1:1 with Chinar Shah

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


Though, I did not touch a camera till much later in my life, my father’s love for photography introduced me to the world of images at a very early age. He was an amateur photographer who loved to travel and take pictures. He participated in a workshop on photography in Ahmedabad with Vikram Dalal sometime in the early nineties. My brother tells me that he read an article praising the Pentax k1000 and decided to buy one for himself. This was not his first camera. However, I believe he became more serious about photography after this particular purchase coinciding with his attending the workshop. It encouraged him to make images beyond the family life.


I recall my father’s possessiveness towards his Pentax k1000. None of us were allowed to touch the camera. Until my brother grew older and did a photo workshop himself, earning the right to operate this precious camera. Being younger, I was never allowed to touch the Pentax. I started getting interested in photography while studying literature in Hyderabad and finally was permitted to use the Pentax much later during my time at NID. By then, my father had moved on to a digital Olympus and his Pentax k1000 remained in his stories and echoed in a cupboard full of family photographs.


I never got a chance to ask him about his interest in photography while he was alive, and thus all I have are these random memories pieced together to make sense of him. But one thing is certain, my earliest memory of photography is not a photograph, it is the image of my father as a photographer.


2. Having studied English literature at the master’s level, what steered you towards studying photography design at NID?


I needed the money. My brother had gifted me a digital Panasonic camera while I was pursuing my first master’s degree. I fell in love with photography, something I never imagined for myself. These were late Orkut and early Facebook days. I would put random images online of myself and the places I went. After I graduated, I was lost and without a job. A photography assignment landed in my lap out of nowhere. In those days, I did not even know what a RAW image is! I jumped at this assignment, since it was going to give me my first check. One thing led to the other, and I found myself at NID after one year of finishing my MA.


3. What was your experience studying at NID, and how has this shaped or influenced your practice?


My time at NID has had a huge impact on my practice. The course coordinator of the program then, Dr. Deepak John Matthew and many other facilitators that came to teach us, such as Anna Fox, Sunil Gupta, Chakradhar Saswade, Madhusudan Mukherjee, and Rishi Singhal, influenced my practice for years to come. One lesson I still hold very dear from my time at NID is to slow down when making images.


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


I designed a PGDP program in photography along with Prof. Anna Fox for Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, in Bangalore, in 2014, and ran it for a year. Unfortunately, it was then merged with the larger arts degree. Thinking back, there are many models of teaching photography and each of them very useful in their own regard. However, I do believe we need more rigorous mentorship programs, as well as degree courses. While imagining a degree course, it might be good to consider a broader scope for photography education.


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


I love many artists’ works. However, teaching has been very stimulating and has added greatly to my practice. I believe I am an artist because I teach. Both of these practices go hand in hand for me. I have been interested in contemporary visual culture and questions around post-photography, which drive my work, my writing, and my teaching.


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


There isn’t one thing as such. There are so many books, so many people, and so many practices that have influenced my work. Currently, I am reading Nonhuman Photography by Joanna Zylinska, and Image Future (2006 version) by Lev Manovich.


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


I am currently interested in contemporary painting and its connections to some of the early painting software that ran on the bitmap technology. I explore what it means to paint on a digital surface and its impact on the way we understand painting as a physical activity with canvas and paintbrush. I am still doing my research and thinking things through. I have been interviewing my school friends and others from the same generation that went to Gujarat board schools and studied the same syllabus as me. I am trying to ask questions about their memories of computer classes in the late 1990s, and the various creative software programs we learned then. The other part of the research involves reading about the history and technology behind creative software development. The third part is to actually make the work. I have realized I am going to write a small article, as well as make a work on this subject. This has been my process for this particular inquiry. However, I do not follow one process for everything. Often, I sit on a thought for years before it materializes.


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


I work on multiple things simultaneously. I have projects that have been ongoing for years. My friend, Nihaal Faizal and I have been working on a film project, Photocopied Blow Out for the last three years. Photocopied Blow Out presents a Xerox photocopied version of Blow Out, the 1981 film by Brian De Palma. To achieve this, each frame from a downloaded copy of the film has been printed on to separate A4 size sheet of paper and then scanned. The scanned frames are then played back along with the original soundtrack of the film. This is a very laborious process and we have managed to only finish ten minutes of the film. We think it may take us ten years or more to finish this project, depending on multiple factors, including finances. Thus, in the meantime, I work on other things. My practice does not consist of only working on projects. Of course, that is how it finally comes out. As well, there are times when I am not working on anything in particular.


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


I often show my process to my friends and colleagues. I don’t think of a body of work as successful ever. I know when it is finished for that time. I have often gone back to finished works and have redone them. So, I guess, nothing is successful really! Just works in progress.


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


Not really! I believe in the process. I read. I write. I paint; and sometimes I make images. All of this is part of the process. I don’t have the pressure to create anything. Thus, there is no question of being stuck. I don’t make if I don’t have anything on my mind.


11. 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?


Over the years, I have realized the importance of collaboration. My practice is moving further and further away from working in isolation. I work with other people for many of my projects. I also try to create and support ecosystems that are young and trying to make space for artists outside of the mainstream networks. I believe collaborative practice can be one of the promising futures in the art / photography world. Then our relationship to each other is not as service providers, or hierarchical systems developed within the art world. In a way, I collaborate to show my work, write about other artists’ works, and invite artists to exhibit with me.


12. 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?


I am sure India can do with some newer spaces that are open to different ways of thinking about photography that respect the fact that all artists / photographers must be paid for showing their works. As W.A.G.E. puts it in their manifesto, “… the promise of exposure is a liability in a system that denies the value of our labor.” There are a few opportunities in India to show your work. I am not sure how many of them pay for exhibitions. We cannot expect all alternative spaces to be able to pay. However, this cannot be an excuse for foundations, organizations, CRS initiatives and government programs. Thus, along with the question of the number of opportunities available to show one’s work, we must always ask how many of these opportunities will amount to any form of financial gain for the artist. Otherwise, these opportunities are empty promises for a career set in the backdrop of exploited artists / photographers.


13. 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 teach photography. I write about photography. And I run a curatorial space. For me, all of these occupations have fed into each other and I can’t think of my life only as an artist. Not everything can contribute towards the rent, but something does. Since I earn zero money from my art, all the other occupations become imperative to my survival. I think that learning to write about photography might be a good skill for aspiring photographers to develop, for many reasons.


14. You use the digital medium in your practice. Do you also use analog?


I do not have an affinity for any particular medium. I am interested in digital technology and its impact on the future of photography. However, I use both digital and analog, depending on the need of the project.


15. You co-edited Photography in India: From Archives to Contemporary Practice, an academic publication by Bloomsbury, UK, in 2018. Can you tell us something about the process that has stayed with you?


The book is co-edited with my friend, Dr. Aileen Blaney. It took us almost three years to finish the work before going to print. As I write this, the paperback edition just recently has come out. Aileen and I started working on this project to add to the scholarship around photography in India – a subject, on one hand, so prevalent, and yet there exists a huge gap in the written scholarship on the theme. What started as a conversation between two friends soon grew into a book project. It was a long process of working closely with individual writers to develop each essay in the collection. The book mainly focuses on two aspects: memory and contemporary practices. While there is a growing scholarship on the history of Indian photography, it remains an area with huge gaps. The first section of the book addresses some of these gaps, not to fill chronological cracks, but to offer a contemporary reading of various archives and images of the past. The second section of the book deals with an expanded understanding of photography within networked societies, as images gain meaning through a system of distribution, access, and sharing.


16. Please talk about your initiative Home Sweet Home, and why you felt the need to start it.


Mine is not the first generation to be disillusioned by the mainstream art world. Nor is this disillusionment specific to my geographic location. There is a history of artists creating space for themselves, away from the galleries, art fairs, and museums. Home Sweet Home is part of this long history of artists creating spaces for themselves and their peers – something that doesn’t work on the familiar models of transactions and value. We exist precariously within an ecosystem of art institutions. It would be very easy (and rather lazy) for me to describe Home Sweet Home as a critique of the white-cube-gallery model. Yes, it is a critique, but which alternative model isn’t? Often such semantics assume that the alternative spaces offer some kind of ultimate solution to all the evils of the mainstream art world. In my experience, it does and it doesn’t. There is no ultimate inclusive community possibility, and anything we create can only exist in conversation with other systems – both mainstream and alternative. The need for heterogeneity and plurality is the reason spaces such as Home Sweet Home came into being, and it would be foolish to categorize its existence only as a critique of the mainstream.


I remember sitting at Koshy’s with Nihaal Faizal, after a particularly bad art meet, when I said to him, “I think I would like to start a space to show artworks in my own apartment.” Nihaal had just closed his three-year-old project, G159, an art space that he ran out of the living room of his student accommodation. That was the time when a lot of these student-run spaces had shut down, since most of them graduated and the new generation did not take up any such curatorial projects. This created a huge lack in the Bangalore art scene. Suddenly, we found ourselves at the mercy of very sparse mainstream galleries in the city that, needless to say, did not know us nor care to know us, or our practices. This was September 2015. The first show was a curation of artists I already knew, or of art works I owned. It was like friends coming together to see art. Home Sweet Home has grown exponentially from its early days. I now define it as a series of exhibitions organized in domestic spaces. For the last two years, we have started inviting curators to curate shows, instead of just putting a few works together myself. In that sense, I have taken up more of an organizer’s role at Home Sweet Home.


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


I don’t think there is a universal language of photography. I think we are living in a rather complex world with so many boundaries broken down. Sometimes, these arguments about Eurocentrism fall short to address complex times marked by post-colonialism, neo-liberal economy and globalization. I feel we need a more nuanced critique of photography within India today.


18. Having been in the industry for almost a decade now, what is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?


I wish someone had told me to value failures and process without a fixed expectation of an outcome. I would have wasted much less time in the early days of my career.


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


They can contact me directly at chinar21@googlemail.com.


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


I never knew what I wanted to become, and definitely did not intend to be a photographer or an artist. I became one by accident. Even when I was studying at NID, I did not know for certain where my career would take me. I was always confused and did not mind that state of being.



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Copyright © Chinar Shah

Date Published

20 November