The flower market in the old town area of Vijayawada, India (my hometown) caters to the needs of thousands of devotees who visit the 'Kanakadurga temple', a holy place for Hindus. Here are a set of environmental portraits of different fruit/flower vendors who co-exist peacefully within a shared market space despite selling the same items, i.e. coconuts, flowers and fruits that devotees use as offerings to the Goddess of the temple.
On November 9 2016 at 2:30 AM, Donal J Trump was elected the President of the United States — in what was and will be called a historical upsetting victory.
I spent eight hours among Trump supporters, trying to understand their perspective and comprehend it. I could understand the frustrated blue-collar family looking for a better economy. I couldn't understand their intolerance. It’s true — living in New York City entraps you in a diverse liberal bubble where everyone accepts everyone or at least pretends to do so. We failed to know the reality. The bubble had burst open on Election Day. The conservatives, the purists and the blue-collar workers looking for change found it in a xenophobic, jingoist human being. The CBS Exit polls show 53% of Trump voters were men, 67% were men without a college degree and 83% were people who wanted 'change'.
Last night, I heard the words ‘Put her in jail’, ‘fucking cunt’, ‘we are going to burn the buildings down’. Apparently, people also shouted ‘Kill Obama’ at Trump’s victory speech.
On the contrary, I also heard Trump supporters chime ‘Why can’t we be friends?’ and ‘All lives matter’ to outraged Hilary fans shouting ‘Go ahead, build the wall’, ‘Black lives matter’ and‘Hitler would be proud of you, fucking Nazis.’
Maybe not all of them are racists, maybe they are. Maybe all of them are closet racists and this is their Trump card. But I did realize that every single Trump supporter adamantly chose to stay oblivious to his character. They refused to acknowledge his outrageous comments.
It dawns upon no one that when a racist bigot is in power it gives the courage to all the closet racists to openly put their views to practice. No one was willing to judge a man being given the most powerful position in the world based on his character.
'I am voting for what he will do to my country. I am not voting for his persona.' 'He may not be a smart person, but he is a real person.'
This baffles me.
On the other side of the world, my friends from India are delighted because they believe his victory would kick us all immigrants out and we would go back home. A sweet thought I guess, but it infuriated me.
I realized that I cannot be mad at strangers from last night rejoicing over the success of their nationalistic desires when my own people are celebrating intolerance towards immigrants.
There is something inherently wrong with people’s love for their land.
Living in this land now, I can only hope every human I meet in life to not be as narrow-minded as The 45th President of The United States.
It was a lazy Friday evening when I got into the R towards Queens. An old Asian couple to my left - one engrossed in the newspaper, the other staring into nothingness and a gloomy American to my right preoccupied with his phone. We shared a silent ride to Queens Plaza.
The gloomy American was replaced by a young black couple seated intimately close to each other. The subway car echoed with murmurs till 65th street. At Jackson heights, an Indian family added to the indistinct voices of the subway car. We shared acknowledging looks. Indians don't always smile to each other. A group of black teenagers hopped in at Rego Park filling the car with bustling energy and laughter. The girls from the group giggled their way to Forest Hills, the last stop on the train. Hundreds disembarked leaving silence behind.
The car promptly changed to 'Not in Service'.
The R train runs through three boroughs of New York City, Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn with its Northern end in Queens - Forest Hills and the Southern end in Brooklyn - Bay Ridge.
A few years ago, I came across this quote - 'If you want to know what a person fears losing, watch what they photograph.'
It did not make sense to me at that point but its meaning, or what I derive from it, slowly dawned over the years - as my exposure to great artists broadened and I finally learnt the art of the metaphors & analogies.
Just yesterday, I stumbled upon this prose by Hervé Guibert -
"By taking your photograph, I can attach myself to you, make you a part of my life, assimilate you. And you can't do anything about it."
This sentence reminds me of Nan Goldin's description of her work, 'The Ballad of Sexual Dependancy', as a 'visual diary.' Chronicling one's life in photographs is in a way, an escape mechanism to cope up with the fear of loss. I'd like to believe that Nan Goldin was excessively documenting her life because of her fear of loss of relationships. (Elyssa Goodman sums up Nan Goldin's work in this beautiful article.) Henri Cartier Bresson obsessed over the streets because of his fear of loss of the fleeting moment, and in so, time.
Having spent my formative years hiding behind a veil, evading confrontation of feelings and physical expression of thoughts and emotions, art to me, like to any other artist, is a mode of communication. To me, it only makes sense that I photograph the people I photograph a lot because of my fear of loss - of people and communication/connection.
It takes a great deal to share work that is personal but a greater deal to create it.
The plateau and the plains,
a Victorian beauty's pain,
Spilled hot cocoa.
All that is taught at art school,
but can you really see?
I’ve often been reprimanded for having a deep rooted complex arising from the sense of not belonging to a particular region and not speaking in a native way. In other words - feeling inferior about my accent. It took me a long time to make peace and be comfortable in my own shoes in foreign lands.
Jhumpa Lahiri expressed her inferiority in various metaphors spanning over two hundred pages in the book, 'In Other Words', and won the Pulitzer Prize for it.
Now, I don’t hate this book. My relation with this book is exactly how she describes it - ambivalent. I love it for the rich yet simple language, the comprehensible analogies, and the engaging chapters. I dislike it because of the constant melancholic tone of self-doubt that crawls over all the chapters and into the reader.
I learned Tamil, a local Indian language, by browsing through dictionaries, noting down words, talking to local people and conversing in broken words until I was able to sort of breeze through without being a complete outsider. I could understand Jhumpa’s struggle in learning Italian. Her love for the language resonates with mine. I could relate to the beautiful prose about identity, nativity and the struggle to fit in a place that is foreign. Wit and sharpness are indeed lost when one tries to express in a language that is different from what one thinks in. (I think in Telugu, I talk to myself in English. It's a weird combination)
But Jhumpa, clouded with analogies that describe her attempts at trying to fit in, forgot the joy in doing so.
In Other Words is an author’s relationship with a language that is entirely foreign, a struggle to embrace something that doesn’t want to belong to you. It’s a pioneering effort at which she has incredibly succeeded in putting into words the darker side of it. It’s too honest to spell joy.
But, damn it. I wish I had written this.
On 4th April 2016, Israel tore down seven Palestinian homes in 24 hours.
5000 miles away among the exhibit rooms at the Brooklyn Museum is a feedback note that reads:
"What themes do you see in the photographs?"
The disparity perfectly sums up the experience of viewing, 'This Place', an exhibit now showing at the Brooklyn Museum. 'This Place' is a collaborative project of 12 internationally acclaimed photographers who set out in 2009 to document the conflict areas of Israel and the West Bank. Spanning across three rooms, with a collection of over 600 photographs, 'This Place' is a beautifully curated exhibit that gives us a glimpse of Israel's humanity and peace amidst all the chaos - the 'precious moments'.
Started as an initiative by Frédéric Brenner, a French photographer, this project invited Rosalind Solomon, Jungjin Lee, Jeff Wall, Fazal Sheikh, Martin Kollar, Nick Wapplington, Wendy Ewald, Gilles Peress, Thomas Struth, Joseph Kodelka and Stephen Shore to document Israel, each with their own approach. It resulted in a unique body of work, diverse and contradictory, ironic and beautiful. The exhibit, located on the fourth floor of the museum, greets you with the familiarity of Jeff Wall's work. A life-size image of olive pickers in Israel adorns the entrance, almost to the danger of allowing misconceptions. What seemingly starts off as a banal and tedious representation of a divided land spreads out to intimate portraits and monumental landscapes addressing displacement, identity and environment. While Frédéric Brenner's work on people is a heartwarming representation of the familial bond, Nick Wapplington's work contrasts it with deadpan portraits of Jewish families that evoke empathy. Rosalind Solomon's intimate portraits embrace one's curiosity in the personal lives of varied subjects, probably the reason they are hung together in an alcove - to give the viewer a sense of welcoming. The intimacy continues with Wendy Ewalds spread of images made by sixth graders, students at a Military Academy, employees of a digital agency and many others. Ewald acted as the facilitator, providing cameras to let them create the images. The outcome is a deeper insight into the manifolds of the society with a multilayered perspective.
The heterogeneity of the portraiture is defeated by the landscape imagery of Jungjin Lee, Fazal Sheikh, Thomas Struth, Joseph Kodelka and the rest. To a person with negligible knowledge, Sheikh's aerial landscapes and Lee's black and white landscapes can seem to be artworks. These images unaided with text are in reality a representation of massacre and eradication. One can feel like walking in the zone while looking at Joseph Kodelka's beautiful installation of a 24-image accordion fold book that was made especially for the museum. Gilles Peress provides the viewer with a day in the life of approach through his contact sheets. These sheets, that depict the perils of life in Westbank, ironically look musical - each frame ending on an unfinished note and the next frame picking up from where it has been left behind. Thomas Struth's work of an urban landscape set next to a village scene is tactfully juxtaposed with Stephen Shore's work of magnificent landscapes that are barren yet grandeur.
Underneath all the havoc in Israel, are humans who lead an ordinary life in a conflict zone and crave for peace. 'This Place' reminds us of the peace that exists and the peace that is sought.