Eyes Wide Open

Indias first truly international photo festival
India's first truly international photo festival sets out to strike an affinity with the viewer, across geographies and memories

A shaft of light blazes from behind him. His eyes remain transfixed upward with delight. A toothsome smile leaves his face crinkled. A jacket tied loosely around his neck and a furry topi give him the air of a rakish hero on the prowl on a winter's night. This man is anonymous but to see his photograph, shot by Amit Madheshiya, 29, is to believe in the magic of movies. You can't see what he is looking at but the shaft of light stands for all of cinema and his open-mouth glee testifies to the power of entertainment. Just as the picture on the screen transports him to another world, you are transported to his the travelling tent cinemas found across villages of Maharashtra.

To take these portraits, Madheshiya used only the light from the projector, without the punch of flash, and often spent the entire duration of the film focusing on a single person.He explains: "Inside the cinema tent, I sat against the screen facing the audience as the screening began. I would then identify the person I wanted to photograph and then gradually make my way towards him/her. This was an unhurried movement and took me about half an hour, on an average, to cover about 20 feet."

Madheshiya's At a Tent Theatre Near You can be seen at the ongoing Delhi Photo Festival (October 15 to 28). Organised by Prashant Panjiar and Dinesh Khanna, ace photographers and founders of Nazar Foundation (which supports and publishes photographic art), the festival brings the work of numerous talented photographers to the city, who take you through different worlds, across geographies and memories. Being held at the India Habitat Centre (IHC), the exhibition will be open to all and for free. When Khanna and Panjiar first thought of organising a Delhi photo festival, they wanted images hung across the city at various public spaces, in keeping with the truly democratic nature of photography. While the logistics of the original idea proved too arduous, hosting it at IHC has allowed them to retain the non-commercial and democratic aspect. The organisers hope that the festival will prove to be a learning experience for anyone with a keen eye and a story to tell, as it will show that "photography goes beyond being a hobby and a memory-collector, and is a worthy medium for expression and communication", says Khanna.

While India has never had a photo festival of this scale, the organisers have been inspired by other important Asian photo festivals like Chobi Mela in Dhaka, the Angkor Photo Festival in Cambodia and the Singapore International Photography Festival. This biennial venture aims to put Delhi on the international photo map while also strengthening the ties of the photographic community within the country.

The print works range from the personal to the political, the quirky to the profound but all seek to evoke "affinity" within the frame and with the viewer. Panjiar explains the choice of "affinity" as the festival's theme: "At a festival, it's not just about the best photographs. A theme becomes a way to explore the practice of photography. We started thinking of community, family, and the one word that defines all that is affinity. It can keep the festival open to all kinds of work. It allows people to interpret it differently."

If Madheshiya evokes the affinity created by cinema in its viewers, Nishant Ratnakar tells a universal story of gender and colour discrimination through a mother and her adopted daughters, using photographs and digital projection. In Fistful of Dreams, Ratnakar, 29, an editorial and documentary photographer, "embeds" himself into the lives of Bangalore-based Veena and her daughter Akila, from the day five-year-old Palguni is adopted into the family. Ratnakar hopes to build an opinion against gender and colour discrimination through this project, which also talks about the difficulty of dark girls finding adoptive parents. In black-and-white images, he catches Palguni in a mid-air leap or smiling at herself in a scooter's mirror or snuggled in her mother's embrace on the day she leaves the orphanage. The contrast between the fair-skinned mother and her dark-skinned daughters often prompts strangers to ask Veena if her daughters are adopted, revealing society's prejudices. Dark-skinned himself, and belonging to a fair family, Bangalore-based Ratnakar says, "As I grew older, I started noticing how people differentiate between people of different race and skin colour, and how stereotypes were being built around them. So I thought of highlighting racial discrimination through a body of photographic work." His photos illustrate these prejudices in a sensitive and not a sensational way. Through the daily routines of mother and daughters, one sees the life they create for themselves, complete with struggles and laughter, in an imperfect world.

The 500-plus photographs (in the print section) prove the insight of this generation of younger photographers, who engage with social issues and look for stories in hidden corners. Works of veteran photographers like Kanu Gandhi, known for his intimate photographs of Mahatma Gandhi, bowed over a microscope or with a telephone receiver to his ear, and Raghu Rai whose images have come to symbolise India, are part of the exhibition. Senior photographers like Prabuddha Dasgupta and Pablo Bartholomew and UK-based Sam Harris will hold talks and lectures. However, the majority of photographs on display are by younger artists with many in their late 20s and 30s, from over 20 countries.

With the works sourced from online submissions, these 80-odd photographers were chosen from a pool of 600-plus applicants. Panjiar believes that many senior photographers would not have been interested, while the younger ones looking for avenues for display grabbed the opportunity. As bodies of work had to be submitted by the applicants, the selection committee wasn't inundated by the work of amateurs or gadget-geeky enthusiasts.

We live in a deeply photographed world, submerged by images of plenty but few of quality. These younger practitioners move away from the tagged and identical worlds of mediocre photography and instead evoke wonder and create empathy. They deal with issues of our time, be it the UID project or farmer suicides in Maharashtra. They explore family histories, and question ideas of identity. Or sometimes, they simply zoom in on the unusual, like Aparna Jayakumar's Flex, Feroze!, which documents the bodybuilding championships of the Parsis. "I saw an innate irony in the situation a bodybuilding championship for a dwindling community," Jayakumar says, identifying the incongruity.

Bare Codes by Sumit Kathuria, 27, which juxtaposes portraits of people against code, expresses the photographer's concern over "human identity being reduced to codes", through a system like Aadhaar. If Kathuria combines portraits with code, Laura El-Tantawy's I'll Die for You: Suicide in Rural India combines portraits with nature, in her series photographed in Maharashtra. This well-known Egyptian photographer shows the contours of a land in the veins of a farmer's hand. She combines the static studio pictures of farmers who committed suicide with that of leaves and trees. Each flows into the other showing the innate connection between the two. If the land flourishes, so does the farmer; if the land perishes, so does the farmer. El-Tantawy, 31, who came across a newspaper article in 2009 about farmer suicides, says, "I consider this relationship between man and land the root of the story and the catalyst for these suicides. The title I'll Die For You is a reference to this relationship." She visited the homes and families of farmers who had killed themselves and spent time asking and listening, through a translator, before she pulled out the camera. "The camera always came last," she says. Affinity came first.

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