Chennai Photo Biennale: Zishaan A Latif 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 Zishaan Akbar Latif, who is one of the photographers who was a part of this project.

Zishaan Akbar Latif

Zishaan Akbar Latif

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 was intrigued by one of the links in the pile of research topics sent to us, the one that stood out the most was about a desalination plant set up just off a coastal village about 35km from Chennai and I found it extremely ironic one two counts. One, why does Chennai not harvest its rain water? And two, why does this village not get a single drop of the desalinated water from the plant a few metres away from it? These 2 points made me want to concentrate my energies to better understand the ground realities of this coastal village, Sureli Kattakuppam. The blatant use and abuse of natural resources plus the immediate ill effects of that on human lives made me question, if there is urban water and there is rural water, how much of rural water actually reaches rural hands ? If there is an urban crisis there is an equal or worse rural consequence made of an urban desire to quench. I went to the source to find answers.

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? 

The art of making photographs is the same at home or otherwise, only the subjects and your sensibility changes to the new topography. Language, of course, is pivotal to paying attention and doing justice to the story at hand. One negates that with a clean intention (and happy sign languages!) to go in as a conscious storyteller, as an observer , as a link to the outside world who cannot promise a miracle but one’s presence itself is the first step as a positive intervention.

Photograph/Zishaan Akbar Latif

Photograph/Zishaan Akbar Latif

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?

No one expects to change ones style in the course of six days but yes Munem and Ravi did definitely recommended a healthy approach of pushing one’s already acquired/existing skill to bring in something more aesthetically and of course something more meaningful to one’s journey during the workshop to take back a memory of knowledge that will help us in our profession as photographers. Personally, I did implement using a slightly different approach to my existing documentary method, I went in with a bang-bang approach, but was subsequently ushered to step back and use a more metaphorical lyrical attitude, which was to go in deeper and deeper, but with subtler nuances, even if that meant to stage portraits to talk about certain aspects of the story I was documenting. Through these staged portraits, I spoke about facets of torture that these people had to endure to save their village and their livelihoods and the fierce resilience and fortitude they displayed in times of strife, which technically, I anyway could not have shown otherwise, as I was not present when they were actually arrested or tortured in jail. So, to recreate an aspect of a time in history gave me a new learning, which i may explore in the future as a way of narration.

Photograph/Zishaan Akbar Latif

Photograph/Zishaan Akbar Latif

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? 

Again, the most intriguing question i was asking is the irony of the situation…to fuel the needs of an urban city like Chennai, there is a very alarming consequence on rural Tamil Nadu, Sureli Kattakuppam is one such village that pays to quench the needs of Chennai and I hope this urban intervention by showcasing the works up at a metro station in the city will bring Urban Chennai together to understand their needs, and that their needs have a severe cost! Their money not only buys them water but also the lives of people they have never met.

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

I want to see more photography in public spaces, period! We need more photographs shown everywhere, from toilets to subways to buses to trains, from being shown on buildings to beaches… we all need to see and show everywhere and I wish the authorities would understand the gravity of the situation, we are visually a very challenged country where the public is not engaged on a daily basis to the arts or aesthetics, hence we don’t give much importance to the arts or photography as serious professions or even hobbies unfortunately… this needs to change!

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.

The class editing together was a challenge because we all (at least me!) presume the worst when it comes to editing one’s work in public (15 other photographers!) and how everyone is going to trash the work, but it’s this same trashing by mentors and photographers that is so important in the overall learning one absorbs. Getting 15 perspectives on one body of work is actually refreshing as everybody has their own sensibility and aesthetic they bring on the edit table, and so to bring all that together to showcase one cohesive body of work after managing and massaging artist egos is the fun part!

Photograph/Zishaan Akbar Latif

Photograph/Zishaan Akbar Latif

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

The romanticised idea of travel and finding people on the way that teach you so much about yourself and life and how photography becomes a secondary reflex reacting to the situation. When it comes to more practical inspirations, I love music… it inspires me a lot, and I am very fond of Jason Eskenazi’s work and his way of seeing his surroundings.


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, Urban Water, Zishaan Akbar Latif