Deb Choudhuri captures and questions the notion of belonging

Matter + Form

What happens when you confront the silence that exists between chaos? New York-based photographer Debmalya Roy Choudhuri offers a small promise to create something unique from an overused source.

His work builds a relationship with the viewer, demonstrating how art is subjective and creates polarizing moments. Originally from Kolkata, his journey to the other side of the world is one that's left him searching for meaning in his memories. We caught up with him to discuss his process:

Hi Deb, thank you for joining us here today! First of all, could you please introduce your work?

I use photography, performance, and text in my practice. Most of my work is a long-term endeavor that talks about memory, isolation, and intimacy, arising from my desires and fears. I came to New York, on a scholarship to study policy and development and a minor immersion in photography.

My scholarship and work allowed me to take a few workshops and classes at the International Center of Photography, after which I worked for a brief stint under French artist and Magnum Photos photographer, Antoine D'Agata in the US from whom I was lucky to learn a lot. Currently, I am an MFA candidate in Rochester, New York under a scholarship.

My work is rooted in distancing myself from chaos and engaging myself emotionally and physically in situations. Situations which talk about the psychological landscapes and journeys of people. I see art as a personal pursuit to tell one’s story and what it means to be here. Not exclusively to be promoted as a political tool, but one through which the person is shaped. Art that shapes the political context of the individual and collective conscience.

Art should not solely be captive to any institutional context and used as political propaganda, which ends up being for the elite and powerful. But art that talks about the necessity of a new form of humanism and about values that we can all relate to. And life in general, of course.

How did you develop an interest in photography?

My interest in photography developed about a decade ago when I was still a teenager. I was 16 or 17 back then. A year of my life, I was very sick and almost bedridden. I couldn't do much, but I had to continue school and go on with life and not miss a year. I had a camera, the small Kodak with an automatic flash, that was gifted by my grandparents. I started exploring my surroundings.

I realized I could preserve my experiences through it. It was a very efficient tool as I could just take a photograph and know I was there. Later, I studied engineering because that is what most middle-class families from India do, when they know they need to make a living. We did not come from a privileged household and I gave in considering it to be a safe option.

Much later after experiencing the death of a close friend and seeing my own family fall apart and me growing distant from home, and my failure to connect to things made photography a necessity to keep going.

Do you ever collaborate with other photographers?

My current work is collaborative, and I work and share with people and friends from all parts of society. I collaborate with performance artists, erotic performers, sex workers, activists and currently work on ideas of desire and longing to a place or person.

I try to talk about issues that lie in our cultural blind spots, that are often misconstrued or considered taboo. The relationship between the photographer and the photographed is fluid and I am the subject of many of the images. As individuals living in an increasingly polarized world, we operate through the “logic of the lure” – the economy of desire.

Could you tell us more about your project Tat Tvam Asi?

Tat Tvam Asi is a deviation from the way I usually work. It is a time-specific work that started in early 2017. It was at a time when I had picked up the camera again and wanted to redefine what is home. It is essentially images that document a specific place and maps my relationship and sense of alienation and solitude. Almost like psychogeography.

Seeing my own family fall apart and confronting the loss of a loved one made me ask myself: What exactly is Home? Does Home define one’s Identity? Can any place far away from where I live become my Home? Can I construct a reality in my mind and call it my Home? My sense of incompleteness being projected into a vast space of light, often interspersed with fragments of the dark.

In this work, people exist for me but only as inconspicuous identities, a fragile trace of the body lost. Maybe those hidden figures were just my projections: any “man” who is lost looking to find his belonging, to pray for an answer. I would say, like most of my practice, this too is repetitive. Repetitions are a part of life. The absurd rhythm of life in which we all perform. Even the earth rotates on its own axis in a rhythm. I intend to experience the changing landscape over time and see how my own position changes with the land.

This is a place called Tapovan, near Rishikesh, a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas. I wanted to ask myself what home really is. Is it physical confinement, is it only your family that could become distant suddenly, is it the city where you were born, the city where you experience your dear one’s death or is it a sense of belonging to wherever you are? I don’t have those answers. Maybe never will. For all these are not very precise questions to address.

Photographing became a necessity to understand me better. I ended up photographing the same spaces over the five or six months that I was there. In our society, which is so fastidious about production value, even in art, to consume and to produce incessantly, I always felt incomplete. Drifting is seen to be of no use. Leisure only finds its place in experiencing a framed artwork but not a way to exist and confront. I was working there and yet life was minimal.

With time, I began to find some clarity. I don’t hesitate to say that I am influenced by existentialist writers like Sartre and Camus. Tat Tvam Asi, is a phrase in Sanskrit which loosely translates to All That You Are or Thou Art That in English. Although, I have always been suspicious of translations. The phrase more closely calls for the need to connect to the self, to observe, absorb and react to the little details of an unknown land.

This is not an obsession to achieve some high morality or salvation, but to work against ego, against pride, the renunciation of which is difficult and almost impossible for the conscious mind. Paradoxes and contradictions have always informed about my life and work.

What is your interpretation of Thou Art That?

No matter what tragedy happens, the fact that you continue to breathe necessitates you to keep living and confronting your struggles and telling your story in whatever form you can. The narratives are very simple and often gestures are minimal and repetitive. A man meditating, a child playing with his mother, women bathing in the river, habits of humans and how they find themselves in this land that is deemed holy.

From a distance, everyone appears the same but as you look closely you notice the smaller actions. It is not about giving any message, but just about being and experiencing. Feeling and looking.

Has the idea of journeying always been something that interested you?

I have always seen my life as a journey. At this point, I don’t even know if I belong somewhere. I first started to experience India as a solo traveler, and then it has been my constant endeavor to experience as many worlds as I can. A person can journey across their own city where they've lived forever. Places hidden, unknown. I don’t know when and where I might be the next year, but every journey in my life is a way to make me a better being and to find myself in this world.

Your pictures tend to capture silence, the quiet moments. Was that your intention?

I am someone who likes to be alone, who grew up with not so many friends in my neighborhood and those who did fell into the trap of substance abuse and other vices.

In my long-term work, which I see as my own journey over the years, I share intimate spaces with strangers in their moments of isolation and connect their path to that of my own. I look for quieter moments, moments of longing, solitude in people’s faces, bodies or places. I guess my experiences shape what or how I photograph.

Do you feel like you choose the subjects of your photographs, based on what is a close reflection of yourself?

Maybe yes. And sometimes it is by chance. Chance encounters of people who love me and trust me play an important role in my photographs.

I photograph desire and how the other sees desire. Desire, that is not precise, the desire that lies in the need to be acknowledged, to be seen, to be loved, a desire that makes us perform the act of wearing a mask, for the other. Desire that could be in a guy who likes to cross-dress, a gay man who embraces his desire and identity after forty as a drag queen, desire of a sex worker to be loved through an image, desire of someone who faced domestic abuse in her twenties It is about human emotions that we all share and are often afraid to express. For the fear of being judged, being labeled.

The camera allows us to be fragile yet powerful at the same time. It is through this vulnerability that I find beauty and strength. And how we are all connected despite our differences.

Do you believe that personal circumstances are defining for any artist?

I truly feel it is always the personal circumstances and experiences that define the work of every artist. As the saying goes, Life Imitates Art. As cliché, as it may sound, agony and the hunger inside us leads us to create something. Artists who have informed my understanding of paintings, photography, film, and art, in general, have all had their practice that was rooted in personal obsessions, even a madness you may say. These obsessions arose from their youth or just the situations they had to confront.

What are your thoughts on working on single images versus projects?

A single image is like a haiku. Maybe a few beautiful words converging to meaning, but escaping it. It tries to condense too much information.

A series could read like a story. Maybe like sentences that are written and structured to create a narrative, a poem or prose. You try to make sense of the real context.

The interesting thing about photography is that every image can speak a thousand words. Like a ventriloquist putting words into the puppet and making it seem as if he is the real speaker. The reader can interpret and put words into a silent image and shape a different meaning than what was intended by the author of the work. In this too lies the beauty of the medium.

I have personally always worked with a multitude of images, often in different forms. Some that are more ordered and ones that are free.

Are there any photography principles that you’ve adhered to over the years?

Over time, I have started using photography only as a tool for performance, with everyone being an actor. I have always believed that I am in a constant battle, not only with myself but with aesthetics or principles demanded by institutional and political frameworks that determine the value of art.

In the end, art ends up being a product of what it was supposed to resist. I have tried to remain free of that, and often feel like an outsider because of it. Apart from the basic understanding of composition and light, akin to that of painting, I try to photograph relying more on emotions. In the end, all our conscious and subconscious choices inform what we do. And photography is only a subset of that.

What is a good photograph for you?

To me, an interesting photograph is one that provokes the viewer to ask questions and probes deeper than what is at first represented in the image. I am fascinated by the ambiguity of images and their interactions with the human mind. How each person views a photograph is largely based on both cultural and social conditions, own prejudices and understanding of the world.

A good photograph is a subjective choice. For me, in the end, it all comes down to the honesty of your position. It's important to keep challenging and questioning not only yourself but also those in power through the choices you make.

Let a photograph be a question and not an answer. Of course, I believe I do draw references from philosophy, cultural theory and literature but it is hard to qualitatively attribute that to a single photograph.

What camera and lenses do you generally use?

Generally, I use a variety of small cameras. My go-to is a digital Nikon D750 and a Nikon FM2. I also use polaroids, 8mm motion cameras to take extracts from. My preferred lenses are fixed ones like the 50mm Nikon lens. This is only because I shoot spontaneous and often fixed lenses allow me to be very close to the person.

Apart from photography, tell me about your interests?

I have taken a greater interest in performance arts, lately and to use photography and performance, not in a cut and dry way, but to experiment with them further to see what form it takes. My present physical location gives me time to reflect on these. If I am not thinking, I am reading whatever comes my way.

What keeps you motivated to keep creating?

The hunger to stay alive now, I guess. This is a strong desire in me. Maybe in all of us. All my obsessions, vices and flaws keep me going and I don’t want to give up.

There have been situations where I feel distanced for being too honest in an artistic context, where everything is supposed to be controlled and rigid. But I know with all these struggles, the journey becomes more interesting and enriching. Only through creating can I say what I want to say. I try to remain as open and fragile as I can, in my interactions with strangers and friends. It is the process that I enjoy.

Any final thoughts for our readers?

Be open, kind and loving to all. And always keep questioning. Maybe one person reacts to your work or a thousand, but that should never be your intent for art. My words would also be for anyone reading this back home in India and elsewhere, to keep fighting. It is a long and tough battle but only by confronting it, can you know yourself better.

Images by Debmalya Roy Choudhuri.

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