1:1 with Ravi Agarwal

1.0What is your earliest memory of how or what attracted you to photography?


If I remember right, my first photographs were of my friends and immediate surroundings. I still have them somewhere. My father was generous to me. He gifted me the Time / Life Library of Photography (publication date, 1975; ASIN: B003PXPWKM) when I was, I think, only 15 or 16. I received a book every three months at, what was for him then, a princely price of Rs 99. The set is in my library still. My sister used to paint (she became an economist later), and had a library of books on paintings. I grew up looking at masters of the photograph and of painting. Each Sunday, I would go to the secondhand book bazaar in Darya Ganj, in Delhi, to buy books on enlarging, printing, and techniques – but also on art. I still have old copies of the Lalit Kala journals I bought there. It was a whole world of immersion!


2. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in technology and then a master’s in business administration, how did you get involved in the arts / photography?


I was photographing since I was 12 years old. My father’s old camera was my constant companion. Soon after, I cleared up the house store to accommodate my first darkroom with a KB condenser enlarger. I photographed anything and everything, and spent hours in the darkroom printing. I only wanted to be behind a camera, but there was not a place I knew of where I could seriously learn. I did everything else – engineering, management – however, I lived the image long before!


3. You are an environmental campaigner at heart. Can you please elaborate on how environmental issues have informed your practice?


I react to the world around me visually, and that is my prime connection. Environmental campaigning is, to me, very important in today’s age, and it is my way of giving back. Since I became involved about 30 years ago, this is where my camera turned. The lens reflects what I inhabit. Today, the discourse on nature and ecology has become very rooted in rereading political histories of society, cultural rooting, and feminist and critical theory. It encompasses everything and has come a long way from the clean and green movement of the ’70s.


4. Is it correct that you started out as a photographer and then went on to expand your practice to include video, installations, and public art?


Language and form, for me, are expanding areas of experimentation. Cameras evolved and are now one-stop devices. The image has many possibilities and I am interested in all of them. There is too much made of a medium in what I think is a post-medium world. True, the photograph has its own history, but it is not isolated from the histories of literature, architecture, technology, or now of ideas of ‘truth’ or society. I am still a photographer – it is my primary medium – but then, What is the photograph today?” is a complex question, and the answer is constantly evolving and changing.


5. Do you work in both analog and digital photography? Do you have a preference?


I have used all kinds of cameras. I know from experience that the camera changes the way one photographs. I use them still. Earlier, I probably used everything I could lay my hands on. Canon F1, AE1, A1, Olympus 10, Pentax, Hasselblad, Mamiya RB and RZ, the 645 with a digital back, Contax, Leica M6, M7, M9, Toyo view camera. The list is endless. I love cameras.


Today I use mainly the 6×7 Mamiya 7II for film and Sony A7RIII for digital because they are such great and convenient cameras. However, on any given day this may change, depending on what I am shooting or what I plan to do with the photograph. A scanned film negative is still unparalleled for me for its quality and possible size of the print. Also, one waits to see the contact sheet, and it is like reexamining the moment – unlike the digital experience. Sometimes the digital image is too perfect and compensated. I like my images to look like the photograph. But this debate is becoming increasingly less defensible with today’s technological advancements. I guess it is a question of personal feel, experience, and attachment. Besides, I like editing as I photograph, in my mind’s eye. Film ensures that discipline. Overall, I think the film has taught me to be disciplined. If I had started with digital, I think my relationship to the image would be different.


6. As a self-trained photographer, how did you inform yourself of the medium – both the techniques and the aesthetics of it?


In my generation, in India, if one did not want to follow the pictorial school (which was then the only photography genre outside of photojournalism and diehard followers who insisted that this was art photography), or could not go to New York to study photography, as I had wanted to, one had to be self-taught. Doing this came naturally to me. As I said earlier, I immersed myself in it. In fact, I had read and challenged myself with Susan Sontag’s On Photography before I turned 17. For someone at that age, it changed many, many things, and photography became more than a visual experience and more a contestation of what I saw.


7. Do you think it is important to receive formal training in photography?


Today, I feel it is important. It helps to know what its history has been and the reasons and how different styles appeared. But the training has to be cross-discipline – one must be aware of what is happening across the arts. Look what the different schools in Germany and the U.S. produce – their wonderful legacy. Unfortunately, we do not have anything of that quality here, as yet, though they are evolving in South Asia, largely owing to dedicated practitioners. It can really help fine-tune one’s natural talent. However, ultimately, it is about discovering one’s own style and language and just the ability to take risks and be curious.


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


Why only young? Why not anyone and everyone who is interested? Above all, I would try and teach them to think critically. I think a critical perspective is key to being an artist / photographer today. Secondly, I would help them push their practice. I think we must be able to see beyond the surface. It is a training of the mind and an attitude. One could discuss practices of well-known photographers, learn from them, understand better the social and art historical context in which they worked. All forms of interaction can be used. It has to be a combination of teaching, practice, and research. A photograph is more than a visual frame. It is a comment and a revelation of our times. It says more than it shows and keeps revealing more and more over time. If the emphasis is right, I would fully recommend this.


9. What usually draws you to work on a certain idea? Does it come as a gut feeling, or after analysis or research? Is it because of some memory? Or is it because of something that you are really concerned about?


All the things you mention are important to engage with in my practice; however, the work appears independent of any information systems of the brain. It seems to have another axis, dependent yet independent. At some point, it all becomes larger than everything, with its own vortex of irresistible energy. Nothing else matters then. Even though its appearance may not be unrelated to everything else – just that the relationship is not linear or demarcated. It is a thing with its own power.


Over time the practice has changed. From a deeply intuitive work on the street, where the eye guides the split-second frame, to considered and planned conceptual and staged work, which has origins in ideas and a considered expression. Memory, visual exposure, aesthetic choices, and research all play a role. For me, a work should have a visual language, and what that is has evolved over time, where many choices become second nature.


10. While working on projects, do they typically run in parallel or do you focus on one project at a time?


I am often working on many things at a time. Writing academically, reading emerging literature, engaged in new artistic work, now sometimes curating, and also participating in the emerging discussions. I am very curious and like to stay engaged in the contemporary. All this impacts my visual language. I like to see work that is not only reproducing the world as we know it, but also art as a way to introduce new productive ideas for shaping future conversations. Art has this unique capacity.


11. You are a curator, a photographer, a writer, and an environmental campaigner. What do you enjoy being the most?


Above all, I like being engaged in new photographic or artistic work. That is when I feel most alive! It’s like nothing else matters. That is what drives me over everything else. Without a doubt, that is the moment to live for!


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


Photography is first like note-taking for me. It is a way in which I inhabit my world, so a way of everyday being. Sometimes my ‘notes’ become part of a project or ‘work,’ or help me to make sense of what I am engaging in. That could also lead me to work on a project consciously. It makes me feel alive.


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


It has been a long engagement with the medium, so there are many that have impressed me at different periods. Some owing to the fabulous practices they show, such as those of Lee Friedlander, The Bechers, Thomas Demand, David Goldblatt, Alan Sekula, Sandy Skoglund, or Jeff Wall, or the era they reveal like the Japanese movement Provoke, or even wonderfully curated shows that embed the photographic image, like the late Okwie Enzewor’s Postwar exhibition from a man who loved the photographic image. Also, how can I forget his historic and iconic Documenta XI?


14. Do you ever find yourself creatively ‘stuck?’ If yes, then how do you come around to dealing with it?


I think it is normal to be creatively stuck – even though creativity, for me, is a way of thinking about anything – but a block can be painful. In the sense of producing ‘work,’ then I just have to let it be, try and defocus from it, and wait for the ideas and forms to hopefully appear once more! On the other hand, these transitions are very important, since often something entirely new comes up. These pauses can be a critical part of seeing afresh and evolving, even though they are times of struggle.


15. When you put together a series of images, what is your process while creating the narrative of the story? Is it different when you are working on your own story and when you are working as a curator?


Working as an artist is different from other roles I may adopt. Curating for me is an intellectual exercise – that of observing others’ works and making sense, or creating a narrative even if it is along a new axis. It has an objective distance. As an artist, the distance seems to disappear. In case I am working on a narrative, then probably visual language plays a big role. It is complex, I think, however interactive with ideas and visuality.


16. Can you share a bit about some of your personal photographic work / projects? Why do you make this work? What do you hope to achieve with it? Do you have any particular ambitions for it? Does it guide / influence your photographic work at large?


I have followed several types of diverse formats over the years. I am open to and try to practice all sorts of experimentation, which interests me. Slowly my work is becoming increasingly multimedia. I speak of these multiple types of works because often my work is collapsed as ‘activist’ – maybe since I occupy the multiple worlds of environmental policy, grassroots activism, academic writing, books, journals and published diaries, as well as exploring lens-based media. It seems to me that such labeling is far removed from my understanding of my own practice. My activism and lens-based works are not related as forms or processes, but only in the realm of ideas. No doubt my practice is embedded in a discourse, but for me that possibility is the power and the fluidity of the lens-based medium, as well as of contemporary art practice.


Less commonly spoken about is the number of works I have done as ‘performance’ photographs. For example, in 2006, I did my first performance-based series, Immersion. Emergence. It was as an exposition of the term, which I have used – “personal ecologies.” This was an outcome of a 2-year engagement with river landscapes in Delhi. Others followed, such as the Impossibility of Being Feminine series, and Scene of Crime series, etc. More recently, when I did a video-based installation, A Feast of Sorts, it included a performance-based video. Such videos are also part of the ongoing series The Desert of the Anthropocene. Also, I recently collaborated on a live performance-based work with Zulekha Chaudhry (Landscape as Evidence – Landscape as Witness, 2017).


I also use a long documentary format. I have done several series, which take over 2 to 4 years. These include: Down and Out (1997-2000), Alien Waters (2004-2006), Else, All Will Be Still (2013-2015), and ongoing documentation of the dystopic city, Trace Cities (since 2011). I like this format, since it enables in-depth exploration and can go beyond problematic representation issues, through intimate engagements. It also becomes more subjective and individualistic through the engagement.


A third trajectory is creating video and photo-based installations, as well as working with found objects and through public art. Some works include: Extinct? (2009 – 48 deg C), which was an intervention in the National Museum of Natural History; A Feast of Sorts (2015), using found objects in Else, All Will Be Still; and recently collaborating with local fishing communities in Havana to extend my fisherfolk work from Tamil Nadu, as a fictional conversation (XIII Havana Biennial 2019) using photos, videos, and received objects. Besides these, I have curated a couple of large public art projects and photography projects.


I am currently working on The Desert of the Anthropocene (since 2017), a project based on my abandoned old family Haweli in Rajasthan, as a central point, and exploring the evacuation and re-habitation by capital mining and production, as well as nuclear testing and the idea of identity and memory within. Here, I also have worked with a satellite-mapping expert to explore distance and proximity of landscapes in the desert. The project already has new and archival photographs, videos, objects from my mother’s room, and an ongoing diary associated with it. It has been shown at the Yinchuan Biennial (2018), and the India Art Fair project space (2019). It is ongoing and I have plans for a series of staged works, as well.


I mention these diverse formats to emphasize the flexibility of the photographic medium, which began to be consciously explored in a subjective manner – especially after the seventies. The image focus changed from being exclusively in the ‘world’ outside, to being lodged in ideas and other self-reflexivities. I think we spend too much time thinking of the medium as a canon, when actually it has the possibility of creating multi-medium forms of expression and discourse. We are too fast to create labels for practices and works, viewing the photograph as an object, with its defined aesthetics. By limiting our expectations of it, we could also limit its infinite possibilities. For me, the democracy of the photograph is not only in its access and usage, but also in its mouldability to be part of real and imagined worlds at the same time – not different from how we live our lives. It occupies an interstitial space.


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


I don’t. I can’t. It is always in a vacuum. It is just a feeling that this is what I want to do. Success to me is just that ‘it’ happens. Everything else is later. If I feel fine with it, then it becomes mine. Sharing it with others is always a nervous moment. It is a vulnerable and uncertain space.


18. 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 from it?


I work with some galleries who show my work. Showing is important, but only when it is ready to be shown. There is no rush. Showing is a cathartic act – it stops being my work in some ways. Often when I show it for the first time, it is like I am seeing it for the first time. It is a strange experience. Somehow the works become bigger than you – like the part of me it comes from seems to be a stranger to me. Showing is also important to moving on – to evolving.


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


When I was younger, it was really difficult to show. Although there has been much improvement from before, and it now is easier for everyone, it still is limited. The ecosystem is changing, but very slowly. I really have not looked for opportunities, but they have come my way. I have been lucky. I still feel that photography needs much more understanding to be shown adequately. We lack good educational institutions, enough knowledgeable curators and writers. We still need to create a knowledgeable public for this medium, which goes beyond the tried and tested. It is one of the most challenging and exciting media of our times.


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


In one sense it is a technology-driven medium, so it has a basic universal language of technological possibility at any given time. But the universality must end there. For too long, the photograph has been driven by a certain aesthetic, a certain embedment into a structure of institutions that determine its ethics and acceptability. Like the newspaper editor sitting, say, in New York, who decides which image is seen and, consequently, what is photographed and how or what is not photographed at all.


Importantly, the photograph is deeply embedded in the social and political. We need to decolonize photography; reread its archives; open up the vernacular expression. To do that we need to decolonize the institutional ecosystem in which the photograph works, circulates, is judged, and is shown. The photograph is inescapably a political document, and I am using the word in its widest sense. What is not shown is maybe more important than what is shown. The universal is a fractured idea today. Even what is ‘Indian’ is hard to define. What the photograph does is show the location of the photographer; it reveals his or her politics. It is the document of a ‘location.’


21. With your years of experience, of the lessons you have learned, what is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?


That it would change my life! Not that it would have made a difference. I’ve enjoyed it so much, so I cannot complain. But in hindsight, were it not for the pleasure, it is a hard journey to undertake. Uncertain, fragile, and no surety of tomorrow.


What should change, though, is that we need to take our practitioners more seriously and treat them with more respect. There are new books or texts claiming to be ‘Indian histories or surveys’ of photography coming out now, but they exclude the important practitioners whom I know – people who have built the foundations of practice here. This is rather unacceptable. We need to be more responsible editorially, and as publishers as well. It is an open field and people are filling it somewhat arbitrarily.


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


Even after all these years, the market is an opaque place. It is what my galleries do – in India – Espace in Delhi and Guild in Mumbai.


23. If you didn’t do photography / art, what is the next best thing you would like to be doing?


There is only one ‘best!’ Everything else is a compromise.



Copyright © 2021, PhotoSouthAsia. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright © Ravi Agarwal

Date Published

20 November