Interview with the French photographer about his latest photobook Aam Aastha: Indian Devotions, a collection of portraits where people play gods.
Speaking from rouen in northern France over Zoom, photographer Charles Fréger said, “I believe it is the series which makes more sense than one photograph alone.” The tip is useful when examining his new photobook, Aam Aastha: Indian Devotions, a collection of portraits of people dressed up as gods, both Hindu and folk, for the purpose of entertainment. It continues Fréger’s already large collection of people in uniform, as seen in books like Portraits Photographiques et Uniformes (2001), Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage (2012), and Cimarrón: Freedom and Masquerade (2019). Even his separate works add up.
Aam Aastha opens with an essay by the novelist Anuradha Roy, where she says that in Fréger’s work “[w]e see how varied are the geographies and circumstances in which altered realities are created. We see a demonstration of the fact that masks sometimes express truths people want to but cannot without a disguise. And through all the images, the human being beneath ritual and costume is a constantly palpable entity.” In this conversation with Frontline, Fréger said that the human experience is integral to him and his work: he is more interested in the person portraying Hanuman or Krishna. Divinity only gives Aam Aastha a context. Fréger’s focus is its representation.
Fréger, 48, is no stranger to India. In the past, he has shot painted Indian elephants in Jaipur, a wedding band, and the Sikh regiment. But Aam Aastha, a project that took him four years to complete (2019-2022), was made difficult by the pandemic. Although COVID-19 forced him to stay away from India for 20 months, he persevered. Aam Aastha covers the gamut of Indian tradition, from Kathakali and Gavri to the Ras Leelas that are staged in Delhi and Manipur.
“I am not travelling all these kilometres just to do a photograph,” said Fréger. “I am making an image with my subjects. So much needs to fall in place—the body, the mask, the landscape, the weather. All these things take part in the photograph. They must match. The wish is to create something beautiful and harmonious. Sometimes, when things go well, we touch a universality.” Excerpts from the interview:
What drew you towards portraiture? When did it start feeling like a form you wanted to master?
I went to a fine arts school, wanting to become a painter. Painting took me to photography. I started with portraits, and my goal has been to focus on them. Take Aam Aastha, for instance. My way to document such traditions was through portraiture, silhouettes, something more static. My own rhythm matters more than the rhythm of festivities. When someone is standing in front of you, there is a calm and peace that take over. We first look at each other, and only then can I start my work.
You often present portraits of communities, but many of your photographs are also of individuals or pairs of people. How do these parts add up to a whole?
When I started working, the idea was to represent a community by portraying its members. In my work, the series aspect is very important. I believe it is the series which makes more sense than one photograph alone. Communities often have uniforms. When you photograph someone dressed up, their outfit represents their community. These people have made a collective decision to dress the way they do, but uniforms also introduce a tension between individuals and their community.
How did you develop this fascination with people in uniform?
I never felt that the uniforms were a problem. I always found that people found a way to assert their individuality, despite the uniformity. When you photograph someone, you face their fragility. I want to ask what brings and keeps us together. One thinks the answer will be complex, but it is simple. You come, say, from a village or neighbourhood that has a football team. When you become a part of it, you also become part of the community. The “football team” here can be replaced by a regiment or even a religion.
Does the fact that your subjects are often dressed up make you think of them as models first?
Most communities I have photographed have been interested in their own representation. They wish to be photographed. They have an image of themselves. They want to represent their community. They also have a certain ability to pose, to be staged, to act. Most of the people I photographed in Aam Aastha were very strong actors. To me, they are more like performers. “Models” isn’t the right word.
You once said your work involves an “invasion of other people’s territory”. If this is indeed the case, how do you go about getting permission? How do you make your subjects feel comfortable?
I first find these communities and understand who they are, where they are performing. I show them my work, my website, my previous books. For Aam Aastha, I also showed them the work I had already done in India. They had an idea of how they were going to be photographed. In India, all the models were paid as well. The Kathakali and Theyyam performers are both professionals. Most people I’ve photographed in India come from similar backgrounds.
Aam Aastha: Indian Devotions
Thames & Hudson
Price: Rs. 2,750
For Aam Aastha, were you more interested in people or the gods they were representing?
I was never really convinced by the idea of religion. I look at religion as something which is part of a society. When I photograph, I look at the surface, the costume, the makeup. I look at the face and skin. The way someone stands in front of me is absolutely social. Most people I worked with in India came from the lowest castes. You see these people becoming gods, and that is beautiful, but these people often have a difficult life. They must pay rent and feed their kids. So, I see these very material aspects.
While humans become divine in your work, you also make the divine seem human…
I am a human being looking at other human beings. I do not know the divine. I think it is beautiful to see these people trying hard to make it up. I chose not to photograph the sadhus in Varanasi; I do not think that the religious subject is my subject. My subject is the representation. I am more interested in how people are representing the divine.
Did you see the iterations and idioms of Hinduism change as you travelled the country? Did the polyphonic religion ever feel confusing?
It is a confusing religion, because from what I have seen, there is no one Hinduism. You sometimes encounter gods who you think will have the same background, but the people I photograph often come from different tribes. They have their own culture, their own stories and mythologies. I have seen some children’s books where Hanuman looks like a muscular superhero. There is a danger that a single dominant imagery will influence the culture of all Indian tribes, forcing them to give up their mythology and religion. If this imagery is then used by politicians, we’ll have problems.
- Charles Fréger’s photobook, Aam Aastha: Indian Devotions, is a collection of portraits of people playing gods from Hindu and folk traditions.
- Fréger says that the human experience is integral to him and his work: he is more interested in the person portraying Hanuman or Krishna.
- He believes that in India, preserving the diversity of cultures and religions is fundamental and necessary.
Did any of the rituals you shot feel endangered in any way? Do you think photography can add to the longevity of ancient local folk traditions?
I believe traditions appear and reappear. They work like waves, going up and down all the time. Some of my most interesting photographs were shot in an Assamese village of 50 people. They have a beautiful tradition of wooden masks, for instance. I can’t tell if that tradition will disappear. I hope not. I feel that in India, preserving the diversity of cultures and religions will be fundamental and necessary.
“There exists this culture of world citizens that makes you feel you can instinctively know the other side. It is true that we have a capacity to feel and sense something from the other, but we also have distance.”Charles Fréger
Can you tell us more about your research for Aam Aastha?
We started in the South, in Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. As we kept going, we found more and more examples. We looked at each State of India, trying to find if any tribe or representation there will connect to our project. We did, of course, refer to ethnographic books, but we found most of our subjects through word of mouth. Also, what I’ve photographed is only a small fraction of the reality.
The people we see in the book are often holding a pose. As a result, your still photographs highlight their performance. Would it be right to say that you do not like to be distracted by motion?
I’m not really good with motion and movement. The backdrops I choose are not the most impressive or spectacular. I am not looking for a waterfall. I’m often just looking for a wall or a field. In so many towns and villages in India, I found these walls that were painted and repainted. They had these layers of colours. I may not be a specialist of Indian religion, but I sure am a specialist of Indian walls [laughs].
When someone comes in front of me, I look at their pose, and then I modify it with them. What I am looking for is beauty. I like the tension between the texture and materials. That sense of the static is very important for me.
All your subjects seem to participate in your work. Is it because they are posing?
My subject and I are looking for something together. None of the photographs in my book happened by coincidence. They all resulted from the fact that someone else and I both tried to do our jobs well.
When you travelled across India did you feel like a foreigner, an outsider looking in?
Of course. Who else am I? I do not always understand, and I know that very deeply. Being a foreigner does not mean I am distant. All it means is that the person who stands in front of me for some time is from another culture. This difference between two cultures is something I really admire. I respect the fact that we are different, that we have different backgrounds, that we do not understand each other.
Since the 1990s, we have been saying that the world is global. We say we speak the same language, and that the Internet will give us access to all cultures in the world, that we will be able to understand everything. I don’t like this. I would never say I can explain Indian culture. I have no idea. I am no expert. Someone told me a story from the Ramayana. In the end, when Sita is being drawn into the ground, Lakshman tries to grab her hair, and the lines we see on our hands are the remnants of his effort. But it is difficult for me to understand the meaning. Why did someone ask his wife to jump in the fire? How can I judge that? I can only try to find out what we have in common as human beings.
How do you solve the riddle of exoticism?
When you look at a Theyyam performance, you are surprised for the first five minutes. It is impressive. But after you spend some time with the dancer, you forget all the fireworks, the strong colours, the sparkling and gigantic costume. You start to look at the guy who is carrying the weight of that costume. It is not exotic any more. It soon starts to seem pretty normal, and this normality is beautiful.
“There are so many strong cultures in India. They are all breathing; they are not like stone. ”Charles Fréger
You said you do not believe in any kind of distance between a photographer and his or her subjects. Is this distance invented or inevitable?
I am not flirting with the people I photograph. Yes, I am looking at someone I don’t know, but this is not speed dating. We don’t have enough time to really know each other, so we have to accept that we are only facing the surface of someone else. Some people consider themselves globetrotters. They travel the world. They like to sit with villagers, and take their babies in their arms. They eat their food, and they then start to believe they have understood something fundamental.
There exists this culture of world citizens that makes you feel you can instinctively know the other side. It is true that we have a capacity to feel and sense something from the other, but we also have distance. The distance we keep with this person is a way to protect ourselves, but also to protect that person. We may have to keep a certain distance with another culture to protect it. Keeping that distance does not amount to being snobbish. I do not try to keep this distance—the distance is there the moment you meet someone. Instead of trying to erase it by trying to seem cool and employ common Americanisms, we can use that distance to show respect.
What is it about India that keeps bringing you back?
There are so many strong cultures in India. They are all breathing; they are not like stone. Something comes in and something goes out. Some cultures swallow other nearby cultures. They are constantly moving and changing. That is why culture is alive. Of course, India is one of the few places in the world where you also get a feeling that you are seeing something unique. If you go there, you will see something you have perhaps never seen anywhere else. And that is the spectacular aspect of India. We are impressed by the complexity. We believe we have something to do there. I am one of the few photographers who cannot photograph in their own street. I must go somewhere for me to be able to work on something.
Shreevatsa Nevatia is a Kolkata-based journalist.