1:1 with Adira Thekkuveettil

1. What is your earliest memory of how or what attracted you to photography?


My grandfather lived in Kolkata and was a photographer for most of his life. He photographed his family, his friends, and his children from the early 1950s all the way till the 2010s. He had this way of recording each generation as they came along in an intimate and careful way that was also full of warmth. When I was growing up, I would visit them in Kolkata every summer, and spend hours looking through his albums. I don’t think those pictures made me want to be a photographer necessarily, but it did make me fascinated by the photograph. I found it magical that I could see my mother when she was my age in his little black and white pictures.


2. What was your experience studying photography at NID? How did this influence and inform your practice?


I went to NID in 2012, when the Photography department was a very different space from how it has since evolved. I spent three very uncertain years wandering about campus not really sure what I was doing there. It was only after I graduated from NID, and went back to work in the department as a research associate that I really began spending time in the Institute library, going through its collection of photobooks, and also reading a lot about images.


I certainly did not “study” photography at NID, which I really don’t think any institution can teach. But I was lucky enough to make friends in other disciplines there, and engage with exhibitions, archives, and research work while I was a student and also after. Being involved with the institute’s collections and archives, while being able to assist in researching and curating live projects was a very important learning experience for me, one which continues to inform my practice as an artist.


3. Do you think it is important to have an education in photography?


I think all photographers educate themselves in photography through their lives and their practice, whether they go to an institution or not.


A formal education in photography can be a highly challenging but also rewarding experience, but it depends a lot on faculty, peers, and access to resources. I went to a design school to study photography, and although my department – especially since Prof. Rishi Singhal took over in 2014 – was structured around an MFA style format, it was still challenging to be in a master’s program with very limited time to both develop skills and comprehend the discourses around images.


As I mentioned earlier, I really don’t think formal education is important if one wants to be a photographer. It’s a skill, like baking is a skill. You improve by making more pictures; the more you make, the better you see, and slowly you start to understand what you are interested in looking at. But just making images doesn’t do much. What do these images do in the world? What are you trying to say with them? How do they circulate in our contemporary landscapes?


An institution can provide a space where some of these questions can be thought through, debated with peers and teachers, and experimented on through one’s projects. In that regard it can expose you as a young practitioner to a highly charged environment that is enveloped in the medium and its possibilities. But this sort of environment can also be created by a dedicated group of people getting together on their own. Ultimately what an institution provides is access – to a rarefied world of discourse. As a student at NID or Pathshala or Yale, you get to be in different centers of this world. Department heads are important artists; graduate shows are seen by publishers and galleries; festivals are organized by the institution itself; portfolio reviews are held with leading curators. This inner level of access is what you get – to work with these people (who very often are the best in their fields), to participate as colleagues in conversations, to be taken seriously by this world, and build networks within it.


If one is able to be in such a space at the right time, it could be incredibly important for their growth as an artist. But often this is not a very inclusive world. And it is very much out of reach for most people. Ultimately, having institutional training in photography is a luxury in India.


4. If you were to design a photo program for young Indian photographers, what would it look like?


I would prepare a reading list first of all. And a space where reading is encouraged, where books, poetry, texts, and discourses are not shied away from and where debates around seeing, politics, imaginations, and media are engaged with. I have noticed that photographers often find reading intimidating, sometimes considering it a distraction from image making. But what do you do with photographs after you make them? As artists we are essentially storytellers and understanding how to tell a good story is really important.


Reading needs to be made more accessible and less scary. So, it would look something like a reading group for practitioners, where we can read the difficult and interesting books and discuss them collectively.


5. Who or what has inspired you to pursue photography and/or continues to do so?


This is a somewhat difficult question. I am certainly pursuing photography, but in the sense that I am going after the medium. My practice is one of trying to understand photography, and I do this by making photographs, by reading and thinking about images, and by engaging with the work of other artists. Images (including photographs) are incredibly intriguing. They are a language that is now encountered, understood, and used by most humans around the world. This is far beyond the closeted world of “art” or the even more minuscule world of photography as it is largely understood in the context of institutions, galleries, or festivals etc. I think it is the scale at which images actually circulate that I find fascinating, and this fascination inspires me to engage with photography.


6. Is there a book, exhibition or body of work that has really impressed you and maybe influenced your work / life?


A book I recently re-read that I found really revealing was Sally Mann’s Hold Still. It was the way she engaged with photographs through her life, how her practice was a tool to work through things, that I found very important and helpful. Larry Sultan’s book Pictures from Home (originally published in 1992, republished in 2017 by Mack) has been a treasure I cherish deeply and keep coming back to, to read as much as to look at the photographs.


In another sort of way, books influence me a lot as I read them and, once I finish them, they inform my way of thinking and seeing for a while. Some of these windows of seeing remain while others fade away; but, at the moment, Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy is one that is seeping into me. Something about its painfully slow pace, and its depth of detail is enveloping me in its world. Although a challenging book for me in many respects, it has been deeply influencing how I look at images too. If you look at an image long enough, you enter its world of infinite detail, and after you stop struggling against its painful stillness, sometimes the tunnels open up.


7. What draws / drew you to the subject matter you are pursuing in your current work?


So far, I have been circling around the same questions through my various bodies of work. I am concerned with land, with family, and with the long hand of history upon people. Circumstances that define people’s lives across centuries; decisions that impact the way a city changes, moves through time, and the traces that live into the present moment that emerge through images.


A work I made in 2014 called Native Place, where I explored my family’s histories in Kerala and Bengal through archival photographs, text and drawing, has since become a node from which a lot of later work has emerged. Currently, I am working on three bodies of work: The Coconut Thief (2020 – ongoing), which explores the difficult histories of anti-caste struggles and assertion in Kerala through a family legend I grew up with; What Cannot Break Will Bend (2017 – ongoing), which is centered around my family in Kolkata and the layered cruelties of conformity, and City of This & That (2017 – ongoing), where I am critically looking at urban environments that are largely created for, and inhabited by the so-called “middle-class.” These works are all distinct but they constantly inform each other, both conceptually and methodologically.


8. Do your projects typically run in parallel, or do you focus on one project at a time?


Yes, my projects do usually run in parallel. As an artist I am still figuring out my voice, the stories I want to tell and how I want to tell them. So, I work through these fragments of stories across time and through different projects. My works always bleed into and inform each other. For example, working on the city of Kolkata through historical archives, reading its social history and literature has revealed a lot to me about what circumstances were like for a lower middle class, yet upper caste family living in Kolkata through the 2nd half of the 20th century. Of course, this informs the way I understand my grandparents and their lives in the city.


With the pandemic I have not been able to go to Kolkata and make photographs for over a year now. Although this is a very small setback in the larger scale of things, it has provided me with an unexpected break from the city. I have been using this time to work through the material I already have, sequencing, editing, and writing.


9. What is your motivation to continue using film in your photographic practice? Why have you made this choice in your practice?


I began working with film because I found digital cameras too intimidating. When I was in college and otherwise hanging out with other photographers in overwhelmingly male spaces, I found that a lot of the conversations among my peers involved detailed discussions on the merits and criticisms of the latest digital technology, cameras, lenses, features etc; and as someone who was never nerdy like that, such spaces really put me off from enjoying just making pictures. So, eventually I got myself a very simple TLR medium format camera with a fixed lens and basic functions, and that’s what I’ve been using for the last 6 years or so for all of my work.


It is certainly difficult to source film, and sometimes also to get it properly processed etc. in India. But I plan far in advance usually, stock up on film in bulk, and plan my work around my processing and scanning schedules. You get used to it fairly easily, actually.


My motivation to keep using film has grown organically from enjoying its challenges. I usually have only 12 shots in a roll, I have to plan my film choice based on the weather on a particular day, if I get things “wrong,” I can’t just delete a shot. Through my time working in Kolkata, I’ve rarely gone out to shoot with more than 3 rolls of film, and once they are done, I simply can’t photograph anymore. To me that’s wonderful, it’s like the day’s work is done, and now I can wander and explore without the pressure to take photographs. I can go eat something, go home, meet a friend, whatever. I need to be able to put things away, and not always have the camera hanging off me, or it makes me start seeing very poorly after a while.


For me the joys of film are in its materiality. Having to figure out a proper physical archiving system for all the negatives I’ve been accumulating, being able to always make a fresh scan of an image as my scanning skills improve, having the ability to print at various sizes without too many concerns for image quality etc. It’s also being able to always see a day’s work in my negatives. I can see how I progressed, where I went, what route I took to get somewhere. To me, all of this is very important.


10. Do you consider the frame and structure of composition in photography to be problematic in terms of representing power dynamics and gaze? In your works involving your family in one project and the structure of social classes in another, have you encountered these issues?


I feel like questions of composition or what’s depicted in the images is a very ambiguous way to think about the problems of the photographic gaze. It is also too simplistic a way to judge and critique photography. What you see in an image could mean anything. And its meanings are constantly shifting, based on how they are shown, who is seeing them, in which contexts they are seen, etc. The more substantial arena for critique I feel lies in identifying and analyzing the systems of photography’s circulation, observing its currency, and its uses in various situations.


My work on my family emerges from a personal space of access and, more importantly, trust. Photography has been an important part of my mother’s family for decades; and, in many ways, I am continuing in my grandfather’s role as a family archivist, making new records. So, when making photographs of my family, the dynamics are very different from photographing a stranger. However, I also intentionally make the process of taking pictures very theatrical, always involving a tripod and much setting up, with long conversations with my sitter before and after taking an image. This not only changes the images themselves, but the context around them. In my work in Kolkata, which involves making images out in the city, and photographing strangers, I still employ my theatrical tripod and long set up routines because it gives my subject and me something to talk about, while disarming my intimidating request for a photograph. They are more curious to know what I am doing, why I am doing it, and I am also sometimes able to strike up a conversation around the city with them. My more recent work in Kerala is still at a very nascent stage and I am working through a strategy for it, but this work too involves my own family history significantly. I think the question of gaze is heavily reliant on the context around a work, and what entry points an artist has used to get into a subject, and how they then think through it. For me, working from my own location outwards is really important, and it is in that process that I understand and unpack my own gaze and what it implies.


11. Two of your ongoing projects, What Cannot Break Will Bend and The Coconut Thief, are developing stories that appear to have parallels. How do you see these stories evolving? Do you think there are intersections between the two? Do you see them, in a sense, as a representation of India as a whole?


Going from my earlier point about the gaze, I think your internal gaze can tell you a lot about yourself. In both of the projects you have mentioned, I am centering my gaze and then addressing it through the work.


What Cannot Break Will Bend (this is an ongoing title), initially began with my desire to have a record of my grandparents and their Kolkata house, during the years I lived with them. At first, I was more interested in my own relationship with these two people who I had interacted with only rarely through my years as a child and teenager. But slowly, as my conversations with them got deeper and I probed further into the history of this family, I became more interested in the societal structures that have shaped them through the generations into the present day. Their location as a lower middle class urban bhadralok Bengali brahmin family historically from the western regions of Bengal (and therefore relatively unaffected by Partition), the prevailing gender norms informed by their caste, and their economic class through the 20th century all became really important leads for me to begin to understand this family and their navigation through circumstances across generations. In many ways, it has also been incredibly informative to my understanding of the development of Kolkata as a city and ideas of “Bengali Culture” that have been embedded into the identity of the state (as we have seen play out during the recent assembly elections).


The Coconut Thief also emerged tangentially from the above project, as well as an older body of work, Native Place. As I began to understand how important my Bengali family’s location as an upper caste family had been in their story, I looked more closely into how differently my Malayali family’s history as a Thiyya family from Malabar had influenced their own story, especially in the context of Kerala’s socio-political history from the late 19th century onwards. Anti-caste struggle, especially emerging from the Thiyya and Ezhava communities through this time, had led to fundamental shifts in Kerala.


Carefully and critically working through my own family history gives me a way to understand larger socio-political questions. It is not as much a representation of India as a whole as it is an unpacking of ideas that seem to uphold imaginations of nation states. I’m interested in a small, generally unacknowledged but insidious unit of this imagination, which is the family. Families as modular units that build these larger imaginations.


12. How do you measure success or that a body of work is going well?


I think for me, a body of work is going well when it is making sense in some way to those I am showing it to. This could be a close friend or a large audience, but for me it is important that my work is accessible to people, that they can understand what I am trying to do, or when faced with the work alone, they can engage with it. I am lucky to have an incredibly astute friend who is always the first person I show my work to, and who helps me make sure I do not take any easy shortcuts with it.


I am slowly beginning to understand that my work takes time, that for me to come to a place of deep understanding takes effort. It’s only once I get there that I can begin to weave the story back to the surface, to the outside world. So, I keep photographing, reading, writing, and messing up my way through it till the stories begin to take shape.


13. Do you ever find yourself creatively ‘stuck?’ Is there something that is particularly helpful to you in overcoming this?


I find myself stuck an awful lot. This is largely due to self-doubt more than an actual problem really. When this happens, after some moping around, I usually turn to a book. This can be fiction or nonfiction, poetry or an essay, it really doesn’t matter. Reading refreshes me and gets rid of the film from my eyes that accumulates after I stew in my own work for too long. The other fail-safe tactic I employ is to go for a long walk while listening to a podcast (I really recommend The Paris Review Podcast) or an audio book. A lot of the time I carry my camera with some film on these walks. Just taking pictures without the weight of a project really helps clear my head.


I hover around my work a lot, and increasingly I find this is really not very useful. So, I am trying more and more to simply do the day’s work and then put it away. But I don’t know how to do this very well, yet.


14. How much effort do you put into getting your work shown? Is this important to you? Does showing your work feed your creative process, or does it distract you from it?


I keep a running list of calls for applications that I update through the year. I do try to apply to as many as possible that I think my work can fit into. But as I have grown as an artist, I am also realizing that a lot of “photography” related calls are still very traditional, expecting work to be only in certain formats. So, I think very carefully about which calls I apply to. I don’t want to be swayed into conforming my work into a specific model, as well. But something that I find really useful is the process of applying to things. When you have to say what your work is about in 500 words or less, it really forces you to be as clear and concise as possible.


Every way in which an outside audience can engage with your work can feed you. This can be an audience of one or many, but the keyword here for me is engage. A respectful and honest engagement on both sides, from the audience and the artist can be incredibly fruitful. But with large spaces, or exhibitions, this is often not the case. Exhibitions can sometimes turn into spectacles, especially at festivals, and in such a scenario I don’t know if people engage with the work or with the spectacle itself. So, I also remain wary.


15. Do you feel that there are adequate opportunities and avenues to share / show your work in your home country, or do you always look for such opportunities abroad?


Well, this depends on what you mean by adequate. In a country that is as large in population and as fundamentally unequal as ours, very few things can really be thought of as adequate, or even fairly distributed or accessible to most people. Opportunities for sharing and showing work do exist, yes, but they are certainly not adequate, largely because most of them are run/organized/managed by the same few people, which results in certain kinds of work being shown, certain points of view being legitimized in the long run, and others tokenized, then forgotten after one exhibition. To me, more than the lack of opportunities for artists, what I find more troubling is that there is such a small pool of people who have this amount of control over this space.


I feel that younger or early career practitioners simply getting together and just showing work is one small way to reject this system. Just make our own spaces.


Even abroad, these opportunities are not exactly equitable or even adequate for their own people either. Things are changing, but I look more hopefully and with more excitement at smaller collectives, spaces of solidarity built across countries and open spaces of conversation whose program is not dictated by large organizations or funded by banks with histories of human rights abuses.


16. We know that fine art or documentary photography is not always enough to make a living. Some do commercial work, others teach. Are there other photography related areas that you work with in order to supplement your living? Some that you would recommend aspiring photographers to consider?


I have for the last few years worked freelance as a designer in many different kinds of projects, from doing graphic design work to designing exhibitions. Very few of these projects had anything to do with photography per se, but I was able to build practical skills while being paid as well. I did teach a few courses for NID, largely for undergraduate students, which has been very fulfilling. Currently, I am the Course Director of Aesthetics, Criticism and Theory at Jnanapravaha Mumbai, a para-academic institution that offers public programs and post graduate courses in the histories of aesthetics, art criticism, and critical theory.


I have been trying to align my inquiries as an artist through spaces of theory, writing, teaching, criticism, and community engagement. I never wanted to be a commercial photographer, so that has not been a path I have explored, but I think that as photographers we need to find whatever ways we can to get stable incomes, as simply being a professional artist-person seems like a very far away fantasy for most of us. It really doesn’t matter what we do for a living I think, as long as it allows us some room to do the work we want.


17. Do you think there is a universal language that photography uses? Do you think that South Asian photographers are finding that they are judged by western criteria and standards?


These are two very different questions. Photography has infinite languages. It depends on what we define as “photography” really that limits our scope and brings in categories like “Indian photography.” India is a modern nation state that is essentially an abstract idea held together through political will. People who are making photographs within its borders can literally be making anything. Through what basis do we categorize them?


Now, of course images from the “global south” (let me use this wider but equally contested term here), get judged through the eyes of western culture and values, (by which I mean white, usually following hetero-normative and Judeo-Christian values, and always capitalist). This is nothing new and has been the norm since the dawn of the colonial period, for at least 500 years. I would also stress that images are judged and mediated through the lens of capitalism. Let us look at the cover images of the World Bank reports on India; what do they generally depict?


Now, if we still consider the term “Indian photography” as an actual category, and Indian photographers as those professional photographers or artists who accept the term Indian when presenting their work to a global audience, then they and their work are judged as to whether and how far they represent ideas of “India”; an idea which has been invented and legitimized both by the West as well as by the nation state of India. Look at the example of Kashmiri photographers being penalized and targeted after winning Pulitzer prizes for their work documenting India’s violent and long-standing occupation. Which/whose imaginations have been threatened by their work?


Artists and their work are often judged based on whether they do or do not represent long held ideas and values when presenting their work in western contexts (which are the spaces with the most influence in shaping global outlooks). I would also like to add here that a majority of the work that emerged from India through the 20th century that was celebrated by the western world, largely conformed to long entrenched ideas of what India or its people should look like, or its culture represent. So, artists only have their work considered through the western gaze, but also this weight of troubling photographic precedence that they are either compared to or contrasted against.


18. With your years of experience (perhaps not that many), of the lessons you have learned, what is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?


“Don’t stop making work, you are doing fine. It is always difficult to really know what you want to say, and how you want to say it. Your struggle to speak clearly does not mean your voice does not matter.” 🙂


19. If you didn’t do photography, what other career might you have pursued?


When I was a child, I really wanted to be an archeologist.


20. How would an interested collector go about buying your work?


They can write to me at: adira.thekkuveettil@gmail.com



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Copyright © Adira Thekkuveettil

Date Published

20 November