Interview with Parth Gupta

Parth Gupta, a photographer from New Delhi, India was only in his early teens when he first picked up his father’s phone to capture images of clouds. Now at 22 years old, he is working as a multimedia visual artist, with photography being the primary medium. His work has been published in various magazines and presented in exhibitions across India.

Photo from the “Terra Firma” series. The project is a visual depiction of how cities in India are changing and spaces vanishing rapidly because of the urgent demand for urbanisation.

Hi Parth! It’s been almost two years since we met in New Delhi. What happened in the meantime?

In the meantime, I initiated a socio-documentary project on suicides in rural Punjab which has taken up most of my time in these past two years. Besides the project, I have been compiling a personal series, “An Ant Feeding on the Eye of a Dead Sparrow”, which deals with a self-devoured reflection upon my being. I have also been undertaking commercial and commissioned projects between all this to support my personal endeavours with the medium.

Why are you doing this? What are your goals as a photographer?

Photography has always been a medium of self-exploration. For me, like many others, it is a way of expression, but not having to converse with the world. But, rather, to create a better self-understanding of my emotions, state of being and how I perceive the world I inhabit.

Even with ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ alongside documentation of the issue, I am also exploring my own curiosity related with the notion of death and the gaping void that it leaves behind. Photography and consequently art becomes a very personal medium of endeavours to explore my relationship with the world and the existence of my particular atoms.

This sense of responsibility is the most imperative when working on sensitive issues.

Photo from the “So Much Water So Close to Home” series. At the cremation of the late Kundan Singh, 95, in Naiwala, Punjab.

It seems your photography addresses social issues within India, do you feel a sense of responsibility in doing so? If so, why?

Yes, of course, I feel a sense of responsibility, especially when representing people. This sense of responsibility is the most imperative when working on sensitive issues. Because how one decides to portray these social affairs is how the society would form a perception of the issue itself. That’s why the onus is on me with the Punjab project, to be able to show the despair and grief of the people in the most sensitive way so that society can have an honest space to understand the project.

How important do you think formal training as a photographer at a university is or do you think it’s best to learn from others?

Having studied photography at two schools, I have mixed feelings about formal photographic education or art school education (on a broader perspective).

It is very important for upcoming artists to know how to market one’s work, reach out for opportunities and earn a livelihood

On one hand, what I think formal education does well is that it helps students create a base for understanding their respective medium. During my time at Pathshala, I really appreciated their classes on ‘History of Art’, ‘History of Photography’, darkroom and print developing other than the actual photographing classes. These particular classes helped me create a better base foundation for understanding how photography resonates with me – visually and aesthetically. One thing that a lot of such schools miss out on is training their students on how to progress and make their work sustainable within the Art/Photography Community post formal education.

As students, I feel it is very important for upcoming artists to know how to market one’s work, reach out for opportunities and earn a livelihood. I’ve had a lot of friends who have left photography post-schooling as funding oneself becomes difficult, eventually. I think one of the worst things to happen is for someone to halt their art and artistic ventures, especially, when something demoralizing as money hampers their growth.

However, I strongly feel that one does need an experienced person who can be trusted with honest critique. I am quite grateful to have certain people whose advice I can heed to and who have taken care of me and my work.

Most of the great artists we hear of were not miraculous children. They trained meticulously to evolve their artistic style. Taking a very renowned example, Picasso, everyone knows of his exceptional Cubism of the time. But little is known that his initial practice was very traditional and classical and in order to improve his work he spent nine months of rigorous training to develop his understanding of Cubism.

As I’ve said before if you have good educators, studying can help one venture a long way as education creates an important base knowledge and understanding of one’s medium.

Photo from the “So Much Water So Close to Home” series. Members of two different families, each of which is searching for the body of their missing relative, discuss the identity of a corpse that washed up earlier that day in Sirsa, Haryana. Ashu, the head diver, has a built a vast network over the instant messaging service, WhatsApp. Any news about any body found in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, he receives it and is then showed to the relatives who come in search for their missing ones for identification.

You have a really strong, sometimes dark mood in your pictures, is there anyone who inspired you?

No ‘role models’ but people whose work and life has brought a drastic change in my understanding of photography are Trent Parke, Edvard Munch, and Andrea Bruce.

I like your view on your immediate surroundings, especially your series “Terra Firma” that deals with the surroundings of your hometown Gurgaon. How did this come about?

In 2016 I spent the first half of the year living in Dhaka (capital of Bangladesh) which in terms of living and area space was borderline claustrophobic. Upon arriving in Gurgaon, breathing within these vast spaces was almost like an ecstatic relief of sigh. The project began with a few casual morning walks and subsequent photography of the vast spaces encountered. But with time I realized a sense of an ambiguous visual aesthetic which I hadn’t explored earlier. As my interest grew both in the newfound aesthetic and these spaces, I spent most of my mornings exploring these areas. With the project, I aim to portray a yearning of dissipating emotions in order to convey a feeling of longing for these open spaces which would soon disappear.

I am personally quite tired of looking at other countries and its communities only through a white person’s perspective

Photo from the “Terra Firma” series. The project is a visual depiction of how cities in India are changing and spaces vanishing rapidly because of the urgent demand for urbanisation.

Your approach to photography shows a completely different India than what I usually get to see in magazines and other media. Do you think there should be more photographers from places like India working for western magazines instead of those magazines sending their photographers to document topics in India?

Yes, of course, regional photographers should be given a higher priority. First, I feel that I am personally quite tired of looking at other countries and its communities only through a white person’s perspective as they usually dominate the western/global photography community. Especially when dealing with issues that are sensitive, a considerate amount of research and social engagement with the community is necessary so as to not project certain stereotypical visual perspectives. For example, with most of the general ‘War Photography’, seen from an outsider’s perspective, only shows a dehumanized portrayal of the people and a dark-twisted glorification of war. When assignments as such are regionalized to local artists, I have found these projects to be more introspective in terms of the artist dealing with his/her own identity within the community.

When we met in New Delhi, you told me about your photo series “So Much Water So Close to Home“, which touched me deeply even without seeing the pictures. What has become of it?

Over the past two years, the project has become much deeper in terms of reflecting a dire situation faced by the rural population of Punjab. As the average suicide numbers are growing every year I have been visiting the families where suicides have taken place. I have been collecting factual data and statistics of the number of suicides which are horrifyingly increasing every year. With the project, I am trying to gain a sense of the economic and political atmosphere of the region as well.

In February 2018, I displayed the project at The Irregulars Art Fair in Delhi. The exhibit included approximately 53 mugshots (sourced from Punjab Police Records) of the people whose bodies were found in the Bhakra Canal. The aim was to instill a sense of familiarity with the people who met their end through the canal. The faces are so recognizable and innocence from a far world, and yet, all we will ever know is the gaping eyes of these lost visages.

Moreover, I also received a grant from the National Foundation for India in March 2018 to further pursue the project.

Photo from the “So Much Water So Close to Home” series. Ashu assisting Harpreet Kaur’s relatives to unpack the body-bag, before the cremation rituals. After the post-mortem and acquiring the death certificate, Ashu brings the body to the cremation ground himself in a small hatchback.

Congratulations! You’ve addressed intimate topics within your work, what do you do to get people to open up to you during a tragedy/difficult time?

I don’t do anything extraordinary in particular. Upon entering the personal space of someone who is grieving, I inform them of my reasons for being there and if they would be okay with me asking a few questions. I don’t start photographing instantly, I try to spend as much time as possible with the individual/family. With my movements, I am very cautious and slow, I don’t make any sudden movements and if someone asks not to be photographed I don’t unnecessarily pick up my camera. It is a matter of respect, emotional sensitivity and compassion especially when dealing with such grave issues.

You shoot a lot of pictures with your iPhone…

I never believed that photographs can only be made through a DSLR. My phone, because of technology, is one of the most accessible devices to use. Otherwise, I also use a very old digital camera at times. At times, I make analog pictures from a shoebox pinhole. Photography, personally, is so much more about experimentation and making images rather than thinking through only one viewfinder.

The factors that we believe divide us are much more feeble than the ones that unite us.

Photo from the “Out of The Picture” series. For the last 16 years, Salahuddin, son of the famous calligrapher Manzooruddin, has been sending documents to the office of Delhi’s lieutenant governor as part of an application for a Padma Shri award for his father. Every year, officials of the Padma Awards Committee visit Manzooruddin’s house, ask questions about his work and achievements, and leave. And every year, Salahuddin’s request for a Padma Shri for his father is rejected by the government. Now 93 years old, and barely able to speak, Manzooruddin is considered a legend in the field of calligraphy. In a career span of 60 years, he has handwritten more than 200 books. He has been commissioned by the Indian government to write sipasnamas, or words of praise, for various important personalities, including the last king of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He also claims to have designed the logo of the famous sherbat brand Rooh Afza. Citing his father’s unmatched achievements in the field, Salahuddin contends that the denial of the Padma Shri to Manzooruddin shows how calligraphy’s image has declined in Indian society.

You can be your own client, what would your dream assignment look like?

My dream assignment would be to photograph various communities throughout the world and my life with them. Especially in the current times when we see so much disparity amongst people over racial, linguistic and regional divides. I would want to spend at least a year or two meeting these communities to be able to portray them in a humane and emotional way, the factors that we believe divide us are much more feeble than the ones that unite us.

Thank you for your time and the insight into your work, Parth!

Checkout Parth’s website and Instagram!