Is Suffering the Antidote to Art?


“Art is the activity by which a person, having experienced an emotion, intentionally transmits it to others,” Leo Tolstoy had said. Any work of art has always been fueled by a sense of urgency to create. This urgency disguises itself in many forms. Sometimes we are compelled by a sense of deep-rooted intimacy for the subject we are photographing. At other times, the camera becomes a tool to decipher the thoughts tormenting our minds.

When Robert Frank created The Americans (1958), he was instigated by the disillusionment that existed in the picturesque portrayal of the country—“I was tired of romanticism. I wanted to present what I saw, pure and simple.” Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photography at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. had said of his work, “Frank revealed a people who were plagued by racism, ill-served by their politicians, and also rendered increasingly numb by the rising culture of consumerism. But it’s also important to point out that he found new areas of beauty in those simple, overlooked corners of American life—in diners, or on the street. He pioneered a whole new subject matter that we (now) define as icons: cars, jukeboxes, even the road itself. All of these things, coupled with his style—which is seemingly intuitive, immediate, and off-kilter—were radically new at the time.”

When Vincent van Gogh began painting, the colours he used weren’t the bright hues reminiscent of his work today. He witnessed the exuberance of colour only after he moved to Paris and saw a ceiling mural by Eugène Delacroix at the Louvre. This was a turning point. We have the very famous Starry Night (1889) and a series of paintings he made of sunflowers in 1888. At the time of the making of Starry Night, van Gogh was admitted at an asylum for what was supposedly epileptic fits; he wasn’t however officially diagnosed. Starry Night was created from the view of his window at the asylum. Even when he painted the sunflowers, van Gogh continued to suffer from fits of epilepsy and was being treated with derivatives of the foxglove plant. If taken in slightly high doses, one can experience the colour yellow a little too intensely.

Masahisa Fukase’s groundbreaking monograph, Ravens, was birthed on a train journey from Tokyo to Hokkaido (1975), where he encountered the birds from the train’s window, perched on poles, chimneys and telegraph wires. In the following year, he and his wife divorced, and this set in motion, for the next ten years, of what would become a deeply personal portrait of his state of mind through the allegorical depiction of the birds.

In all three instances, the urgency to create is undeniable, whether out of a need to change how things have been perceived all along (Frank) or to express the vagaries of one’s mind (van Gogh and Fukase). Should I dare say that suffering, in one form or the other, creates the intrinsic base of this urgency, that without it, it would be difficult to produce anything worthy. However, suffering shouldn’t be demoted to its original essence, but as a way of being compelled to express one’s thoughts. I have wondered if the burden of creativity implies that one has to suffer only so that it can be viewed and dissected by spectators. What happens then when we relinquish this suffering or when it gradually dissolves into a period of normalcy? Does it point towards the beginning of a new phase, a moment of rest or a period of lull that one should patiently wait out?

For someone whose photographs have largely dealt with mental turmoil, it has been agonisingly difficult to come to terms with what is currently a period of stability. Stability fosters the solidity of one’s feet on the ground. How is one then expected to take off when there appears to be no reason to? In no way am I trying to romanticise mental illness, and I’d like to believe that it is possible to photograph without standing at the precipice of a cliff. But the fact of the matter is that, at this very moment, I am struggling and deeply unhappy of my inability to photograph. It is not that I have completely relinquished photography. I still make pictures, but it appears to be devoid of any form of worthiness. What does a photograph of sanity or normalcy look like anyway? Does it hold the same charge as that of a picture birthed out of a mind forced into compulsion? It is easy to slip into the trope of the tortured artist, but it unfortunately also happens to be the only way I have known to exist. So far, I have used photography as a means to quieten the voices in my head and come to terms with my belligerent mind. However, at this very moment, I find myself at a dangerous crossroad. I am tempted to succumb and fall back into the dark void; it’s so much more simpler that way. Resisting it is the hard part, but I hope to eventually find moments of respite and beauty, like Frank did, amongst the sordid remnants of a tumultuous past.

This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Better Photography.