An Inner Journey with Swapan Nayak
A conversation with Swapan Nayak reveals to Ambarin Afsar that photography is about discovering yourself and sharing your being.
When I first met Swapan Nayak in a gallery surrounded by prints from his series Being and Nothingness, he came across as a softspoken and humble human being. The fragments of his work seemed to be floating around us, within the vast, white surroundings of the gallery. Yet, somehow, amidst this free-flowing atmosphere, Swapan seemed weighted down and anchored.
There was a stillness about him that prompted me to wonder whether his photographs reflect the same. Over the course of the interview, I learned that to make an honest image, one needs to question oneself and constantly look within.
Not a Performer
What goes through a photographer’s mind when he is making a particular series of images? “Unlike my older work, Being and Nothingness is not a documentation. Earlier, I tried to tell people about places and the conditions of other people. But, with this series, I am not informing anyone. I have looked at this series as a writer would look at a novel, as a poet would contemplate a poem or as a composer would consider a tune. In my previous work, I was performing as a photographer. Here, I am not a performer. This is me trying to connect with the viewer’s feelings.”
In Swapan’s belief, Being and Nothingness is an attempt to compose a tune using his consciousness. He approached the series with the fervour of a devotee—lived in his village for two years, keeping his cell phone switched off, reading and listening to music. “I read Jean-Paul Sartre, a French existentialist philosopher as well as Franz Kafka, the German writer and the noted Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore.
However, one line by Sartre—‘Nothingness haunts the being’—along with the turmoil within me set me on this quest.” Swapan explains this line by telling me that in a while from now, I will vacate the chair that I am seated on. But, the vacant chair will be reminiscent of my presence.
The Film Treatment
All of Swapan’s projects have been shot on B&W film. “We see the world in colour. This is why B&W seems more surreal and is also more challenging.” He goes on, “With film and digital, there is a difference in the level of involvement. It is like making love to your beloved as compared to spending a night with a prostitute.
From the moment I release the shutter to making the final edit, I am extremely involved in the process. With digital, the instant gratification diminishes the involvement, and to some extent, even the confidence of a photographer.”
The violation of human rights distresses me. But then, I ask myself, who am I to portray someone else’s struggle?
From Documentation to Abstracts
A photojournalist for 18 years, Swapan’s earlier works include Nowhere People, a series on people living on chars or floating islands on the Brahmaputra river and Refugees in their Own Land, a series on people in the northeastern states of India, who have been displaced by conflict. But now, he has done a series of abstracts, so, why this change? “The violation of human rights makes me indignant and distresses me. But then, I ask myself, who am I to portray someone else’s struggle? Who am I to show their conflict to the world?”
The Struggle Without and Within
Then, he pauses and reflects over his own question. “There is another way of looking at this… while I have shown the condition of my subjects, I have also felt their pain. Maybe, this reflects in my photos. The suffering, the conflict, the love, the hate—the multitude of emotions within me are expressed through my images.” I study him as he says this.
One can see that he has been battling his own thoughts and reaching certain conclusions as he speaks. It is probably this constant churning of the mind that makes Swapan Nayak what he is. While some of his work shows the suffering of other people, maybe this series shows the struggle within him. “After all, I am only a human being,” he concludes.
Tips by Swapan
- Avoid something you do not believe in.
- Just a catchy idea is unlikely to give you great pictures.
- Read plenty of books and try to obtain something of value from them
About Swapan Nayak
He believes that he is a village boy at heart, having spent his growing up years in Bangaon, a place near the Bangladesh border. After finishing his education, Swapan moved to Kolkata. Interestingly, he took admission in a Chartered Accountancy course. His work is managed by Tasveer, a pan-India photographic gallery.