INTERVIEW: Shuchi Kapoor

Fòcas Programme Director Katherine Parhar interviews Fòcas India: Document exhibiting artist Shuchi Kapoor on her project Jhalli .

© Shuchi Kapoor

F: Jhalli means ‘silly girl’ in Punjabi, doesn’t it? Your project is a brave and raw way of overcoming, or at least reliving, your own struggles with depression and sense of self by building relationships with sex workers; it’s an intimate, challenging project to look at and spend time with; how do you feel about the work as you make it and look back on it?
S: I am a person of the past and a lot of my present is shaped on my inability to move on. When abandonment shapes the landscape of your life, you exist with a medley of insecurity, vulnerability, depression and cynicism. A displaced sense of the self was formed early on from my childhood impressions of an abusive, unloving, estranged relationship with my father, losing my mother during my teens and constantly failing at my illusionary, romantic and feministic notions of a relationship – making me wonder, if life was only meant to be endured, or will there ever be a chance to live with a sense of belonging. I made desperate, impulsive choices, marred by mistrust, always looking for an escape to work towards building an identity that I believed in. Each relationship bore the weight of this baggage and ended up leaving me back to the prison of self-doubt every time. This constant abandonment and momentariness left me with deep, permanent scars. Looking for answers, I walked into brothels, leaning on the generous shoulders of sex workers, finding a lot of common ground with our experiences and the way we felt about the world outside. From intense, fun and empathetic verbal exchanges, this relationship progressed to a visual one, wherein I handed them the camera and let them document our momentary friendship. I wasn’t sure for many years how this would shape up, until recently. My time and conversations in the red light areas of India helped me walk along my vulnerabilities, made me realise I could be all that I needed and also taught me a little bit of shrewdness for self preservation and survival. Nan Goldin’s unmatched poetic realism stays with me through her words, ‘I used to think I would never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I’ve lost.’ And the reason this project will continue as an ongoing body of work is because of it’s connection with my state of mind and well being. Will I ever get fully healed – who knows. Sometimes I hope not, so that the scars can keep reminding me why I started this journey in the first place and how it helped me find my bearings. Perhaps I am a Jhalli after all!

© Shuchi Kapoor

F: What kind of relationship did you develop, through your camera, with the women you photographed, and who photographed you?

S: Our conversations help develop a certain level of trust, though not always, and in most cases, the conversation itself is enough. I do not push for pictures. I allow the chemistry to build. This project wasn’t really meant to be a clichéd representation about their sordid lives in their pinjaras (cages) with their clients, rather it was meant to elevate and position these women as an example of survival, in spite of such conditions. It intends to document the slippery ground we both stand on, the darkness we constantly live with, the gleeful armour we exhibit and the fragility that nobody recognises – all this separated by societal constructs. My first forays into photographing them did not come close to what I wanted to convey. I took a few years off, visited them but did not photograph much. I found my visual language only after discovering Nan Goldin, Francesca Woodman, Ren Hang, Antoine D’agata and some other stellar photographers whose works made me see what I missed all along. Very often, people whom we study are the ones who teach us how to see. Like most relationships, these ones also start with hesitation, mistrust and negotiation, but eventually it is a mutual process of lending to each other a chemistry and energy that is the very basis of this project. They are scared of the camera at first, as anyone is, I myself am very conscious in front of the camera as you can see, and then like with a lover, we all give in. That is where the fun begins, especially when I teach them how to make pictures. It gives them a sense of participation and makes us stand on an equal ground. Nudity as an approach wasn’t part of the plan initially as I did not want to layer it with sensationalism, but its essence dawned upon me when I put myself in the nude for the first time. Here was a person I knew, but had never met. They giggled at this mad photographer who didn’t necessarily ask them to shed their clothes, rather shed her own as a process of letting go of all inhibitions and fears, to let go of the baggage by exposing my vulnerabilities. And all was okay at once. It broke the ice, it was fun and it put their fears at ease. They were not alone. They don’t always understand everything, but it creates a space for us to be honest to each other – our bodies leading to the atmosphere within.        

F: Your documentary work also looks at the lives of sex workers; did your personal comfort in spending time with them come out of your documentary practice?

S: Most work on prostitution, sex workers and brothels is considered clichéd and reeks of banality. My documentary work does not look at their lives as such because that isn’t the intention. My personal comfort came with my desperation for answers, wanting to look into their experiences, their scars, beyond the lives that I could see at the outset. I didn’t want to get into their cubicles/cages just for pictures, I wanted to have a slice of their hearts and minds. I am still the outsider, but one who they remember. It would be fair to say that my documentary practice started in these red light areas. Personal comfort also comes from having the patience to build relationships with your subjects and participating in their lives when required. It is a two-way process and one cannot be selfish about it.

© Shuchi Kapoor

F: You’re a founding member of the team organising the Chennai Photo Bienniale for 2018. Can you tell us a little about the Festival and your ambitions for it in 2018?

S: Chennai is a city that felt like home the moment I got here. It’s been 7 years now. My photographic practice also took off pretty much from here. A close friend, Varun Gupta had been sitting on this idea for a while, which suddenly took shape the moment he and Helmut Schippert, director of Goethe Institut, Chennai decided to offer the city it’s first international public photography engagement – The Chennai Photo Biennale. Gayatri Nair (another founding member) and myself weren’t really left with a choice when Varun needed more hands on the deck. As photographers, we needed to make Chennai the hub for photographic works and talent in South India. There was no looking back. In three months technically (post the floods of 2015), along with the support of many dear friends, the first Chennai Photo Biennale happened in February, 2016. It was an overwhelming experience but we did manage to showcase 164 artists across 19 venues such as Parks and local train stations et al in Chennai. For 2018, we aim to go much bigger and spread our outreach to places and people we were unable to reach out to last time. We have one of India’s most celebrated curators, Devika Daulet Singh working with us on the next edition. Besides building a stellar artist lineup, we are also looking at creating a long term mentorship program for local photographers. This one is to watch out for – so keep Sept-Oct 2018 free people. Everyone’s invited!

Shuchi Kapoor is a self-taught photojournalist based in Chennai, whose interests lie in regimes of representation and visual cultures. Her work focuses on humanistic stories and documentation on human rights, environment, politics, gender and sexuality, mental health, juvenile and child labour spanning across regions, cultures and mind-sets in her country. She is a Dart Asia-Pac Fellow and was selected for a fellowship in Trauma & Journalism in Hong Kong (2015).