industry, most offer a rich programme of talks, workshops, portfolio readings – as well as lots and lots of photography from India and beyond. Unlike your usual shows, these exhibitions are unpredictable and roaming, open to anyone who happens upon them. Photography spills outdoors into the street, onto the seaside, into old buildings as well as onto the walls of galleries, museums, shops and cafes. Keen to collaborate with young collectives, these festivals have provided a platform for some exciting projects.
In 2008, photographers Akshay Mahajan and Kapil Das founded experimental online and offline photography platform Blindboys.org. Born from a frustration with an ‘exclusive’ photography scene, a lack of mentoring and little interaction between photographers, Blindboys.org was built as an independent webzine with a focus on the South Asian region for photographers to share and discuss their work. An equally important part of their aim was to bring photography offline, creating alternative spaces for artist and audience to come into contact. With their signature pop-up exhibitions and outdoor screenings, the team gathers work from all over the world and then brings it outdoors. “Photography is a universal visual language. It’s as important to show it in the street as it is to show it in a serious gallery space,” Mahajan commented when speaking to FOCUS in 2015.
Images by – Blindboy
Photographers are invited to submit their work online through an open call then Blindboys organise events where everyone can pitch up and get involved. From outdoor laser-print exhibitions to ad-hoc screenings, the platform collaborates with different community spaces and local businesses to put photography up in unexpected places. “A successful BlowUp is where these two worlds meet. These interactions around the lines of photography, where you have people from different spaces and places as well as the photographers themselves, are the most important thing to us,” Mahajan adds. These BlowUp events have taken place during festivals in cities across the world including Bangalore, Mumbai, Newcastle, New Delhi, Paris and Siem Reap.
Their most recent BlowUp included a series of evening projections along the seafront of Carter Rd. in Mumbai as part of FOCUS Photography Festival. This month, Blindboys participated in Travel Photo Jaipur. For Thinking of You, a site-specific installation in the former Jaipur Art School, Mahajan turned his back on Whatsapp, Twitter and Instagram in favour of celebrating the vintage postcard.
Formed more recently in 2015 in Mumbai, BIND collective is a group of five practicing photographers and designers, Philippe Calia, Andrea Fernandes, Asmita Parelkar, Nishant Shukla and Sunil Thakkar. Created partly to combat the solitary nature of photography, the group has been working together intermittently over the past few years on various projects including managing an online network called Bombay Photographers and the Mumbai branch of Open Show along with various educational and curatorial projects. As well as collaborating on projects together as artists, BIND acts as a curator, publisher and educator. Experimental in its approach, they explore the medium of photography through photobooks, multimedia installations and performances.
One of BIND’s long-term projects is building up a travelling photobook library. Pooling together their own collections, they wrote to artists and publishers around the world asking them to donate or lend books to the library. With the aim of disseminating photobook culture in the region and making it available to the public, the library launched last year at FOCUS Photography Festival in an old building called The Muse. The extensive collection included seminal classics, publications from India and its neighbouring countries as well as a curated exhibition, Ellipses, of international contemporary favourites selected from an open call for independent and self-published books. The exhibition offered visitors access to books from across the world like Nicolò Degiorgis’s Hidden Islam and Rut Blees Luxemburg’s The Academic Year.
Image by – Bind Collective (photobook library)
“While the Internet has been significant in disseminating the work of photographers, it has its limitations in terms of intimacy and depth. Photobooks on the other hand, allow you to have meaningful encounters and relationships with artists and their work,” they explain. The library was accompanied by a collateral programme of talks, screenings and performances including talks by Italian collective CESURA and French photography Vasantha Yogananthan, co-founder of the publishing house Chose Commune. Since last year, the library has already visited Photo Kathmandu and Travel Photo Jaipur and have big plans to grant free access to these books which aren’t available anywhere else.
“While the Internet has been significant in disseminating the work of photographers, it has its limitations in terms of intimacy and depth”
The collective shows no sign of slowing down. “From our initiation, we wanted to be experimental in our approach and so every project we have undertaken since our first curated photobook exhibition at FOCUS Photography Festival has been a step in that direction. So far, we have curated an evolving exhibition of Max Pam’s stunning journals at Delhi Photo Festival, we created new portraits and stories against the amazing archival imagery of the Nepal Picture Library and recently we organised a conversation with the unparalleled photobook collector, himself – Martin Parr,” they explain.
What’s next? Looking into the future, BIND add: “After years of social conditioning and commercialism largely editing the language of photography in India, attitudes are changing. Contemporary Indian photographers are shedding their inhibitions and unabashedly finding a voice that is uniquely theirs. We have everything in India, in terms of resources, expertise and culture to be influenced by, so to be involved in photography at a time when this potential is being tapped into at such a rapid pace is very exciting.”
Sophie Wright is a freelance writer and photographer. She has worked at festivals in Mumbai and Amsterdam and contributed to a wide range of publications including The British Journal of Photography, So It Goes magazine and Of The Afternoon. Her most recent post was working as editor of Unseen Magazine.