At first, we laughed out of pure disbelief. It was near twilight; the sun had only just dived into the sea, leaving behind streaks of red and yellow. We were soaking in the diffused light from the vantage point of the newly restored Reis Magos Fort, a Portuguese-bastion- turned-cultural-venue, among the many outdoor spaces where exhibitions forming the first edition of Goa Photo had been mounted. As we sipped on red wine served in cutting chai glasses, Nikhil Padgaonkar, co-founder of Goa Photo, relayed to us a spot of breaking news that seemed so bizarre we had doubts about his sobriety and our own. He then asked me if I could be perceived as a ‘Good Goan Catholic girl’ who could communicate with a fellow Catholic, which is when I realised he was dead serious. Padgaonkar needed someone who knew her Memorare well enough to accompany him to meet a priest. This was the situation: Alinka Echeverria’s photographs, mounted on the many landings of the landmark multi-storied Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception church in Panjim, needed to be exorcised.
Strangely enough, ‘The Road to Tepeyac’, Echeverria’s series had worked marvellously against the backdrop of the church. In fact, the installation represented the perfect marriage between content and context. Both Padgaonkar and his wife Lola Mc Dougall had sought the parish priest and bishop’s approval before proceeding with the display. Printed in flex, the photographs artfully documented some of the six million plus pilgrims who make the annual trek to Tepeyac in Mexico City to visit the site where the Virgin of Guadalupe not only appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous man, back in 1531, but was miraculously imprinted on his cloak. As tradition goes, pilgrims strap varied vernacular interpretations of the Virgin’s image to their backs as they embark on their journey. Echeverria’s work, portraits of pilgrim’s backs, evokes the image’s iconic and anthropological power, not only in its embodiment of the Blessed Virgin but its invocation of her. ‘They become image because they carry an interpretation of the image they are going to venerate,’ wrote Christian Caujolle in the Goa Photo catalogue. However, one of the parishioners of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception church differed with Caujolle’s interpretation. He had had a different apparition and therefore had lodged a complaint with the parish priest. In these images he had seen “Mother Mary in consort with the Devil!”
The irony of the situation amused us. While Echeverria’s photographs celebrated visual superstition, this parishioner’s response revealed a visual illiteracy. My imminent departure clashed with the appointment Padgaonkar had made to meet the priest, but even as I left Goa, I kept thinking about the significance of this incident and the questions it raised. Who was this festival for? Could it promote a more serious engagement with a global image repertoire and a more nuanced appreciation of what is commonly perceived as the world’s most democratic medium? Why was this parishioner seeing that I was unable to? How did he locate the devil in the details when all I could see was a powerful exposé on how the practising Catholic’s faith is so dependent on the image?
This was the sixth photo festival in India in a span of just five years. We had moved from serious dearth to sudden abundance. In fact, Goa Photo was the third such in Goa itself; late last year, Sunaparanta, an arts centre, had put up Sensorium. The inaugural edition was meant to reflect ‘on photography at its intersection with literature, cinema, and music’ and was curated by Prashant Panjiar. Just a few weeks before Goa Photo, which opened on 25 February, The One School Goa, a photography school located on a stunning property in Ucassaim, Bardez, had hosted the Goa International Photo Festival as ‘an initiative to bring together photographers from all around the world in pursuance of enhancing awareness, accessibility, and understanding the art of photography’. All three were maiden attempts. Still, for the photographer community in India, they represented the beginning of a new trend.
Panjiar, co-director of the Delhi Photo Festival (DPF), India’s very first International photography festival established in 2011, believes this sudden proliferation is not something we should be congratulating ourselves for. “Arles is 40 years old, Chobi Mela is 16 years old. We’re Johnny-come-lately to the scenes,” he says, referring to the annual Rencontres d’Arles, founded in 1970, possibly the world’s most prestigious photo festival, and the biannual Chobi Mela, Asia’s first photo festival founded by photography collective Drik in 1999 in Dhaka. Panjiar believes these new developments are responses to a larger need for a community, which was and still is the raison d’être of DPF. “We should take credit because we were the first, but we also came into a time, a historic time, when the traditional centres of photography, the traditional genres of photojournalism and advertising were not at poles with each other,” he says. “There were lots of different genres, which has to do with the digital age and by 2007–08, lots of photographers were working in the field and wanted to communicate with each other but didn’t have the forum to do it.” It was this desire to be part of a larger collective that had impelled Panjiar and Dinesh Khanna to institute the not-for- profit Nazar Foundation that now hosts the DPF in collaboration with the India Habitat Centre every two years. Panjiar insists they didn’t “create the need” as much as tap it. “DPF was born out of an evening together,” he says. “Sohrab [Hura], Vidura [Jang Bahadur ], Neeraj [Priyadarshi] and a few others, we were having a drink together in Bombay, and they spoke about having a photo festival.” At that time, in 2009, many of them were trying to negotiate the stranglehold of the gallery and curator system in terms of what was being shown as photography, Panjiar adds. “We spoke of the need for a democratic public space to show photography, that would be free and open.” Why did it take India so long to host a photo festival when it has had its own fair share of phenomenal photographers? “Because nobody tried to do it,” replies Panjiar. “We pulled it off and that was enough of a catalyst.”
Before DPF could kick off its second edition in 2013, architect Nicola Antaki, photography specialist Matthieu Foss and arts producer Elise Foster Van organised Mumbai’s debut photo festival. Produced by the Asia Arts Projects, the Focus Photography Festival was concerned with making photography accessible to the city’s denizens. The theme for the first edition was ‘The City’, while the ongoing second instalment is premised upon the nuances contained in the word ‘crossover’, celebrating ‘photography’s role in challenging the way we see and understand both our city and the world, not only questioning collective notions of geography and history but also telling the intimate stories of the construction of identity and the exploration of self in today’s age’. Thirty exhibitions were planned, besides workshops, book launches, talks and tours. The big departure this time around is the festival’s expansion beyond the limits of South Bombay into Bandra, Lower Parel, and Vikhroli, with a printed map guiding visitors across the city. The centrepiece is a show curated by Pa Madhavan at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum of work by 20 photographers culled from about 130 submissions that were examined by a jury. For the city’s amateurs, Focus Photo Festival offers the rare chance to meet with some of the most exciting established and emerging photographers for portfolio reviews; a feature all of the six festivals have in common. “Some very busy and established photographers actually call and ask if we’re doing them. There’s this thirst on their part to see and discover new talent and speak with aspiring photographers,” says Foss.
Further south, in 2012, Kasha Vande founded Pondy Art in Pondicherry in collaboration with photographers Yannick Cormier, Andreas Deffner and Muthu K with the same premise in mind: to take photography to people at large. However, unlike parallel initiatives, hers began more organically, with solo exhibitions on a wall on Beach Road to which they were given access by the Government of Pondicherry and the Department of Tourism. In 2012, she was able to successfully mount a slew of group exhibitions at the extensive Old Distillery property. In 2014, with active support and encouragement by the Nazar Foundation, the effort expanded further to create a photo festival featuring work by 30 international photographers. “This was in fact again augmented by the generous support of many individual photographers, artists, and local partners who offered/supported free workshops, presentations, and performances,” says Vande. The response was unprecedented. At least 10,000 residents and tourists attended the two-week festival.
Are these festivals sustainable? Beyond the stressful challenge of raising funds to mount such large- scale public exhibitions are two related problems, according to Panjiar, that determine continuity: that of finding fresh and new work and of maintaining relevance. Integral to both is the involving and encouraging of local talent. The problem, however, with current photographic practice in India, according to Panjiar, is the lack of focus. Both he and Khanna were disappointed by the dearth of quality submissions by Indian photographers in 2013. “DPF looks at bodies of work, not individual images, if it was about single images, we would be flooded,” he says. Despite the prolific potential of the digital age where anyone can publish pictures in some form or another, Panjiar believes the actual space for photography has shrunk. “There are just two photo galleries in India, the photo essay has died, save for a couple of magazines that showcase it.” What we do have now is a pool of talented people, he believes. “Earlier there were so many people from the media who’d be counted as great photographers, today, you can’t count any.”
Perhaps therein lies the real potential of the photo festival in the landscape of contemporary Indian photography: the possibility of exposing local practitioners to the kind of work being done internationally. Despite their thematic inclinations, the diversity of approaches among these initiatives is a cause for celebration. For instance, while submissions form the crux of the exhibitions at DPF, Goa Photo proposes an alternative model of showcasing a curated visual experience. But the common goal of all the six festivals organised thus far is the emphasis on free outdoor exhibitions with the intention of generating awareness and educating people about what constitutes a photograph. Each of them is resolute in his or her disregard for promoting the cause of photography within established art networks like the gallery or museum by proposing alternative modes of display. According to photographer Akshay Mahajan, co-founder of the Blind Boys collective, in an environment where there is very little government and museum participation in photography, well thought-out photo festivals are indeed important. The danger, he believes, is that they could join a long list of Indian fads. ‘Festivals need an introspective approach that is transparent, community, and audience-minded, and that has an open call for submissions, not just for photography but more importantly curatorial proposals,’ he says over email. But these are just preliminaries. ‘Photography doesn’t flourish only with inspired photographers, it needs the critics, the curators, the publishers, and the audience,’ he adds.
In parenthesis, Mahajan includes a pertinent postscript appended with a smiley face: ‘Notice I didn’t mention galleries.’ This is a disposition that many established and emerging photographers share. For decades, photographers like Panjiar and his contemporaries were vocal about photography’s legitimacy as an art form. The age-old argument is no longer relevant to most. “It is an art form. Period. Who needs to accept it as an art form? I don’t know? The galleries, the government, or photographers?” he asks rhetorically. “After so many years one feels like saying if a gallery is not interested, bugger off. Why would I waste my time convincing them?” Photo festivals help advance this rebellious cause. “We say, ‘Let’s screw your institutions, we’ll do what we have to do’.”