At the Delhi Photo Festival, Sanjeev Saith marks a return to photography with intensely personal cellphone camera photos that he took to preserve memories of his elderly parents
Much of the photography on display at the Delhi Photo Festival is insistently personal in subject matter, with mothers and fathers and sisters and grandparents cosily jostled together. For all the intimacy of these photographs, though, their subjects never appear exposed. The humblest details which represent them, like saris or utensils, are burnished by the spotlight. On a table a little distance away is a set of photographs that are more familiarly personal, the quiet, retiring, unselfconscious sort that predate (and barely survive) the Facebook-era: Sanjeev Saith’s Happy Goodnight, which is devoted to his elderly parents, and named after his mother’s nightly salutation to his father.
Saith gave up photography in 2002 to look after his parents when they became seriously ill. He stowed away his Olympus cameras, and didn’t think about making images until 2005, when his brother, visiting from Brussels, happened to leave his cellphone behind. It was a Nokia 6600, a tubby little phone that came with a VGA camera.
That’s what Saith slowly began to use “in the evening, when dinner’s over, there’s music, and I felt like taking a picture”. As anyone who dimly recalls the VGA camera will attest, this was not easy. “It’s an old, limited phone; you have to trick it all the time,” says Saith. “There’s a gap between what it sees and what it shoots. So when I wanted to shoot a profile, I’d zoom close to the skin and then move quickly to a larger frame and take a photo before it had time to adjust to the light. Otherwise, I’d get a burnt-out photograph.”
It’s not, however, the use of an antediluvian image sensor that sets these pictures apart. It’s the “small memories” they record, of the couple’s declining years. The first few images show them gently sloping towards a dining table, swaddled in thick winter woollens. The next few are of Saith’s father sitting by the window, the winter sun glowing through his beard. Others are closely-framed meditations on fragility: a knobbly vein at a temple; the drooping corner of a mouth; a near-translucent fold of skin; a frail hand curled on the bedclothes; and at the end of the sequence, rose petals resting on arms placed across a chest. These tenderly observed details pierce the heart as well as what Barthes called the studium—the immediate context.
There is another reason why this project feels so unselfconsciously personal. “This was never meant to be exhibited,” Saith says. “I didn’t see these as photos; just my parents as I recognise them and want to preserve them.” The pictures were not composed with the canny sort of self-regard that plays to the gallery. They were produced by Saith’s “not wanting to lose a certain feeling in my head”. Many who have seen the series now warmly reciprocate that feeling. “It’s photography that, if you patch together, moves people,” he says. “Everyone has parents, don’t they?”
Saith’s photographic career has felt intensely personal right from the start. He vividly recalls the “trauma” he felt as a nine-year-old, when an uncle gave him a plastic camera and he had to choose between taking a photograph of his best friend and his dog (he finally settled on his Atlas bicycle). During his college years, he spent a lot of time climbing the Himalayas. There, he wished to capture “the feeling in high places, where you have no one to speak to, and spend many days of silence, except for the wind”. The resulting photographs are unworldly confections of snow plumes and alpen glow.
When he passed through semi-developed shantytowns on the way back from those trips, he was drawn away from remote panoramas, back towards the clamour of life on the street. In the catalogue for a show of his work in 1993, Saith wrote: ‘More than to show, I shoot to see. If anything, my photographs serve to heighten the banality of their detail.’ Ordered into a constellation of visual coincidences and patterns, though, these details deftly depict the ‘dissonance’ between the people in these towns and ‘their metamorphosing world’, such as in a photograph of three young boys in Ranikhet staring at a young girl who coyly stares back from behind the bars of a window.
In those photos, Saith shot to see change; in his latest series, he shoots to see some way to safeguard against it.
The Delhi Photo Festival is being held at the India Habitat Centre till 28 October