Chennai Photo Biennale: Kannagi Khanna 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 Kannagi Khanna, who is one of the photographers who was a part of this project.

Kannagi Khanna

Kannagi Khanna

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? 

I worked on the topic of industrial water pollution. I decided on my final interpretation of the topic after the workshop had ended. It’s a long, funny, slightly tragic story with lots of experimentations and disappointments that led me to my final work.

Chennai has seen a large growth of industries in and around the city over the years and they are one of the major causes of pollution. I decided to portray my thoughts on the issue through a key water quality parameter – ‘Ph levels’. The process was key to this project. I started by preparing my own Ph paper at home using filter paper and purple cabbage. The processes involved boiling finely chopped cabbage in water for 20 minutes and after allowing the water to cool, dipping the filter paper in it for 5 minutes. After it dried, I printed the portraits I had shot of different people living in the city, onto the Ph sheets. I then collected water samples of a few industries and allowed the paper to interact with these samples. The Ph sheets immediately turned into shades of pink indicating acidic content.

Through this project I want to bring into light the issue of water pollution caused by industries and its effects. While we know, every industry has to have a compulsory treatment plant; the question remains how many of them abide by guidelines and treat their discharge before it is drained into water bodies?

Photograph/Kannagi Khanna

Photograph/Kannagi Khanna

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? 

As photographers we often find ourselves in unfamiliar territories and I think I find that very exciting. I never felt the issue of not knowing the city. It was fun trying to find your way through, for me, at least. The topic I chose to work with applies to most cities across India and it was instantly relatable. This might sound silly but Tamil Nadu is the only place where people could pronounce my name properly, it being of Tamil origin so I felt quite at home! Also we got excellent guides in Amirtharaj, Karthik and Senthil to help us when needed.

Photograph/Kannagi Khanna

Photograph/Kannagi Khanna

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?

I knew one thing for sure before reaching Chennai, which was to go outside my comfort zone and push myself to experiment with ideas I wouldn’t normally work with. I started off with the workshop by dwelling into microscopic photography to interpret my topic of water pollution. The patterns and designs that pollutants form when seen under the microscope fascinated me so I went around collecting water samples from different polluted sources and tied up with a lab at a medical college. I pursued it till after the workshop had ended by staying back longer in Chennai but due to time constraints and logistical issues, I had to drop it. Anyway, microscopic photography is something I would never imagine exploring in my regular work. Ravi and Munem were encouraging from the very beginning and we were all excited to see the results. I then shifted to exploring Ph levels and decided to make Ph paper at home which again was out of regular for me. I almost felt like a research scientist going around collecting water samples from rivers, in sterilized containers wearing gloves and what not! Collecting industrial samples (although I got lucky with that) to study Ph involved risks due to obvious reasons but I enjoyed that thrill. Somehow the experience for me at the workshop went much much beyond just photography.

Photograph/Kannagi Khanna

Photograph/Kannagi Khanna

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? 

When we are working on a topic that directly relates to and affects the city and its habitants, the best places to be showing the work are public spaces that bring together all kinds of people without any restriction of any kind. It is only public spaces that cater to a mass audience.

Photograph/Kannagi Khanna

Photograph/Kannagi Khanna

If you were to imagine photography in a public space, anywhere at all, what work would you like to see, and where?

We have plenty of underutilized public spaces that can be made so much more interesting not just with photographs but and other art forms as well!

Photograph/Kannagi Khanna

Photograph/Kannagi Khanna

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.

My biggest take away would be all the different types of photo experimentations I got into during the workshop. In between the microscopes and the Ph paper, I experimented with a pinhole camera and medium format film by allowing both, the film and the paper, to interact with the polluted river water to see if it alters them in anyway. These experimentations introduced me to a whole new world of possibilities and I’ve taken forward one of those ideas in my new work. On another note, I also learnt, through my unsuccessful adventures with the microscopes, how to think of other ideas in a very short span of time and under severe pressure!

And finally, one question that’s not connected to the workshop… who/what inspires your overall practice?

At the moment, I’m obsessed with Dash Snow.

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.com

Tags: Chennai Photo Biennale, Kannagi Khanna, PhotoConcierge, Raj Lalwani, Urban Water