Interview: Moushumee Jha
Just to give the readers a bit of background, we met through Art Photo Feature and the “Finding Light” competition …Instantly I noticed your sensitivity to light, but that is just the beginning. Could you tell us more about the photography you make and what sets it apart?
It’s been an honour and privilege to come in contact with you thru the Art Photo Feature forum. You are absolutely correct in noticing my sensitivity to light.
Over the years, I’ve worked as an actress in theatre, stage, TV artist and have even worked in a few feature films (Assamese language). As such, the vocabulary and structure of black and white films, the directors’ instructions to “hold the light” and the nuances of using the play of light and shadow has stayed with me as I moved into photography.
In some sense, my images are my stage, my subjects are the artists on this stage and I try to find/tell their stories using light to create my show through my pictures.
This would explain my preference for black and white, use of light and shadows, patterns and reflections in my photography.
In the last decade, the combination of digital photography and the Internet have led to an explosion of pictures being taken. It seems many people feel like they have a creative eye. And it has also allowed photographs to be more than pictures “of places” but “pictures from places.” Could you speak about being a photographer from India and if that matters to you?
As digital photography and certainly mobile phone cameras have become cheaper and widespread, we have certainly seen that more talent is being discovered, showcased and recognized than ever before. Social media platforms have been a great enabler in the democratization too. It has not only allowed people to publish more and consume more, but also share more and learn from each other.
I don’t believe that everyone who is creating, publishing, sharing pictures is necessarily talented. But I do believe that if someone is talented, the new tools and the medium makes it much easier for someone to be discovered. It is much harder to miss talent.
What is also happening is that the new talent is looking at the world around them as “insiders”. They are very comfortable with the scenes, the context, the stories, the culture and the nuances and they are bringing forward a perspective that an external documentation could never capture. Perhaps this is what you are referring to as “being a photographer from India”.
I will give you an example. As an Indian, and a resident of Delhi, the by-lanes of Jama Masjid area are not new to me. I am familiar with the people, the culture, the rhythm of the place. I am also familiar to the people who live and work there. So when I go inside an old Haveli, drawn by a dim light, it is not out of place at all. This act allowed me to discover a group of friends relaxing after a day’s work and playing “Carrom” which became the prize winning entry for the APF forum competition.
Similarly, as a daughter of Assam, when I visited Majuli, the largest river island in the world, the obvious did not inspire me unlike the other photographers who get fascinated by the monuments, the dances, the culture. I found it fascinating to understand the life of young boys, brought to Majuli to train as monks.
I think it is a big advantage of being from India in that sense. India is diverse, full of stories, culture, tradition & social patterns that don’t overwhelm me as they would a foreign observer. This enables me to get to the story behind the scene, which is my trump card.
Being Indian, being from India, being a woman – I get access, acceptance and proximity to present these stories through my canvas.
When I went to India for the first time, I decided to leave the camera in the hotel. It was such an intense experience, my aim was to just absorb everything. Growing up in India, what is the country like from an insider?
For an Indian, who grew up in India, in the traditional family setup, India is inherently a very simple place – life happens at its own pace with an age-old established pattern that repeats. We simply follow the pattern. People are simple and spiritual. Nature is supreme – every element has a God.
Its only when we try to communicate about the seeming chaos on the street, the philosophy behind our spirituality, the rationale behind the celebrations and we try to provide a reasoned, logical argument that we begin to complicate stuff.
Growing up, one can discern the expanse and diversity of India – people, traditions, festivals, food, language etc., but even then there is a spiritual binding that that organizes the chaos; something that foreigners discover after they have made repeated visits to India.
As a photographer, India therefore provides a wide tapestry. There is so much to see, absorb, adopt in our images – color, texture, expressions, hardship, happiness, celebration, spirituality. And this happens in a non-stop fashion.
Pursuing the arts is not often encouraged. It can be a challenging path professionally and people are often discouraged from it. Can you tell us a bit about how you became interested in photography and how your nurtured the practice both artistically and professionally?
This is a myth. There is a history of “in-the-family” tradition especially for arts, crafts in India. The modern India especially the post-independence 50 years may have been about assimilating into the western systems and a focus on engineers, doctors and such professions but liberal arts have always been favoured by folks in eastern India, southern parts and even western portions.
I come from family of artists, musicians, authors & academicians myself. The evenings at home would reverberate with music, laughter, stories and celebrations. There was a creative competition between the family members. This helped set the bar high for my own artistic stint – I had to measure up to folks in my family and better them.
This background in theatre and film, as I have said elsewhere was very useful as I moved into photography. The language of camera, light was familiar.
Of course I had to take a break after my marriage, but once my boys had grown up, with encouragement from my family & friends, I started photography as a hobby to pass time creatively during their school hours. Slowly, I gained confidence as my frames were appreciated by all. The larger push happened as I discovered social media and the ability to share my work with professionals and to hold my own.
A key contributor and motivator also was being asked to be an admin of Delhi’s first ever photography page/forum – “Delhi Photographers” which I am still part of with Vineet Vohra, Rohit Vohra, Dinesh Khanna, Enjo Mathew. It gave me a platform to discuss, learn, share and validate my ideas.
As I grew in confidence, I decided to publish my first book; take part in exhibitions and the recognition and support helped me further get involved. Professional requests followed thereafter and now it has been nearly 16 years journey, both as an artist and a professional.
Recently you had an exhibition, could you tell us about the body of work you presented and what it meant for you to put together a show, rather than simply put pictures online?
Yes, in March 2015 I participated in a group exhibition (by 4 photographers) on the theme – “TimeOut”. I displayed a set of six B&W pictures that showcased moments from everyday life spent in leisure or carefree pursuits – Children playing after school in a monastery; A Little Girl dancing at Jama Masjid; Traders playing Carrom after a day’s work; A Solitary Musician. I also showcased a special picture of widows of Benaras and Vrindavan on a trip to the symbol of eternal love, the Taj Mahal.
I have taken part in group exhibitions before. I find that a show offers a richer engagement with the viewer than online medium. The visitors analyse, critique and inquire about the pictures and I can make a conversation that explains my point of view. The experience is more constructive than digital feedback. I also get to hear people comment on the picture without any conversation and it gives me an indication of how my pictures are being perceived.
Speaking of exhibitions, right now the Metropolitan Museum of Art has an exhibition of a photographer who worked in India and Myanmar just before the turn of the century. Exploration photography has a dark side to it and one of the lasting vestiges is this tendency to photograph things that stand out as “strange” to a traveling photographer. For that reason, most of the pictures we have seen come out of India, with a few exceptions like Raghu Rai, were made by photographers visiting the country. But even summing up a place as large and diverse as India, in a single essay is impossible. It is great to see an internally emerging voice, could you speak about how locals are viewing themselves and the world around them with a camera?
There is a very popular hindi song which most Indians relate with. The words are “phir bhi dil hai hindustani”, which loosely means “yet, my heart is Indian”.
This theme resonates with many of the emergent talent we see around. The “insiders” understand the POV of the “visitors” and how India has been presented before, but are presenting their own stories through their images. As a result, I think the world is discovering a different India and a new Indian POV.
For many decades the pictures from India brought to focus the oriental, the exotic, the different-than-us, the poverty, the chaos, the spirituality etc. As you have rightly said these were made by “visitors” to the country who documented what they saw, the in your face contrast with their own cultures.
However, now that this element of India is established, the Indian artists are able to provide the stories behind the frames, the celebrations amidst the poverty, the heart-beat amidst the rituals and create pictures that present the pulse of life.
For a long time, access to international geographies was limited for Indian photographers. This has been addressed with the emergence of digital sharing platforms and social networks. So now we see both artists as well as activists coming to the fore. And they are presenting the pride in being Indian.
While the scene of Indian photography is finding its feet internationally, it is even more rare for photographers to be female, which I’ve always found strange. From personal experience I graduated an art program that was 25 women and 7 men…but the professional world does not look like that. Do you encounter any challenges as a female photographer?
Yes, there are fewer women in photography.
Thankfully, in the last 2 decades as more women have joined the work-force across all sectors, this is changing and changing fast. With time it will get even better.
There are challenges for sure as clients question the capacity for work & travel especially in hostile conditions. Lack of infrastructure can create hardships and especially for women. Security is a concern.
At times, when I am shooting at odd hours of the street, if the area is troubled or disturbed, I get told – “ghar jao”, go home. This is not safe for you.
I work with many women photographers and I find that they bring their unique sensitivities to their craft. I believe those women who can take a bit of challenge in their stride are pushing the boundaries.
It is also pertinent to point out that there are also advantages as a woman. One is readily accepted even in the most social, private spaces, which allows you to shoot stories that would not be accessible to men.
If we might tread into even more delicate territory, the recent rape case in India has received a lot of attention. One of the points, often made, is that there is a cultural idea that women, outside of the house, should be accompanied by men and should not be “out late.” As a photographer, this is rather impractical and limiting. It seems like that would inhibit a huge amount of work from female photographers and tips the scales in favor of men creating images. What is this conversation like inside of India?
I believe that the protectionist slant towards women in Indian attitudes is a result of the need to protect from repeated invasions that India has witnessed. Over time this has moved into a sometimes over-zealous and perhaps limiting constraints. If we go back further in history, we find evidence of women being more equal in all aspects and more participative in society.
There are areas where as a woman photographer I can attract unwanted attention; or where I would consider the security risks carefully. But then there are other areas where I may have an advantage being a woman. Street photography is definitely one such – being a woman gives me better access than a man.
The rural hinterland is a challenge but stories are emerging from there too. I believe that the present is tilted but the future is not – the future points to a larger opportunity for women across all professions.
Outside of the politics of things, lets talk about shooting…from the Himalayas in the north to the converging seas in Kanyakumari, India has a level of diversity from spiritual practice to topography that is endless. What and where do you like to make pictures and why?
A great advantage in India is its diversity – from the physical to the cultural. It is rather impossible to cover all dimensions in a lifetime.
Since I am drawn to religion & spirituality, the connectivity of human soul to faith, calmness, solitude and also the energy of celebrations, my most favourite places are those that offer such opportunities.
I have travelled but a very small part of India and there is plenty to explore. I have had the opportunity to shoot in Ladakh; many parts of Assam including Majuli, the nucleus of the Vasihanavite culture; Cochin; Benaras; Vrindavan,
Also, as a street photographer, I find stories in places I am comfortable with – the city I live in, the city I grew up in are both sources to find the stories from everyday life, daily joys and sorrows that catches my eyes.
What projects are you working on right now or in the near future?
I am working on a couple of new projects at this time.
a) Creating a photo bank for the Tourism Department of State of Assam
b) A book project on “Widows of Vrindavan and Benaras” – not the story of their drudgery and misery but the change in their lifestyle, their celebrations, their freedoms and how society is becoming more inclusive towards them and attitudes are changing to accept them in the mainstream. I am collaborating with another talented photographer, Jayati Saha of Kolkata on this project.
c) Delhi 6×6 – An ongoing project with 5 other Indian photographers that aims to capture the life and pulse of “Old Delhi” an area with Pin Code: 110006. (Vineet, Rohit, Dinesh and Prateek are also part of this project.)
d) I am planning a Solo Exhibition on a woman oriented theme for next year, 2016.
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Thank you Moushumee for your fantastic work, I hope that everyone enjoyed the interview as much as I did. Feel free to leave comments below to Moushumee : )