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

Swastik Pal

Swastik Pal

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?

Project Title: Receding Coast

The three km coast between Ennore and Ernavoor in North Chennai is under siege due to rapid sea erosion. Several families, mainly fisher folks fear displacement and loss of livelihood. In this brief project, I’ve tried to make a visual journey along this stretch of the sea. I tried to respond intuitively to the relationship between the ravaging sea and the people living along the coast.

It is a visual exploration of the sea, the industries along the sea and the illegal encroachments and finally the people affected by a culmination of natural and man-made calamity.

Photograph/Swastik Pal

Photograph/Swastik Pal

(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?

Traveling to a workshop comes with the biggest challenge of communication. For a place like Chennai, it is bound to be difficult if one tries to produce work based on a community in such a short period, without knowing the language. It is definitely not impossible, but I perceive it as a practical hindrance to begin with. Apart from that, I guess the basic human emotions, interactions and life itself unravels intuitively. One of the easiest ways perhaps to overcome these challenges in a new environment is to spend more time with the given project one is pursuing. But again, if time’s a constraint, one need to be smart enough to take quick decisions which can help wrap up the work at hand.

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?

Initially, I had planned to shift to a complete new visual practice/language for this particular workshop as there was ample scope for one to experiment and push boundaries. But as you say, six day assignments are tricky and one needs to deliver at the end of the week, which should also be a decisive factor. Something Munem said regarding this made a lot of sense and helped me decide on the final topic. While he suggested everyone to experiment, he also conveyed to me that if one is pursuing a certain visual language for a certain period of time and has some control over it, one should try and master that before jumping on to another. It’s like a process of experiment, where one goes from A > B but not radically A > Z, because a visual medium requires practice and precision.

Photograph/Swastik Pal

Photograph/Swastik Pal

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 is quite amazing that the final exhibition is being put up at a train station. I mean it is fantastic to just imagine people leaving for office, school kids returning home and bumping into such huge prints.

I strongly feel photographs should very often reach their origin, and for us dealing with people, it should get back to the people as much as possible.

Photograph/Swastik Pal

Photograph/Swastik Pal

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

Installing photographs in a public space has its advantages and limitations, but it’s a far more democratic process than the four walls of a gallery space meant for a niche crowd.

Personally for me, I have been planning to install my personal project The Hungry Tide in the island itself. While it comes with loads of logistical issues, the islanders are extremely excited about this exhibition later this year.

Photograph/Swastik Pal

Photograph/Swastik Pal

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.

Lots of takeaways. Workshops are more often places where one does not really perform the best according to one’s personal skills, but it does bring out a lot from the failures, from the edit sessions and from the atmosphere in general with so much energy. Working with Wasif, the edit sessions are always poetic and I really look up to the edit sessions whenever I’ve got a chance to be mentored by him.

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

This has been a varying lot, travelling and shifting like the cosmos. But primarily it is still films, music, poetry and human emotions which have been my driving force to keep pursuing this wonderful visual medium.

The above work will be part of a group exhibition titled Urban Water (Presented by PhotoConcierge), at the Chennai Photo Biennele, starting February 26. For more information, visit


Tags: Chennai Photo Biennale, PhotoConcierge, Raj Lalwani, Swastik Pal, Urban Water