Ripping off the Veil with Photography


Helmut Schippert

Couple of weeks from now, on 22 February, when the heat will be creeping in little by little each day, we will open the second edition of Chennai Photo Biennale. The last few months have been bustling, and the upcoming weeks will probably get pandemoniac. A good moment to write this piece, isn’t it? Our vision is to make the Photo Biennale an integral part of Chennai and India, in the future. So what is our core message? Why are we doing this? What do we want to achieve? Why a month-long photo Biennale and not just a week’s festival? Why Chennai, that is deeply rooted in cultural traditions, but not really known for being artistically audacious and contemporary? And my personal story, why do I believe in this huge endeavour?

Every two years, we would like to bring some of the world’s best photographers and their works, Indian and international, to Chennai. For this edition, we decided on Pushpamala N as our Artistic Director and Curator. She is one of the most iconic and unusual artist and photographer from India, surprising, thought–provoking, and at the same time, entertaining. “I think it is an unconventional choice to invite me to curate the photo biennale. I will bring in some of my own thoughts and interests, as a conceptual artist, to the perception of photographic practice today,” she commented. In December, she won the India Today award for the best Performance Artist, in 2018.

Chennai should become one of the top places for the photographic art in India. Just as Kochi-Muziris Biennale and its tremendous success in a few years—the way it has changed the city and its image in the world. Incredible Kochi in South India! Would something alike be possible here, in our adopted hometown? Though we all enjoy living in Chennai (and being adopted), none of the core CPB founding team is native, none a “true Madrasi”, familiar with all the subtleties of Tamil culture and language. Rather a gang of globetrotters, easily at home in different places: Varun Gupta, a photographer hailing from Calcutta, who lived in the U.S. and loves Nepal and Ladakh; Gayatri Nair, a banker turned photographer, having lived all over India, then in Singapore and the U.S.; and Shuchi Kapoor, a documentary photographer in the mix, a Delhite, raised in Gujarat who loves her dhoklas and dosas as much as her sense of home in Madras. And me? Well, a German passport, otherwise more of a special brew of the seven countries on three continents I have lived in. We often speak about this—our multifaceted backgrounds and experiences and what brought us together. Perhaps there is some kind of logic that binds us, as we created this vision of the Chennai Photo Biennale. Maybe because we are not deeply rooted in the local history, we perceived that this city could be so much more than the product of urban growth, all-encompassing consumerism, cultural complacency and touristic disinterest.

By showing and reflecting the state of photography, our Biennale should be capable of ripping off the veils we all wear, participants and visitors alike, and allowing us glimpses, feelings and thoughts, fears and desires, questions of who we are, where our society is, and how we want to live in the future.

In this mirror, with us in the present, looking back to the city’s and the citizens’ past, and looking forward to our future, we may find the answer to why we decided to have a Photo Biennale as one of Chennai’s relevant reference points—a contemporary art event of four weeks, where we open up an enormous opportunity, not only to see the reality and meaning of photography in a different light, but also of this bustling city with its challenges, strengths and potential.

“I believe that photography in its extended uses has been, more than any other art form, a witness of human activity, and a continuing archive of modern life, ever since its invention. As Artistic Director, I am interested in provoking questions about the meaning of photography today, in an age of new media: how in its various forms, pure and impure, old and new, it can engage with the world. I am excited to work together with a galaxy of artists from India and around the world, who use the medium thoughtfully and innovatively,” commented Pushpamala N.

By showing and reflecting the state of photography, our Biennale should be capable of ripping off the veils we all wear, participants and visitors, and allowing us glimpses, feelings and thoughts, fears and desires, questions of who we are, where our society is, and how we want to live in the future. A Biennale can never be decorative. Our Biennale aims at making sense and creating value. That is the driving force behind our hard work.

If Chennai, through its music season, has gained the reputation of being the Mecca of Carnatic music, if Jaipur is identified with its literature festival, and if Kochi-Muziris Biennale has already gained the reputation of being one of the world’s most important art meetings, then it may also be possible to make Chennai a pivot of photography. That is our way of adding value to our city.

But who ideally is our audience? The first thing that comes to my mind is our slogan— and belief—Photography for everyone, everyone for photography. Sometimes, we spoke of the “people’s biennale”, open and attractive for all. From the very start, we have had the idea to create a big art event accessible for everyone. Not restrict it to museums or other official exhibition spaces, rare in Chennai anyway, but to the public space, where it can mix with the flow of everyday life. Idealistic? Romantic? Maybe. But in a society which is shaped by so many divides, it is also obvious. Why create spaces which only the “happy few” elite would cross the threshold? A Biennale has to go public, be inclusive, visible and accessible, and have an impact on people from very different backgrounds.

For our first edition, we showed exhibitions in highly frequented places like train stations, parks, on the beach. The idea was to surprise and interrupt the people there in their daily routine, make them stop and see something different. But with our enthusiasm for the public space, we oversaw some limits of these transit spaces. There are many reasons why you cannot show art everywhere. So which interesting space does Chennai have? We went to the former Binny Mills, the Koyambedu fish market, a spectacular former industrial plant, but alas, property and permission situations can be a nightmare sometimes. Finally, we have found some spectacular heritage buildings, the Senate House of the University of Madras, the Madras Literary Society, the Centenary Hall, and the Egmore Theatre of the Government Museum, and the Government College of Fine Arts. It will be spectacular to open these outstanding urban milestones of Indo-Saracenic architecture of the 19th century Madras, to the general public.

Our ideas of Chennai Photo Biennale will stick if the city adopts it—beyond the scenes of experts and art lovers. Photography is often seen as the most democratic art, its immense popularity is a great chance. The Biennale will bring the works of renowned photographers, as well as our young budding photographers to the public at large—works that they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise. Thus, in the age of the instant photo shooting and sharing, we will give you photographs and experiences worth remembering.
So you, the readers of Better Photography, and all your friends, mark Chennai Photo Biennale on your calendars—22 February to 24 March—a major date for art and photography, in India and outside. You will experience excellent exhibitions in overwhelming spaces, numerous artist talks, presentations on the beach, film screenings, and the unique International Photo Conference on 16-17 March See you!

Helmut Schippert is the Director of the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, Chennai, and the Co-founder of Chennai Photo Biennale. He has been working with Germany’s cultural institute for the last 33 years, most of them in Cairo, Santiago de Chile, Paris, Mexico City, and in Chennai.

Chennai Photo Biennale Schedule:

18-21 February: Workshops
1. Yumi Goto and Kenji Chiga: A workshop on bookmaking.
2. Dimitri Beck: A workshop on photojournalism.

21 February: Press Tour
A tour will be arranged for the media to Senate House and the Government College of Fine Arts.

22 February: Biennale Inauguration | Day 1
11 am Opening Ceremony of the Biennale.
12:00–12:30 pm Curated VIP tour of Senate House.
12:30–1:30 pm Sponsors tour at the College of Fine Arts.

23 February: Day 2
10 am–5 pm Artist Talks
7:30pm The Hindu Photojournalism Awards announcement night.
24 February: Day 3
10 am–5 pm Artist Talks

Talks on 23 and 24 are by exhibiting artists and other speakers such as Manit Sriwanichpoom, Yumi Goto, Dimitri Beck, Anna Fox, Karthik Subramanian, Prashant Panjiar, Chan Hyo Bae, Shadi Ghadirian, Angela Grauerholz, and more.

1 March Onwards
Films on Photography.

2-3 March
Talks by Catherine Leutenegger, Liz Fernando, Arun Vijai Mathavan, and Indu Antony, among other artists.

4-12 March
Artist Talks, Film Screenings, Projections, and Workshops.

9 March
An evening with Peter Pfrunder.
Mobile Photography Weekend.

10 March
Artist Talk by Armin Linke.
Mobile Photography Weekend.

16-17 March
International Conference on Photography
Museum Theatre, Government Museum.

18-24 March

Skill development week for college students. Various mentors will conduct 1–2 day workshops on different genres of photography.

22-23 March
Third Space Lab Collective: Video mapping at Government College of Fine Arts.
For more information, visit


Tags: better photography, Visual Musings, February 2019, Chennai Photo Biennale 2019, Helmut Schippert