Chennai Photo Biennale: Gayatri Ganju on Urban Water
With less than ten days to go for Chennai Photo Biennale (Feb 26 to Mar 13), we try to give you a preview of what to expect at the city’s first ever photography festival.
One of the highlights of the festival is an exhibition titled Urban Water, presented by PhotoConcierge. The show, which will be displayed at the Lighthouse MRTS railway station, is a culmination of work done by 15 photographers, earlier this year. The participants, under the guidance of mentors Munem Wasif and Ravi Agarwal, have created bodies of work surrounding the issues of water in Chennai.
Raj Lalwani interviews Gayatri Ganju, who is one of the photographers who was a part of this project.
What did you work on during the Urban Water workshop? What led you to the specific topic/interpretation that you worked on? Can you elaborate on the issue that your work tries to explore and your experience doing the same?
Over a week, I set myself a task – to walk along the Adyar River from Nandambakkam (where it becomes markedly contaminated) to where it meets the sea. On my walks I began to collect objects that I found on the banks that has washed ashore. Mostly plastic and trash, which over time had become the banks.
I see this work as a photographic study of the landscape of the banks. I chose to remove the objects I collected from their context and photograph them clinically, as a researcher would treat botanical specimens. During the process of collecting and photographing these objects, I was in equal parts drawn to and disturbed by how closely their form resembled organic matter.
The images attempt to provoke the act of looking at things we’ve thrown out, that are becoming the land we live on.
(since most of the participants were not from Chennai) How did you overcome the challenge of working in a city that you are not familiar with? More importantly, while working on your specific project, did you observe situations or issues that correlate to anything similar back home?
I think a very large part of my being a photographer is so that the work I do draws me out of places and people that I’m familiar with. There are challenges with this every time but these are also a part of the inspiration, to seek and to connect.
This work in particular, is about my interaction with spaces around the river. And I used the exercise of walking as a way to experience the city. For this, I’d set out on my own and walk for a couple of hours every day. I just had to stay open to everything this made me feel.
This project was a way for me to reflect on and engage with how disconnected we have become from the natural spaces that exist in the city. And how this separation is accelerating the way we transform these spaces. This holds true for where I live and in fact any city in India.
How different was your style and approach, as compared to your regular practice? Five-six day assignments are tricky, since such a short time usually means that one only scratches the surface of the issue. What are your thoughts about the same and how did Munem and Ravi help you tackle that?
This work was a complete departure from anything I’ve ever done. It’s the first set of pictures I’ve made with no people in it. Usually the most time-consuming and critical aspect of my process is in establishing a relationship with my subject, the people I’m photographing. With ‘Flora’ I spent that time establishing a relationship with the city. The actual taking of the photographs took no loner than a day at the studio. My challenge was in working on a more conceptually driven project, as opposed to the way I usually do, by responding to a situation or being with people. Munem and Ravi showed us all some incredibly inspiring work in the presentations they’d prepared, which was honestly a great prod for me. More specifically, they kept pushing me to experiment with process until I found a way to translate the idea in to pictures that I thought were right for this.
The work made during this project is bound to strike a chord with the people of the city, especially considering that the workshop and the subsequent exhibition are just a few months after the terrible floods that took place last year. What are your personal thoughts on photography in public spaces, and how important is dissemination for you, in terms of connecting with the common man?
It’s very simple; I make photographs for people to look at them. The more accessible the spaces they’re exhibited in, the larger the number of people that can.
If you were to imagine photography in a public space, anywhere at all, what work would you like to see, and where?
I’d love to see pop-up shows in public parks. Where people have the time and space to look at things slowly and be with the work. But it’d also be great to just see more, projections on walls, poster size prints, slideshows on billboards, the possibilities are endless right?!
If you had to pinpoint one takeaway, one memorable experience, or one moment of learning and satisfaction from the workshop, be it while shooting or during the mentoring/editing sessions, what would it be? It would be great if you can elaborate on this particular question.
Honestly just having to engage with such immense volumes of trash made an unsettling and profound impact on me. These were issues I was already mindful of. However this became the push I needed to actively start making different choices, which I have since and there’s no going back.
Photographically, it was hugely inspiring to watch 14 other photographers, work with the same theme, in the same amount of time and mold their work in such diverse directions.
And finally, one question that’s not connected to the workshop… who/what inspires your overall practice?
I’m inspired by images that are quiet and that bring quiet. But I’m also inspired by images that are layered and raise questions. Essentially though I’m inspired to make pictures with emotion. Ultimately, I think successful story telling uses all of this.
The above work will be part of a group exhibition titled Urban Water (Presented by PhotoConcierge), at the Chennai Photo Biennale, starting February 26. For more information, visit chennaiphotobiennale.comTags: Chennai Photo Biennale, Gayatri Gunja, PhotoConcierge, Raj Lalwani, Urban Water