INTERVIEW: TANVI MISHRA
Fòcas interviewed artist, curator and writer Tanvi Mishra who recently joined the Fòcas India team and is lead mentor to our six commissioned Fòcas artists. Fòcas director Katherine Parhar caught up with Tanvi about her background in photography, exciting projects she’s been involved in and any advice she has for emerging photographers.
F: Can you tell us about your journey into photography, curating and writing?
T: It was halfway through my masters degree in Economics at the LSE when I realised that I wanted to explore certain social concerns, through the medium of visual journalism, and not academia. I briefly went to ICP to take a few evening courses and got the opportunity to work in their black and white darkroom and digital labs. But it was only when I returned to India and began to freelance, trying to understand what it meant to be a photojournalist was when I really understood the challenge and potential of the medium. I worked for some years primarily as a photographer, working for newspaper and magazine assignments as well as NGOs, all the while attempting to build a language for my own visual practice. As much as I enjoyed making images, I knew I had a long way to go to be able to fully articulate the ideas I had in my mind into a physical image. I was working my way through figuring out my own practice and honing the ideas that I believed deserved to be privileged. At the same time, I was struggling with the dissatisfaction that accompanied many assignments that I had to do to pay the bills. Fortuitously, in retrospect, I suffered a severe injury because of which I had to pause this journey because of the physical restrictions that I had to comply with. It was at this point that I became drawn to editing images, in an effort to remain connected with the medium that I had come to be extremely curious about. I was offered to curate my first show, ‘Postcards of the Interior’, which was a group show of Indian and Singaporean photographers looking at the theme of the self and identity. I really enjoyed the process of being privy to the process of other artists and getting an opportunity to be able to collaborate with them. Around the same time, I also became part of the photo editorial team of PIX quarterly, allowing the collaboration to not just happen with the artists but also with writers and the team, all of whom are creative individuals in their own right. At this point I believe that I don’t need to make photographs for a living, as long as I am connected with the medium of photography through writing, editing and curating. It is the idea of being able to recognise that there are so many photographers out there, so many of them so much better than me at making images. If we are concerned around similar issues, then I am much happier playing a role in furthering their voice, as long as the concerns that are important to us are spoken about and addressed.
F: Do you think social media has changed the role of the photographer?
T: Social media has definitely evolved the role that images play in our lives. But this evolution, in my opinion, began much before social media came into being an inextricable part of our lives. It possibly began when digital technology became ubiquitous and photography became more accessible than it had ever been before. The digital revolution allowed everyone to be an author of their own stories and the Internet provided a platform for everyone to publish their content. For concerns of representation, this changed the game from before, as previously unheard voices had the opportunity to be recognized and represent themselves. Platforms like Instagram allowed everyone to publish their collection of images, and many editors now scan various people’s Instagram handles to discover new work. This has completely changed the nature of the industry, evolving the role that the agency used to play earlier as well — that of connecting the photographers to their market. However, social media has also lowered our expectations from photography in some way. Tuning our minds to be constantly looking for instant gratification in terms of clicks of appreciation, the slowness of photography and its impact seems to be disappearing. Perhaps it is a double edged sword, a bane and a boon to photographers at the same time.
F: There has been an incredible rise in photography focused festivals in Asia, many of which you’ve been part of, and Indian photography internationally seems to have a stronger presence – what has driven that, in your view?
T: The growth of photography festivals, initially, came from the need for a community of photographers to engage, debate and discuss their concerns with the medium. Delhi Photo Festival, the first of its kind in India, launched in 2011 with the incentive of being a ‘festival for photographers, by photographers’. After the first edition, it expanded beyond this narrow ambit and meanwhile, other festivals came up in other cities. India being a large country has space for multiple festivals to emerge, given that they feed to different interests and politics. The appearance of these festivals was inevitable, given that there has been a strong history of brilliant photographers from India and Asia. These festivals created a space for photographers to come together and address concerns and exchange ideas, both of which may be particular to the region, and perhaps not necessarily for a western audience. As for Indian photography to have a stronger presence internationally, I feel this was also a matter of time. Select Indian photographers were already showing abroad, though the presence was limited to gallery shows and select festivals and fairs. As in my previous answer, with the internet offering a space where work can travel far and wide without the photographers having to physically be there to introduce their work to editors/publishers/curators, the field of view definitely expanded.
F: You’re mentoring the six artists we’ve commissioned. Is collaboration important in photography, do you think?
I don’t think collaboration is necessary but when it happens, it can be quite exciting. Photography, unlike film-making, is quite an isolated medium for the practitioners. The solitude that accompanies the process lends itself to the language of photography quite well, for the photographer to only interact with his subjects and embed herself into their lives. Though I don’t think that this can and should be the mode of operating for all kinds of photographic work. Photography is a language, and it is up to the authors to use it creatively, in a manner that is best suited to aid their narratives. Collaboration can create some very unexpected and unique results, within photography but also within and in conjunction with other allied media.
F: As a photographer, you now have a diverse career; is this a necessary path for emerging photographers today?
T: The path I followed turned out to be diverse, even though when I started out I wanted nothing more than to be a photojournalist. As I grew, as a photographer but also through life experiences, my interests expanded beyond my very traditional notions of the medium. I was very lucky to be offered new and exciting opportunities at various points of my career, all of which contributed to my creative growth. The diversity that you see now is probably a culmination of my varied interests, all of which continue to change and evolve even now. However, I don’t think I can say that this is a necessary path for photographers today. As for any creative professional, they will choose the path that piques their own interests. I would just say that perhaps challenges are important, and comfort can be the starting point of stagnation. Beyond that, I don’t think there is any prescriptive formula in photography. We all continue to struggle and figure our own paths, given our unique positions in this industry.