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

Karen Dias

Karen Dias

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?

The series I worked on is titled ‘Kadal’ (the sea in tamil) which explores the dreams, fears and fantasies of children who belong to fishing communities living in the north of Chennai, specifically one small village called NTOKuppam that also witnessed the wrath of the tsunami. The work deals with trying to interpret how these children whose lives have been itertwined with the ocean try to relate to it. What makes them afraid of the ocean? Why do they dream of it? What are their dreams made of? Why do they have nightmares of the tsunami? Why are they scared of swimming? Why do they not want to fish? What are these imaginary underwater creatures they speak about?

Like the children, I too am afraid of the ocean yet love it and am fascinated by it intensely. I tried to step into the shoes of these children who were born by the ocean and may die by the ocean but are still afraid of it, to understand how their relationship to the ocean is very different from their parents’ and whether urbanisation and changing climates are creating conflicting ideas of sustaining a livelihood in fishing for these children.

I spent a lot of time talking to the children and doing extensive interviews with them before I started shooting and during the process of shooting too. Those interviews then gave me clues as to what to photograph, the more questions I asked, the more ideas they gave me. I also gathered about 40 children one evening outside their village temple and asked them to draw their dreams of the sea.

Photograph/Karen Dias

Photograph/Karen Dias

(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 would not have been able to shoot this project without the help of Rajaram Gomathinayagam and Priya who were absolutely generous and helped me translate all the interviews and took me all around Chennai. The children loved them and trusted them which made my work so much easier.

I’m not sure where ‘home’ is for me but if I had to compare it to Bombay where I grew up then people in Chennai are definitely friendlier than Mumbaikars. Besides the language barrier, it was a breeze getting around the city because of all the help from the workshop organizers.

Photograph/Karen Dias

Photograph/Karen Dias

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?

The series I made at the workshop are very different from the journalistic work I generally do and it was challenging and exciting for me to try something that I would not have afforded myself otherwise. It helped me see different ways to approach the same story.

More time is always better than less but it’s great to see what your mind can see and create in a short span of time. It’s a lovely challenge to be under pressure and test your boundaries. Munem and Ravi gave us the freedom to take our work in any direction we chose and to use the workshop as a platform to experiment with our work. It was good to be reminded that you can shoot a great project in just a few hours but if your idea is not neatly ironed out and you haven’t thought hard enough about it and how you will shoot it, then even several years of shooting may not yield anything satisfying.

Photograph/Karen Dias

Photograph/Karen Dias

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? 

As a common woman myself, I see zero public art in the country. There is some corporate sponsored graffitti here and there and that’s about it. I think the Indian education system is to blame that allows us no engagement or encouragement to pursue any form of art. Our conservatism comes in the way of everything. We are an extremely political country, how come we see no political art on the streets? Everything is safely locked up in our galleries and archaic museums. Public art of any kind, especially photography can be great tools in changing social and political opinions and that should exist everywhere. Photography has the advantage of being most accessible in India where visual literacy is still nascent and we need to use it to wisely to stir up conversations and questions. I think this exhibition in Chennai is going to be a great example of why we need more of this.

Photograph/Karen Dias

Photograph/Karen Dias

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

I would like to see it everywhere. There are many studies where art has proven to improve public spaces, make it friendlier and more humanized. In an ideal situation, a government steps in, has an arts department and understands the importance of doing this but in our case, I see no hope. But are we individually or collectively working towards doing that? Perhaps, yes, but we can do more. I think train stations, bus stands, cinema halls and cricket stadiums are great places for public art. What better places are there to have your work seen by countless pairs of eyes in India? Bollywood leaves no wall untouched with their tacky posters, about time we replaced all that crap with some great photos.

Photograph/Karen Dias

Photograph/Karen Dias

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.

One of the kids I spoke to was a ten year old boy called Sanjay, wearing a hoodie lined with fur. We spoke about the tsunami for a while which he had not witnessed but knew everything about. He went on to say, “I think the world will end because of aliens. I saw it on the History Channel. But….I’m not sure if they said Aliens or Asians.” That was a very thought-provoking statement for me in the larger scheme of things.

The editing sessions were most useful for me. I struggle with editing my photos well and it’s really nice to have someone help you go through that process and ask you to question why you prefer one image to the other. Watching the other photographers’ works on the editing table was really insightful to know how they work, what they look for in a story, how they go about arranging and approaching their ideas visually. Now I can copy them. Just kidding!

Photograph/Karen Dias

Photograph/Karen Dias

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

Traveling, constantly inspires me. Sometimes I think that I’m at my creative best when I’m struggling and broke but that’s a rock and a hard place situation unfortunately. I try to read good books as much as I can and that is a great idea generator.

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, Karen Dias, PhotoConcierge, Raj Lalwani, Urban Water