Fòcas Director Katherine Parhar interviews Fòcas India shortlisted artist Sutirtha Chaterjee, a documentary photographer based in Kolkata, about his project Sixth Sense, made with students at Kolkata’s School for the Blind, for which he received the TOTO Tasveer Award for Photography 2017.

© Chaterjee Sutirtha

 F: Sutirtha, what drew you to first to photograph the students of Kolkata’s School for the Blind?

S: I was very curious about blindness from a very early age. When I was about 10 years old, I was diagnosed with colour blindness. It was and it still is difficult for me to identify certain colours. In spite of this I felt as capable as any other child my age.  During the course of an assignment for a regional tabloid, I learned that India is home to the world’s largest number of blind people and that number increases by nearly 30,000 every year.  As we know in a class-divided society like ours, people with disabilities are ostracised and marginalised. They become victims of their situation, in which they had no choice. Especially in rural areas, people generally look down on the blind, denying them everyday necessities and treating them as outcasts, without regard for their intrinsic value as human beings or their individuality. With the tabloid, I was often assigned to make pictures for stories which revolved around blindness or blind schools. While shooting for these stories I realised how complex blindness is and I was drawn towards the issues associated with it. I got an opportunity to further the scope of the work in August 2015, when I revisited the blind school that first piqued my interest in this project, Lighthouse for the Blind, and further explored the issues surrounding the visually impaired.

F: To make images of young people who will never see their own faces is such a delicate thing to do. You have taken great care, I think, to document their sensory world in a holistic sense – how did you go about that?

S: At first, these students were very skeptical about the whole idea of being photographed. It took me a lot of effort to understand their ways. They often wanted to know what I would do with the photos and often suggested me to send it to their families back in the rural villages. They were never really curious about the way they looked in the photos for they knew that they won’t be able to see them. And since they have a very concrete idea of what they were doing and where they were, they could often tell what my photo showed.

I spent a couple of weeks just conversing with these students. My interactions with these students encompassed a lot of areas. We often discussed sports, sometimes music and mostly food. They took me into confidence and started sharing their stories with me in a hope that these stories will be given a voice. For instance, I had a great conversation with a student named Brihaspati Mahato. Mahato is a student of arts and is keenly interested about philosophy. He explained to me how they dream and what are their dreams are comprised of. This deeply affected me, and at the same time I understood how important and critical their other senses are. He said that his dreams are mostly comprised of feelings. His memories are constructed around the sense of touch, smell and hearing. He remembers a tree by its touch and a flower by its smell. He remembers visiting a seaside in West Bengal and remembers how he felt when he got into the water for the first time. He recounted to me how he often dreams of that seaside.

© Chaterjee Sutirtha

F: What is next for the project? Did you intend it – at least in part – to function as advocacy?

S: My next part of the project, which focus on the senses with which the blind perceive reality, is a tangent from the above mentioned conversation with Brihaspati Mahato about how the blind people dream. I want to transliterate their dreams. This is a collaboration with my subjects where my works are based on their stories. I am currently working on this. Then I wish to give these stories a voice with an exhibition.

In addition to the social aspect of the project, “The Sixth Sense” contains a metaphysical aspect. Through this exhibition, which I am planning, the audience will be called on to question their understanding of  the relationship between reality and sight. For people with eyesight, reality is often understood purely through the physical act of seeing. For people without eyesight, they understand blindness through absence. With this exhibition I plan to put my audience, who are blessed with the gift of vision, into the shoes of the blind to help them perceive the world from a different perspective. This work will challenge the role of the visual realm, the core denominator of photography, in how we receive information and know reality. Thus it will ask the questions, “Does that which we see become reality? When we are deprived of sight, do we create a different reality?”

This idea for the second phase of the story was conceived after I had interacted with Mahato, and the thought fascinated me and it gestated in my mind. After completion of the first half I thought about the feasibility, practicality and the scope of work.  After a period of careful deliberation I decided to act upon it eventually.

F: You’ve just won the TOTO Tasveer Award for Photography 2017. What will that mean for you as you develop your practice?

S: The Toto-Tasveer Award recognized and acknowledged my work – “The Sixth Sense”. This encouraged me to continue my work and helped me explore this project further. TOTO came at a time when I had quit my job to pursue photography seriously and this was the first step in the process of transition.

This allowed me reflect on my practice, in a micro and in a general level, to my skills and knowledge. I see myself building my practice around documentary photography and working with projects with which I can honestly associate myself with.

Chaterjee Sutirtha

Born in 1991, Sutirtha Chatterjee is a documentary photographer based in Kolkata, India. He has worked with National publications which includes The Times of India. His works have also been published in various magazines which include, Better Photography, The Quartz, The Wire amongst others.

His first personal documentary, “Pocket Hercules”, an essay on a 100 year old bodybuilder and 1947 Mr. Universe, was selected for Evening Screenings at The Kathmandu International Photo Festival 2015.  He also recently received the TOTO Tasveer Award for Photography in 2017.