New Waves of Documentary, Practice as Research

Veeranganakumari Solanki

New Waves of Documentary, Practice as Research was initiated as a collaboration between Pathshala South Asian Media Institute and the VII Academy. A nine-month mentorship programme led by Sarker Protick, Linda Bournane Engelberth and Stefano de Luigi resulted in the creation of new series of works based on research and image analysis for new methods of documentary making by eight emerging photography fellows from the South Asian region. These photographers – Nad e Aly, Uma Bista, Tavish Gunasena, Vamika Jain, Mehbuba Hasan, Mayank Makhija, Riti Sengupta and Md. Hadi Uddin – worked with their mentors through online sessions during the pandemic to diversify the output of their visual language by extending personal boundaries, exploring intimate spaces and creating new approaches in their practice to narratives, storytelling and the process of creating meaning through image-making.

What is normal for us? What is the pace at which we acknowledge change? When does this change reach a stage of routine and for how long is it allowed to hold the status of ‘new’? In 2020, the Covid 19 pandemic struck common panic and fear across the world; this was new. However, as we slipped into the second and third wave and pulled through lockdowns, the pandemic began to normalise itself. Instantly, news and images shifted to other ‘new’ wars, calamities and incidents. When the eight artists came together in 2021 most of them were already in some form of isolation or lockdown. These nuclear experiences internalised forms of research and creation. The group reached out to access points that were within their immediate realm of space, knowledge and curiosity. The outcome of this phase brought with it new thoughts that we may understand as research and documentary today. Migration, floods, survival, nature, instinct and land emerged as links that thread their way through concerns of womanhood, patriarchy, violence, and preservation while keeping emotion and the human spirit at the core of all projects.

In an extremely intimate work, Mehbuba Hasan braved her first self-portraits through images of her body. After being shamed for years about her weight and driven to a point where starvation led to further complications, Hasan pushed personal boundaries of what self-image and self-worth meant to her. Stuck at home during the lockdown she turned to photograph herself in ways she would not have dared earlier. An initial hesitation in sharing these with close friends only led to further encouragement and confidence to open the work for public viewing. Through this primary and fragile positioning of her body, Hasan looks at the internal roots of the first layer of documentary practice. The aspect of self-confrontation that is often pushed away with an excuse to turn to the other to criticise in a way of bettering ourselves bares it all in Hasan’s photographs. The faint washed images act as a personal therapeutic outcome to function as a form of recovery and reclamation not just for Hasan but also for other women out there who face similar attacks of self-image and body-shaming by their families and partners.

Furthering revelations through personal stories, Uma Bista’s images coupled with poems stir historic neglect of women’s identity in Nepali society. As a journalist, Bista was able to travel to a few places across Nepal despite strict lockdowns. While documenting covid issues, she used the opportunity to also interview women between the age of thirty and seventy-seven about their understanding of identity and boundaries in society. For Bista, the outcome of sharing the stories of the struggle these women have journeyed through, acts as an inspirational layer to Nepali history and society which is otherwise primarily patriarchal. Documentary technique in portraiture usually gives agency to the photographer to decide the image. However, in Bista’s work, she allowed the women to choose the way they wanted to be portrayed and each of them agreed to share their stories with their names to depict strength and the change they wanted to be.

Moving from the personal to a relational realm, Riti Sengupta worked with staging and framing portraits of her family with a focus on her mother’s familial and societal standing.  Sporting her mother in these images without constraints of boundaries gave Sengupta the freedom to explore choreographed frames that may in other instances could suggest intrusive familiarity. The images and compositions are non-confrontational, intimate frames of mother-daughter conversations, family group photographs and dramatized chores that explore the weariness and expectancy that are born for a woman with marriage and motherhood. While addressing acts of patriarchy that were attributed as duty, Sengupta through sometimes humorous, sometimes tender photographs explores the meaning of where independence draws its line in her mother’s home and where she disagreed through dialogue to create her own belief patterns when she set up her own marital home.

Expanding personal relationships into spatial documentary, Nad e Aly’s work stems from the loss of a parent, his father, and expands into an external world. His images break away from the act of rituals while keeping the familiarity of repetition active through multiples of four photographs of place and architecture. His visits to the Lahore cemetery – an amalgamation of colonial and non-colonial structures – layered themselves with a need to emphasise rigour and thinking. The Kabristan with its repetitive sense of archaeology and surroundings expanded into narrative making and sequencing that helped Aly determine a way of telling time and depicting impermanence. He adjuncts the city not just to his father but to other fathers as well.  In this space that holds a complex history for the artist and the chapters of time, the camera and photographs become ways of mediating a personal resonation to life.

This factor of time is deeply embedded in most forms of research, archive or documentation and sometimes elicits a sense of nostalgia that perhaps comes with the fear of loss. For Tavish Gunasena photographing time in nature became a way of understanding process. His work looks at landforms and the correlation between animals and man in the region of Arugam Bay and the Eastern coast of Sri Lanka. When Gunasena returned to Sri Lanka after completing his Masters in Canada, it was the beginning of the pandemic. Having lost his early photographs made as a teenager on the east coast, he manoeuvred ways to go back to the landscape that defined itself as his formative understanding of photography. With language as a barrier, Gunasena turned to look at the place through its biodiversity. Nature in turn opened up the people, the ocean and what being Sri Lankan meant outside of the context of just Colombo. The choice of keeping these as black and white images is Gunasena’s attempt to preserve what might change rather than the documentation of the change itself. The work will continue to develop around the complexities of politics that tide over transformation and attachment.

Documenting calamities of climate change and people, Md. Hadi Uddin has been creating images around his hometown Jessore in Khulna district, Bangladesh. His work draws in larger issues of migration while rooting his images in a celebration of humanity. Stemming from a personal connection with the people of the region, Uddin responded to the process of documentary as a blurred line between an instinct of personal attachment and professional documentation. While the larger and more immediate interpretation of his images from the Koyra village may suggest the struggle of the people caused by residual climate change floods and cyclones, there is a strong sense of human spirit present. Uddin’s portraits carry the grit and resilience of the Koyra people and their constant fight with change. In staying and rebuilding destroyed homes and livelihoods the people and images carry forward currents of hope with them.

The human nature of the perseverance of protest with a hope to prevent change is evident in Mayank Makhija’s ‘March to Delhi’. In a series of photographs where the viewer is confronted with people bursting from frames, there is a certain telling of who these farmers are outside of these demonstrations. During the process of creating these images, Makhija spent time building personal relationships with farmers in their homes during their times of rest and recuperation. This brought in a more empathetic rather than objective way of storytelling. With a photojournalistic narrative that translates into a tabloid of images and text, Makhija questions barriers of normalcy alongside balance in the lives we lead isolated from the recognition of the turmoil of another.

Language is a common thread that has travelled parallelly with images through the works of these eight photographers. In some instances, words are spoken or written while in others speech and text have been mediums of intervention for the outcome. For Vamika Jain whose primary practice is based outdoors, the second lockdown in India left her with only the internet and Instagram to look at for image making. She began questioning the correlation and context of creating new visuals with what already existed on a virtual web. She turned to images of supermarkets, pandemic chaos and propaganda that were being churned out on the internet. Using text as a starting point to articulate a picture, Jain’s work in this series circles the viewer back into relooking at starting points of images, the context of mediums such as poetry, news and literature to photography and at the base of it all the way we as humans position ourselves as a reflection to what we see in pictures based on our everyday experiences of life and memory. In her final outcome of the series here, Jain uses the format of the newsroom and a fake news channel to question the authenticity of what we believe. The voiceover and the tone of authority with which we are fed fake information also bring in the element of sound that Jain has begun to explore with this work.

Through the process of looking at documentary making, research and practice in these layered formats of images created over an intense period of change in the world, the viewers are faced with encounters rather than passing glances. The involvement of senses that move beyond visuals is contrived by projections of public image and society into questions that bare basic desires of existence. The various series of works created by these eight minds zoom in and out of larger pandemic-related issues into more detailed and intimate ones that carry individual movements and ways of existence. Though there are recurring suggestions of resistance to match and difficulty to adhere and cope, perseverance is a constant that brings with it a chink of hope. It is perhaps this hope that stirs the rise of a new wave of documentary making.