It’s not easy to catch photographers for a story. You have to look for them in Rajasthan tourism buses headed for Pushkar, rocking their way past golden sand dunes and long-eye lashed camels.
You hunt for them at dusk time photo shoots, where you find them completely occupied with camera lenses and tripod stands to catch a moment before it passes. Or, you run into them at art galleries, visibly uncomfortable, discussing show openings and one-third commissions with hawk-eyed managers.
Each leaves you with a dangling conversation, a promise to call back and just a peep into the fascinating world he or she is so completely immersed in. In the mind, they take you to Pushkar, to the streets of Chandni Chowk, to the strife-torn emerald green meadows of Kashmir where they show you a wooden door painted differently, a taxi parked a certain way on a mud track, eyes that speak of fear and longing; and time slows down as you wait for them to get back in touch and tell you the rest of their fascinating tale.
Photography is slowly coming into its own in India. It is emerging from the shadows of news and documentaries and finding its own niche as an art form. The young photographers treading this delicate distance with Nikons and Canons slung around their necks are the path breakers who will hopefully make it easier for the ones who will follow in their footsteps, lugging unwieldy camera stands and bulging lens bags.
“Till about four years back photography wasn’t even considered an art form and no gallery was ready to hold a photo exhibition unless you were a big name,” says photographer Sanjay Nanda. “Since photojournalists were the ones who started holding exhibitions of their work, audiences also got convinced that poverty and dark images were the only form of photographic art and nobody wanted an artistically shot garbage dump on a bedroom wall.”
With the introduction of high quality digital cameras, and younger photographers taking to the world of photography all that changed. A lot of variety and colour came into images. While people like Nanda, who was a graphic designer by profession, persistently scoured the urban landscape for uniquely unseen and compelling moments of light, texture and form, like lamas sipping tea or even a bicycle parked against a wall; others like Ravi Dhingra left the world of corporate finance after almost 10 years to pursue photography as an art from.
What made it worthwhile for people like Dhingra were encounters like that with a woman devotee in a white sari at the Vrindavan ISKCON Temple who had ‘Ram’ tattooed all over her face and eyelids in Devnagari. “She allowed me to take a few shots. It is said that photography is all about capturing a moment which unlike history is not going to repeat itself. This fraction of a second exposure has frozen the moment in my camera and my mind,” he says calling it his most precious image.
Dhingra calls India a photographers’ paradise considering the wide variety of photo opportunities on offer. Startlingly different landscapes, cultures, festivals and people make it so, he feels. “There is a lot of creative work happening in the field and the younger generation is doing a lot of experimental photography besides being involved in the regular genres. The problem everyone is facing is the competition — in commercial as well as art photography. But I feel that again is a phase and a lot of non serious people will move away.”
Twenty-seven year old Mansi Midha, editorial, documentary and travel photographer, says she is passionate about everything around photography and feels the need to share, facilitate, to give voice to and to tell it as it is. The field is fraught with challenges she says.
“From getting assignments, to the battle for keeping copyright, to publications that don’t give images their due or to how they finally appear in print — it is all a challenge and sometimes you have to say no to work because there are things that you believe in that are worth fighting for.”
However, she believes that there is room for good work and there are publications and institutions that recognise that. And then there are photo moments that make it all worthwhile. Like the meeting she had with the Dalai Lama. “He looked at my camera and exclaimed ‘now that’s a camera!’ blessed it, and posed for a photo,” she says, grinning widely. That is a treasured moment.
Things have changed now, with a photo exhibition held almost every week in Delhi (compared to one or two in a year until a few years back) but not really as much as photographers would desire. Gallery rentals are still high, national newspapers charge a hefty fee for a few words of publicity even in listings space, established places take a heavy commission on sold work, and known places like Triveni in Delhi are booked for three to five years in advance and photographers with a body of work ready, aren’t ready to wait that long to show.
This is where smaller places like Nanda’s IndiPix Gallery come into the picture. Established two years back in a basement studio at his South Delhi house, the gallery has a display floor space of approximately 1,700 sq ft and running display wall length of 190 ft. It is an exclusive space to display photography as an art form.
A booming art market has added to the buzz though photography loses out since it is not considered an economic investment like art. But things are picking up. Shows are being held in smaller places like Cochin, Jaipur, Ludhiana etc. beside metros like Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore. If you happen to be a young photographer with about 20 mind-blowing prints on your computer, get Rs 20,000 together and go for it. It is show time!