Three Visions of Contemporary Indian Photography: Swapan Parekh, Soham Gupta, and Mahesh Shantaram

There's no doubt that Indian art is on the rise in the West. London-based Indian artist Anish Kapoor has just filled Paris's Grand Palais with his enormous "Leviathan," and on May 25 the Pompidou Center will unveil its first show bringing together Indian and European art, "Paris, Delhi, Bombay." Meanwhile, on a smaller scale, a photography show at Paris's Galerie Duboys, "This is not That," opens May 20 and brings the work of several Indian photographers to a European audience.


Co-curator and photographer Fabien Charuau, who also has works included in the show, told ARTINFO France that the "exhibition is a chance to step away from the diktats imposed by curators outside India, who try to make Indian offerings fit stereotypes and long-standing clichés." A photographer himself, Charuau is has lived in Mumbai for 13 years. He and his fellow curators hope to take the show to India after it closes in Paris.

ARTINFO France spoke to three of the photographers with pieces in the show: Swapan Parekh, whose digital snapshots are anchored in the real; Soham Gupta, whose portraits tackle issues of social injustice; and Mahesh Shantaram, who is perhaps best known as a prize-winning wedding photographer.


Do you seek out specific settings for your photos that will lend themselves to making a social statement?

This work developed in the cracks and wanderings of everyday life. It brings together intense moments of absence, when the eye finds itself between what it must expect from the real world and what is suddenly revealed, almost forced upon it. It then irresistibly feels like a tangential kind of perception. I seek a glossary of recurrent visual motifs, not a social statement.

Do you think that Indian photography is not represented enough worldwide?

Many Indian photographers, gallerists, and curators don't have a global awareness of the history of photography. Others are, on the contrary, much too pretentious. And some gallerists have a limited view of photography, a view directed by trends and artistic markets. Let's hope that the weight of these trends will decrease.

What aspects of India do your photos reveal?

I think that India has a very strong historical and cultural personality. However, my photos are not photos of India. Or, at least, they try not to be. They are between "me" and "I." They are not all taken in India, actually. These photos address my wanderings in the theater of my own life. It's a celebration of the ordinary.


Can you let someone else's voice come through working in a purely visual language?

I think that photography is still the best way to give a voice to the voiceless. Words and statistics can enlighten the public about a situation. A photograph can, all by itself, suddenly give life to that situation, while making it felt immediately. Words and numbers vanish quickly from the mind, while a photo can mark someone forever. For example, when you think of Che Guevara, Alberto Korda's photo pops into your head right away. Sometimes people say to me, "I feel uncomfortable in front of your images." For me, this is a compliment. It means that I reached them emotionally.

While your work is very political, it's anchored in a very aesthetic and poetic practice. How do you produce these images?

When I take pictures, I become someone else, I'm in a kind of trance. It's as if, at that moment, nothing else exists anymore except the person I'm photographing. I think that my models feel the love that I have for them. Even the most hostile ones seem happy to be photographed. I try to maintain a connection with them after I've photographed them and developed their portraits. I usually use very light-sensitive film, even in bright sunlight. I like the grain and the noise of my photos, which seem naked to me without them. I think that the extreme tones help the viewer to feel the extreme battles of existence — the battle to survive.

Could you show social injustice in a different way, by choosing subjects from the middle and upper classes?

I'm going to be honest: I started by photographing my sister, who is fabulous. In the beginning, I wanted to become a fashion photographer. I was attracted by glamor. That's before I discovered the work of photographers like Donald McCullin. Afterwards, I found glamor unreal. I started looking at things that never would have interested me before, from the window of my car. A different world opened up. And I became a documentary photographer, obsessively tracking social injustice. However, it's not true that I only photograph the poor. These people are not useful pets to make photographers feel charitable. They are like us. While gangs of photographers continue to crisscross the world, seeking "the poor and hungry," I document social injustice that is not limited to a single class or a single belief system.


Your images depict privacy and solitude. Is this a reaction against your career as a wedding photographer?

Indian weddings could be considered my public life. That's what I'm known for in India, and I even won an award at the Best Wedding Photographers Awards in Mumbai last month. This is an exciting life — it demands sociability and openness. The work that I'm presenting in "This is not That" accesses my private life. It's about hope and despair, love and solitude, and the fact that we can live two different lives.

Are you playing with notions of portraiture here? Your images always seem to lead to other stories outside the frame.

You can think of it as a big puzzle. Each piece is a clue, but it is not enough for understanding the whole. You have to use your imagination to discover how one piece leads to another, and then to yet another. It's a puzzle version of my life, as it can exist in the imagination.

These images are strange, isolated, and yet charged with a real sexual tension.

Yes. But their reality is what you project onto them, what you take from them. In this series, the narrative is unclear. There is no beginning, no end. The point of view is constantly changing. Sometimes you see me, and sometimes you see through me.