Delhi-based photographer Anshika Varma explores social and cultural changes in communities with her personal work. Her work has been published in various local and international media, and she has worked on several book projects with Indian and international publishers. Anshika’s personal work has been exhibited in India, Italy and New York. Her latest work, Meenakar – the fisherman of Alcott Kuppam, was curated for and exhibited at the Chennai Photo Biennale.
What was your first introduction to photography?
I was studying a communications course in Bombay. Towards the end of that, I met a street photographer, who came in to talk to us about his work. I thought, this looks interesting, let me give it a shot! I borrowed a camera from my mother and went out on the streets not knowing what I wanted to shoot. Even now, when I go out to shoot or begin a project, I don’t always know what is going to come up in my visuals. I enjoy the spontaneity of it. I started walking around the streets of Bombay, chatting up to people and hanging around in odd corners, and got really interested in people’s lives and things around me. Somewhere in the middle of those conversations, I’d end up taking photographs.
Did the camera give you an excuse or reason to go out there and talk to people?
I enjoy starting up a conversation with people from the streets; the cab driver, someone waiting with me in a queue at a store. But with the camera, I felt that somewhere in the middle of these conversations, I began to understand these people in relationship to the environment we were in. You can always talk to people; the camera is not necessary to talk to people. But in that conversation, there was a point where I felt I wanted to take a particular photograph. It was a way for me to keep that conversation with me.
What followed from that initial experience with photography?
Since I had no technical knowledge, I felt like I must go and study photography. At that time there was no photography school here. Invariably most people, who wanted to study, went outside of India. I interned and worked for Time Out magazine in Delhi for a couple of years. However after awhile, there was no longer a challenge working at the magazine. I had a fantastic editor and when I spoke to him about this, he encouraged me to go out and experiment with photography.
I got to know about Foundry, and took my first workshop in photography. It was the first time I learnt how to use the camera! That excited me. I did a story on a community of thangka painters who were living in a small hill station, leading very secluded lives. I made a small documentary piece on them over a week and that was my first real photographic piece.
Each work needs to come out the way it does because of the process that it goes through.
I then worked with a national news magazine, Tehelka, on feature stories. The formats in most of these places left me uneasy. There wasn’t a great emphasis given to photography and its understanding. Most editors wanted imagery to supplement text and be as literal as possible. Very few publications had editors who understood photography. I decided to freelance instead so I might have more time to begin understanding how I wanted to photograph.
I started to question what I wanted to do with photography. Was I was taking these journalistic photographs because of the story or because this is how I want to shoot? I realized that I wasn’t keen on hard news and slowly started venturing out of it. I left that job and started freelancing doing portraits, stories for magazines and books to sustain myself. After while I started questioning my visual language again, was I doing photography in a way because it will lead to its acceptance by a publication? I started doing more street work, like what I did at the Istanbul workshop.
I wasn’t getting an idea for story for the workshop, and walking the streets hunting for that one story that might change the world! Haha. My training had told me to understand linearity in a traditional sense. Begin the story with the morning and end at night. I didn’t think street photography could have its own rhythm. I panicked, showed these images to Maggie and told her I felt I was wasting time. “You’re not,” she said. “What you’re doing right now is showing me the Istanbul that you see, and that is a story in itself.” She sent me off in her motherly way and asked me to continue what I was doing and stop running after the grand story that will change my life. “Trust me on this, make your own story” she said. At the end of the day, we’d go through the photos and she’d edit the work. Slowly I began to understand different types of story-telling. Then I got really hooked and thought, “This is what I really need to do.” I get very excitable like that. It’s always been about trying out different combinations of visual imagery, something new.
Are you comfortable with where you are now as a photographer?
I don’t know if being comfortable is something that I am looking for. For me, I’m comfortable as long as I know there is something else that I haven’t done yet. When I was doing the earlier stories, I knew there was something more that I needed to do. The joy of it is finding out – what next? And as long as I can continue asking this, I will be excited by it.
You have done a lot of editorial work, but for today, let’s talk about your personal projects. Can you tell us about What is Home?
What is home to people? It means very different things to each person, whether it is an attachment to objects, ideas or places. The idea of home was a subject that really interested me.
Why is that?
Because that was something I was trying to figure out for myself. It was triggered from a memory in my life that made me question the idea of home. I had experienced some fairly intimate relationships break away in a sudden moment and it had made me slightly insecure of where I belonged. It made me question a lot of things. I started going through my diaries and wondering what is home? Is it important to have that idea or not? I spoke to friends, strangers, family and asked them what it was for them. Most of these images were taken during my travels and when I was at a place and remembered one of these conversations. I began this while I was at the Angkor Photo Festival in 2010. It was maybe a little too early to try and grapple with the concept photographically. Now I think I have many more ideas of how it would be.
You had an idea for exhibiting it at the Kochi Biennale in 2014, and it was almost like an installation.
It was a question in my mind, so how do I represent this idea visually? I started thinking more formally about how I wanted to present this work. I had all these objects people had given me along the way, people whom I had spoken to. It meant a lot to me that things so precious to them were now a part of my life too. I created memory boxes for them.
In 2014, Gallery Veda, from Chennai, wanted to show this work at the Kochi Biennale in Kerala. The great thing about the festival is how it interacts with the city. Exhibitions were being held in people’s homes, in old architectural buildings, along the sea face. It was something I was very excited by.
I found a lovely tree in the courtyard of a residential complex where I wanted to show the work. I decided to hang the photographs in light boxes from the branches of this beautiful, old tree. The memory drawers were to be dug into the ground, between the roots. I wanted the idea of rootedness to be there. It was an interesting learning experience about working with different spaces and different elements. Although things didn’t go exactly as planned, creating that exhibition had challenged me. It started me thinking about what I wanted to do with my photographs. I realized I could play with other mediums and photography as well. That led to my next project.
I remember you showed a tiny bit of it to me at the Angkor photo festival last year, and it has to do with a forest near where you live.
In the central metro section of Delhi, where I’ve lived all my life, is a forest close to my neighbourhood. As a child, every time I went with my parents into the city we drove past a small stretch of this forest. My mind would wander, thinking about what was going on inside and I made up some fairly ridiculous stories. I would like to go to the south side of the city because I would love this drive. Recently the government built a massive stonewall covering the entire stretch. I was infuriated by it! That was my escape point in the city! At least I had that as a child. When I think of how the children would now be sitting in cars and staring at a stonewall, I’d get really annoyed. It’s such a perfect example of where we are and how we live today.
You used mixed media for this project, how did that come about?
I couldn’t figure out what to do with this feeling I had when I would drive past the stretch so I started photographing different sections of the wall. I had no idea what I was going to do with the images. Once the Kochi exhibition happened, I started questioning whether it was important for me to work only with photographs or if I could add other elements to my work as well. I started going through notes of my memories from the forest. Today, the project is a mix of my very badly done drawings and photographs created out of my memory. For example, when I was a child and waiting at the bus stop, I would see a peacock and know, it’s going to rain today. When my mother was a child, she was not allowed to sleep out on the terrace because of leopards. Monkeys would raid our refrigerators and the first thing they would attack was the ice-cream in the summers. It’s been fun to go back and relive those memories.
As presentation seems to be a key component of your practice, how are you hoping to present this work?
I think it’s not as much about the presentation for me. These other elements are a part of the work itself. They are as important to the project as the photograph and sometimes, maybe even more. For this work in specific, I think it makes sense as a journal. But then again, the work decides it. When it’s done, maybe it will be something else. But right now, I think it wants to be a journal.
Your latest body of work is on the fishermen of Alcott Kuppam, produced for the Urban Water workshop and exhibition at the recent Chennai Photo Festival. What was your approach to this short-term curated project, and on the issue of water as a whole?
As part of the final exhibitions for the festival, they’d invited 15 photographers to come to the city and create a body of work connected to the idea of urban water mentored by Munem Wasif and Ravi Aggarwal. Water crisis is a big issue in Chennai; even though it is a city surrounded by water, there is none to drink.
I felt I could not fully understand the nuances of the city in a week. I had no context to speak about these issues and ask for changes or solutions I didn’t know of. What interested me was how our relationship with water changed according to where and who we were. I visited one of the oldest fishing villages in the city and talked to them about their relationship with the sea. It was a fairly big village by the sea, and yet very few of them were still fishing for a living. I was trying to understand where does the sea stand in their lives today. The city is now intervening in this relationship. And as a fishing community, their way of life is slowly changing too.
The people I have conversations with have been so amazing and so large-hearted in sharing their lives with me. It is very important that I share their stories with the world.
The conversations started taking form as quotations, which I mixed with their portraits. I was spending time with them and was overwhelmed by how they completely took me in. Over many cups of local coffee, many of them would give me gifts from their home. I was gifted the shell of a sea urchin or a dried up sea horse. One time I got a live starfish by a fisherman! I only realised it was alive when I unwrapped it in the hotel. I freaked out, grabbed a taxi and threw it back into the sea.
For the exhibition I made time capsules with these things from their homes, from their lives and from their memories, and exhibited them along with the portraits. We exhibited the work at a train station, in a basement.
Are keepsakes and recordings becoming important components to supplement your photographs?
It’s something that I may be thinking about now. In the other two instances, they had come almost instinctively to me. The people I have conversations with have been so amazing and so large-hearted in sharing their lives with me. It is very important that I share their stories with the world. I also have a tendency to hoard things, collecting odd random things, and I guess that’s come into my work as well (laughs). It depends on the subject that you are working with, and in these two situations, because it happened so organically, it made sense. Each work needs to come out the way it does because of the process that it goes through. That’s important to me.
Project on project, your work has grown organically. Some photographers advocate a certain style, whereas younger photographers don’t seem to have a problem with adapting according to project. What is your take on this?
I think all these elements come together to be your style. There are a few photographers who are very well aware of their style and are following that language. I wish I had that clarity sometimes. I am perpetually looking for ways that can add to the core of the project. And the more of it I haven’t worked with before, the happier I am to take it on. It’s not really about what camera I could use or what kind of colour palette I would take but more of what does the work want me to do. For me that becomes the deciding factor. It takes me forever to think about what I want to do and an even longer time to actually do it. So it is important that it happens in the manner that it does. I want to have some form of control but I wait for some surprises as well.
Which photographers have influenced or inspired your work?
A lot of people ask me this question and I’m sorry but I don’t have a well-defined answer to this (laughs). It’s not necessarily just photography; it could be paintings, installations, cooking and writings. What interests me more is why someone chose a subject and how they chose to deal with it. The process excites me a lot.
*the interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.