India Through the Lens

MAP @ the National Museum of Bahrain (exhibition)

16 September, 2014 - 1 November, 2014
National Museum of Bahrain

‘India Through the Lens’ was curated by MAP exclusively for the National Museum of Bahrain, featuring the work of Karen Knorr, T.S. Satyan, Jyoti Bhatt and Maimouna Guerresi.

One of the central debates surrounding photography is whether it faithfully describes, or creatively responds, to the world. Throughout its history, photography has been used as a recording device – in scientific, geographical or anthropological studies, as well as a creative device – in the context of art. Often these worlds overlap, and the boundaries are rarely clearly defined.

The power of photography is perhaps not in its loyalty to an objective truth, however, but in how we as an audience decode images to help us better understand and learn about the world around us. As viewers, we should not take things at face value, indeed, the joy of looking at photographs is in the discovery of worlds and realities previously unencountered; what they show you in conjunction with what you already know; their ability to question, produce and destabilise your ideas and notions of a given subject, and a given reality.

As a country, India has often been defined by a host of misconceptions and preconceived ideas. The images of India that usually come to mind – whether exotic, poor or globalised – are rather distinct from its reality – in itself a series of fluctuating contradictions. How then do we begin to think about its representation through photography? How have photographers responded to this country, how close do their images come to presenting an engaging, valid or true Idea of India – and is such representation even possible?

This exhibition chooses to look at the work of four photographers who have each engaged with India in a variety of ways – and with varying levels of commitment to an ‘objective truth’. Two are Indian, from the world of  documentary photography, T.S. Satyan (1923 – 2009) and Jyoti Bhatt (b. 1934) – and two are non-Indian contemporary artists who engage with the the idea of staged/manipulated image-making – Karen Knorr (b. 1954) and Maïmouna Guerresi (b. 1951).

In the mid-20th century, there was a belief and an excitement in the idea of the camera capturing the world as it was; as being a truthful document and recording for posterity what was ‘out there’. Bhatt and Satyan both represent this mentality and approach to photography, through their black and white photographs shot on 35mm film of ‘the common man’ and everyday life – both urban and rural, in post-independent India.

21st century contemporary photography by comparison, disregards these ‘truth claims’ and instead uses the medium to comment on its subjects by employing strategies of manipulation, collage and ‘the stage’. In Knorr’s photographs, animals have been inserted digitally into interior spaces they would not normally inhabit in reality, and in Guerresi’s work, the artist constructs a heavily mediated perception of the body through costume and composition.

The juxtaposition of these two modes of photography illustrates not only a wider shift in photographic theory and practice over a century, but also the transformation of a country; one that was earlier driven by postcolonial anxieties, and in search of a national self-image largely constructed through set ideas of ‘tradition’, moving toward a postmodern and global world where cultural identities and signs are constantly renegotiated and in flux. In this exhibition, Satyan’s and Bhatt’s photographs are accounts of the former, while Knorr’s and Guerresi’s works are representative of the latter. Collectively they visually present a changing idea of India, whilst also exploring photography’s relationship to documentary reality.

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