‘These images have a great resonance across cultures’

Print edition : September 06, 2013

Self-portrait, after a trippy night, the morning after, in my room, New Delhi, 1976. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

PABLO BARTHOLOMEW has delved into his photographic collection from the 1970s and 1980s to show “how integrated we were within the international culture of music and socialist thought”. In an interview to Frontline, he said the exhibition “Outside In” came as a surprise to many viewers outside India and changed the perception about the country as “the land of maharajas, elephants, snake charmers, tigers, and beggars”. Excerpts:

You and your life are integral to this exhibition. What motivated you to do this? Nostalgia? Or are you trying to distinguish between the 1970s and the 2000s?

After the meaty days of photojournalism were winding down, as the new century was approaching, it wasn’t just me as an individual but the media on the whole that weren’t sure in which direction they were going and what needed to be done to be able to survive the onslaught of the Internet. I worked principally in the arena of the Western media, and by 2001 it had become more and more apparent that these media were more and more obsessed with dedicating 90 per cent of their budgets to the new crusades in Afghanistan and Iraq. That was an important time for me. I had been in the business for nearly 20 years and I had no interest in parachuting into these alien engagements of war. This was the time for me to introspect and go back to my old abandoned bodies of work as a way of going forward. There were my negatives that I had shot during my teens and my twenties, and then there were my father’s negatives, and I needed to revisit all this work again. Much of my father’s work I hadn’t even seen though it was lying with me since his death in 1985.

At one level these were intimate images of my friends and family circles. Then there were the marginal, fringe groups that I had spent time with. And then there was all the street-based work. When I had actually taken these images, in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no reading of them at the time. It was all so pedestrian in nature, and the two exhibitions I had done in Delhi (1979) and Bombay (1980) didn’t take me anywhere. At that time, with my focus so squarely on wanting to get into the international media, and then becoming a photo agency photographer, it became difficult to balance and sustain this documentary work.

In India, with the onset of the 21st century, there were new entrants to photography who were exploring the so-called “new” frontiers. To me it all seemed like a rehash, and it was just so easy for them to claim newness and put anything out there given how so few of us have any sense of the history of the visual. Too many people were getting away with all sorts of stuff. With the art world boom, many practitioners of art were abandoning their traditional ways and were taking to image making and video. The digital apparatus with its automation was too easy to adopt, and within this space, all sorts of stuff was coming out; some exciting, but mostly quite banal and, yet, all claimed to be “very creative” and the “new avant garde”. All these chaotic developments served as catalysts for me to go back and delve into my archive and bring out both my and my father’s work. In my father’s case, it extended to his writing on art, and similar parallels can be drawn within that sphere, about how art criticism or art writing is now, and the quality, depth and perception that marked the writing of critics like my father.

More specifically, this exhibition “Outside In” premiered at the Rencontres d’Arles in France in 2007. The ongoing exhibition at Photoink [June 13-August 31] was its 13th showing. The 14th was at the Obscura Photo Festival in George Town, Malaysia, between June 16 and 30. The 15th will take place in Dalian in China in August. This is an extremely popular exhibition, especially within Asia. These images have a great resonance across cultures as they depict a period when our cities and our people were less photographed, especially the socialist, intellectual milieu of the middle class, which is where I belong and am rooted. So much of this exhibition is about me, my family and friends, and urban spaces as they were then or may remain even now.

Looking back now what one realises through these images is the common threads between the West and India in the 1970s, or even with West Asia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey: the hairstyles, clothes, spectacles… these are some of the physical manifestations of how integrated we were within the international culture of music and socialist thought. This comes as a surprise to many viewers of the exhibit outside of India who perhaps only thought of the country through the stereotypical media exposure as the land of Maharajas, elephants, snake charmers, tigers, and beggars. So “Outside In” is a perception changer in many ways.

Also, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, on a photographic level, there were very specific types of images that were being produced in India. On the one hand, you had the pictorialists and all their clubs and exhibitions. And then you had the photojournalists who were attached to newspapers and magazines. Both genres were name- or personality-driven, with groupie-like followings. So, this was another important area that I wanted to address—to place this work as a historic marker and to make a correction within popular consciousness, that there did exist then, and even now, other ways of seeing.

From a photographer’s point of view, do concepts such as public and private blur for you?

It depends who you photograph and how and what your relationship with them is. In the case of “Outside In”, before showing it for the first time, I had asked everyone who featured in this work if it was okay with them. There was no resistance from anyone, in fact, there was encouragement; they felt these images were a celebration of their youth. With the Bombay [“Chronicles of a Past Life”] and Calcutta [“The Calcutta Diaries”] bodies of work, I didn’t have these issues as they are mostly street-based work.

Cities, for you, are its people, their lives, the spaces which escape the middle-class eye. These are also the so-called “banned” spaces. Those spaces have gradually diminished in all the three cities. How do you feel about it? And are you trying to tell the middle-class gentry something by photographing these spaces.

From my teens into my mid-twenties, the fringe, the outsider, the marginal were really the areas of my engagement as far as photography was concerned. As I’ve tried to explain in other interviews, or in other places, I’ve spoken in great detail about how the experience of being ousted out of school made me feel marginalised, and that had a great and lasting bearing on me. My affinities with other fringe and marginalised groups were more real, and that’s why I hung about and chose to photograph them.

I don’t think there is any real message to any one class of people about the other. These were the people I was most comfortable with and so I documented them. It is more apparent in my other exhibitions that deal with city spaces, like “Chronicles of a Past Life” and “The Calcutta Diaries”. “Outside In” is, of course, about the closer circle; my circle, and it resonates differently.

Many spaces were explored in parallel; the fringe and the marginal, friends, family, the film world in Bombay and Calcutta where I worked as a stills photographer. Many things have changed since; people have been driven out. Places and spaces evaporate, get developed, get gentrified, mostly not for the better; but then these are things one can’t control, and my role is really that of a documenter. Though one thing I can say is that it’s less interesting and exciting to look at things now. Globalisation brings a different kind of internationalism, which is spectacularly dull. It is very different from the ’70s and the ’80s when there was a Western influence, but it wasn’t like now, which is a cheap copy of everything, and maybe that is also transferring itself into the photography that is happening now.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

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