A CANDID CONVERSATION WITH INDIAN VISUAL ARTIST AND PHOTOGRAPHER ROHIT SAHA ABOUT HIS WORK, PROCESS, INSPIRATION, CHALLENGES AND FUTURE
Detail from the work A Field Guide to a Contaminated Wonderland, Rohit Saha
The artists’ work titled 1528 is frequently referred to in the below interview as Manipur. Find out more at https://rohitsaha.com/1528-the-story/
The artists’ work titled A Field Guide to a Contaminated Wonderland is frequently referred to in the below interview as Kodaikanal. Find out more at: https://rohitsaha.com/a-field-guide-to-a-contaminated-wonderland/
On 2 November 2000, in Malom, a town in the Imphal Valley in the tiny state of Manipur, India, ten civilians were shot and killed while waiting at a bus stop. The incident, known as the "Malom Massacre", was allegedly committed by the Assam Rifles, one of the Indian Paramilitary forces operating in the state. The victims included Leisangbam Ibetombi, a 62-year-old woman, and 18-year-old Sinam Chandramani, a 1998 National Bravery Award winner — (source Wikipedia). In 1958, the Indian government had passed a law — the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, (AFSPA), that applies to just the seven north eastern states in the country and grants security forces the power to search properties without a warrant, and to arrest people, and to use deadly force if there is "reasonable suspicion" that a person is acting against the state.
It has been alleged that over 1528 people have died in extra-judicial killings carried out by the armed forces between 1979-2012 in the tiny north-eastern Indian state of Manipur.
Volunteering with EEVFAM (Extra-Judicial Execution Victim Families of Manipur), an organization formed by the widows of victims, Indian visual artist Rohit Saha realized the magnitude of such events (in what are described as fake encounters) and began documenting his findings. Collecting testimonies from families and those around and researching victim reports he consequently compiled his work into a photo-essay called 1528 which won him the Alkazi Photobook Award 2017. He was consequently awarded the Magnum Foundation Social Justice Fellowship in 2018 which sent him down the path investigating another event of socio-political and environmental significance — this time in the picturesque city of Kodaikanal, in South India.
I caught up with Rohit on a video call in December 2022 to learn about his work and process. Here’s a transcript of that conversation:
Malcolm: Hi Rohit, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. My first question is, how would you describe yourself?
Rohit: Presently what I’m trying to deal with is being a person who can create an experience which stays with the audience that comes across my work. In order to create that experience I’m trying to experiment with different mediums like photography, illustrations, sound — anything that helps make my audience feel, because I feel feelings stay longer than just auditory or visual information or any other medium that we take in or consume or use; if it’s something that makes us feel it stays longer. Right now, I’m trying to create experiences through whatever I do. I don’t know if that make sense but that is the zone that I’m in.
Detail from 1528 by Rohit Saha. See links below for more
Malcolm: I think it’s a very challenging aspiration — trying to get someone to feel. To clarify or dig deeper, let me ask you, do you see yourself as a photographer or artist or something else?
Rohit: I’d would say that would be totally up to you and how you see my work. Because when I started my journey, I was mostly into animation and from there I entered photography and realized that I wanted to do both. I saw them both as ways of communication where photography helps me tell what I wanted to say and animation or illustration helps me say more than I could have said than just by talking or writing. I think I have always been quite aware of the fact or thought that, growing up, my writing was not good enough or maybe I couldn’t explain my projects well — it didn’t matter if it was a project or just answering questions. I’ve had this whole conception about myself of ‘not being a good student’, you know. I remember I used to doodle a lot while studying — it was always like letting your hand move and just going with the flow. Even with photography, it happened in a very strange way — after school, I joined college as a statistics honors student and my grand mum gave me a phone with a camera. And I stared bunking classes, hanging around with the phone, chilling with friends — bunking — not really doing anything with photography but just being my weird self. Later I decided that I did not want to continue with statistics, so I joined animation in 2010 because animation still had a kind of name whereas photography in a Bengali house was like — what will you do become a photographer?? Yet, even with animation I was pretty unclear about what to do after. With animation I also understood that you need a lot of patience and skills, and more than anything I did not have the patience to sit in one place for long and keep doing the same thing for long hours. Meanwhile what happened was, because of this so called “department”, I stared to meet a lot of people from film, video and theatre. I started traveling across India as a photographer for a theater group and designing lights for the stage; I got my hands on a DSLR at that time and people were like “oh, you have a DSLR, why don’t you come along?” — it was a fun time. Later I started realizing that I wasn’t liking the photographs I was producing. People around were either photographing their friends in very staged, pose-y, party settings — not in a very honest sense, or were just clicking “beautiful” images of Calcutta. I started getting bored and wonder why I was even doing it? That is when I reconnected with a friend of mine called Swastik Pal who was a photographer (https://swastikpal.com/) and who I had earlier known from class XI where we went for chemistry tuitions and both of us did not like chemistry. We became friends. So, years later when I met him again online, I saw some of his photographs he uploaded about his uncle in a photo-story he called, My Uncle Tukka. I still remember when looked at his work it was not like someone objectifying another; it was more about a nephew looking at an uncle — a small boy looking at his relative who wasn't able to talk and hear. It was very human — it felt like he was your own uncle. And it did not feel like it because they were just good photographs — definitely they were very good photographs, but they went beyond being good photographs. That kind of resonated with me. And then I stared looking at his work and one day I remember asking to him, “What are you doing? These are great, this is not what people are doing these days.” And he opened the door to photography for me and put me on to photography school in Bangladesh, the people of Bangladesh, their work, the workshops he attended, and also the photographers in Calcutta at the time. And suddenly I started looking at this work in a very different way than what you would normally find on Facebook and elsewhere.
I think that was when I came across the works of Ronny Sen, another photographer who is also a film director and writer. Then there was another person called Sankar Sarkar whose work was super interesting and personal. And I think those photographs were some of the best photographs I’d ever seen. I was like “whoa— maybe this is something that I’m really interest in. They were photographs that felt super honest. It wasn’t about trying to prove a point. It was more about — this is my life and being vulnerable enough to talk about it. And I felt that kind of stayed. After that, Swastik being on another work called Hungry Tides with him continuing his project for the next seven to eight years. And looking at him I realized that photography is not just about taking photographs, but went way beyond that.
Above: Detail from Gregor by Rohit Saha
Malcolm: I see a lot of repeated themes that you talk to like honesty, the human connection and reality, if I may. As a viewer (and fan of your work) I find much of your images, your black and red palette and your dark aesthetic captivating and full of drama and mood. Between your intent to capture something which is honest and real, and the end result and visible aesthetic you have, what is your process?
Rohit: When I look back at my work in Manipur and Kodaikanal which are very socio-political works where there’s a lot of data being collected from the ground itself, there is a lot of personal input but there’s also a lot of other points of views of the people involved as well. These are very social projects. There was this movement called the Provoke movement in Japan in the late 60s and 70s which was about photographers talking about the turmoil around them and they started to favor ideas that were against the popular concept of beauty i.e.: clean prints, bright exposures, sharpness in photos, good lighting etc. Now the idea of this movement was to make the viewers feel something from the get go, and realize that it’s not just about the picture that they are looking at, but it’s more about what’s happening around the world. So, in 1528, I started photographing high-contrast, black and white images because the documents that I came across had a lot of high-contrast, black and white Xeroxes copies that were part of the files that the families had provided. My idea was to use the same kind of visual language that really diluted the ideas of who the photographer is and instead being more interested in wtf is really happening there. At the end of the book you see an index with a list of photographs which were from the archives and the ones made by me. So, I’m not trying to hide myself as a photographer but I’m not trying to place myself as “the photographer” as well. So, there I kind of really chose what I was doing.
Even with Kodaikanal and the landing page of my website, one of the most important things I was trying to highlight was the mercury poisoning, which is invisible, and there are locations on the ground that are super contaminated because of it. I knew Kodaikanal had magic mushrooms but I had no idea that Kodaikanal had mercury, till 2015. And then I came across it when I went there, and I was like — how am I supposed to show contamination? There were groups that made this song about Kodaikanal and the contaminations and the local people struggling. There are groups trying to protest this, for which compensations were paid but the contamination still remains. So, the challenge was being able to show that contamination and make people feel the severity of the situation, rather than just snapping “beautiful” photographs. On the internet, photographs and visuals are what we consume the most. And we kind of have this shield around us where we don’t get affected by photos anymore. Even with the Ukraine war, we are so used to looking at battle photos or photos of disaster we’re like ‘Oh shit!’ but it doesn’t really hit us. The idea was to break that cycle. Color photography has lost its value due to the speed at which we consume images, these days. My focus was to get people to look at it from a different point of view. I started using red on the Kodaikanal project because in the old days people used cinnabar, a common ore of mercury, to make the color red. In painting, all the red used is actually mercury. Due to over exposure all the red turns to black. So, I thought why not use this idea of this landscape in black and red and see what happens.
Having said that, the same aesthetic you see on my Instagram is a part of my personal work I call, Somewhere. I had an encounter once where I felt I saw something but I have really no idea what it was. I’ve been looking for UFOs ever since and the colors echo the idea of red stars.
After Manipur, and Kodaikanal there was this gap where I was not photographing anything and my camera was also fucked so I started using my phone as a camera. I started photographing how I feel. I also began trusting my phone way more, in terms of storytelling.
As I look back, I realize I’ve always been interested in things that are invisible or which have already happened. I don’t approach things like a journalist but instead reporting on things that have happened 10-20 years ago. The selfish act of trying to learn is how I start doing things, even with Manipur. I’m from Bengal and Manipur is an hour’s flight away. And I had no idea of what was happening in Manipur. That made me really question what kind of a person I was. With Kodaikanal it started with the excitement of going to that beautiful place, magic mushrooms in all that. But when you get there and start talking to people you realize how bad or ugly things really are on the ground. On the other hand, I’m also aware of how big Unilever is. My parents use Pepsodent and other products of Unilever. So, you can’t really say FU to Unilever because their presence, as a company, is felt in every Indian household. Unilever is a big giant — I am no one.
Even with my UFO work, which is a personal project, I try to evoke the feeling of place or the environment. At the end of the I photograph how I feel. And no matter what work I am doing, my point here is, when I start working on something it begins with speaking to people and researching the topic. In many ways I’m also always thinking about the project at hand and producing. And then whatever I’m producing during that time goes on the editing table, and then I ask myself now what?
1528, File folder, 9.25” x 13.5”, 200 pages, Photographs and Text by Rohit Saha and the EEVFAM archives.
To purchase a copy of this work please contact the artist directly (see link below)
Rohit Saha (1990) is a visual artist from Calcutta, India. He works with photography, illustration and animation to narrate stories and has been working with communities, landscapes and political phenomena in various parts of India.
Find him at rohitsaha.com or instagram
End of Part 1. Click here to read Part 2.
Footnotes and References
Cover image: from A Field Guide to a Contaminated Wonderland by Rohit Saha. Find out more at: https://rohitsaha.com/a-field-guide-to-a-contaminated-wonderland/
1528 by Rohit Saha. Find out more at https://rohitsaha.com/1528-the-story/
Gregor by Rohit Saha. Find out more at https://rohitsaha.com/gregor/
Provoke (Purovōku) with its subtitle of Provocative Materials for Thought was an experimental small press Japanese photography magazine founded in 1968 Kōji Taki and Takuma Nakahira, Yutaka Takanashi, Takahiko Okada and Daidō Moriyama. Source Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Provoke_(magazine)
Swastik Pal: https://swastikpal.com/my-uncle-tukka/
Note: All pictures depicted are copyright of their respective owners
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