Olympics and Activism Art

by Samar S Jodha

Bhopal-A Silent Picture

Two Olympics back, in 2012, London was hosting the summer games, with DOW chemicals as their sponsor, yes, the owners of Union Carbide, the MNC with blood on their hands of thousands in that chemical poisoning. The “all is well” brands are very good at Profits from all but Responsibility towards none.

The first challenge was that it was March/4, months before the games opened. London was under a high-security alert with planning/permits already in place. And I wanted to arrive with the Bhopal project with no location plans during the biggest show on the planet.

The second challenge was there was no way we could build this enormous container in India and put it on a ship for its timely arrival into London, and sail it through various security apparatus.

The first step, the super Divya Thakur, as the designer steps in (who had earlier designed the India showings), we set off to create the experience of that cold Dec. night of 1984. Fabricate a 40′ container, a metaphoric train journey with a sound piece, smoke machine, single degree temp to match that night and names/tribute to the thousands who died on that dreadful night.

While sitting in Dubai, struggling with budgets, fabrication, location, permissions/security clearances, logistical issues etc., I get a call from Amnesty International out of London (a journalist friend John Elliott had ref/reported this project on BBC) wanting to know if they could host the showing (but with a low budget)

So, where is the money for this big gig in the sky? My stretched $s were short of a make-or-break situation. There walks in another gem of a human being, Raza Beig (who runs more than a successful fashion brand, is a significant collector of art and a prominent philanthropist), with an open chequebook to take care of this venture should happen.

The next task, buy a 40′ container in London and store & insured (liability issues are critical in that part of the world) plus the contracts and the legal paperwork. And in comes Suzanne Alexander, who puts on her “Can Do” hat and makes sure no glitches and logistics run seamlessly.

Meanwhile, in Rochester, with all the designs/drawings by Divya, we set off a customised fabrication at an industrial design outfit. Also, with the capacity to handle crowds (so far in Asia/Europe/ US, we have clicked in over 250K walkthroughs)

Finally, Amnesty launched Bhopal-A Silent Picture/installation art project in London, with all their fanfare (prominent environmentalist activists, including Bianca Jagger, show up)

Post the show; one can’t pack up this gorilla and put it under the bed. So, after each show, it goes to a storage yard (with painful rental costs/insurance) But each time, hoping to take it to the next gathering, so when one has the $£€, ship it across oceans (Houston photo Biennale 2018), & at times miss a few like the Tokyo Olympics.

Bhopal is not some forgotten suffering but a reminder that daily BHOPALs are happening globally. Corporates and their lobbies in the public policy space are destroying not only the human lives/future of our children but also our planet’s fragile environment. Plus, throw in the hyper-consumption habits.

Personally, Bhopal is also about what can one do with the art practice, both for creativity (not art for art’s sake but a more significant social change/advocacy) And a voice (if one has discovered) you want to amplify in forums where you take the message to people on the street (why we love public art) and not limit oneself in a white cube gallery syndrome.

The most significant takeaway, your biz, talent, and ability to earn can get you the name, money, fame, or a slab of posterity when you are six feet under, but what will keep it shining is how you lived through the NOW.

I have been fortunate to have some seriously moneyed/collecter friends with wealth beyond ordinary imagination. And then I also have some superbly talented friends who are beyond billing their talent. What is impressive is some of them have always extended the above to my causes. They are the NOWs. They believe their money or talent can make a significant difference on issues I work on (at times, I am their personal CSR). My biggest gratitude to all of them.

Each of you is my Olympic Hero

How do you define your childhood?

by Samar S Jodha

Many creative people are big fans of memoirs, conflict and the marginalised voice. The connect is because, as an artist, one is interested in that mind, the personal experience and the struggles within and outside.

Here is a memoir, which I finally got to read. It’s about a young girl growing up in Kashmir. It’s in an environment of deadly politics, religion, violence, and one can make a whole list of what has been going on in the most conflicted part of the world. Under the dark shadows above is a personal story of a girl with all that noise outside and the silent child within.

The impact on her family and her community, and her missing out on that normalcy of childhood, which we all otherwise take for granted. Her laughter, the freedom to run in open land, the daily after school hanging out with your mates in the playground, that free spirit each child is born with. Instead, each time her dreams are shot down, she lives through nightmares of being woken up in the middle of the night to the sounds of gunshots. It is to live with anxiety, fear, trauma, which are all part of her daily life.

I don’t want to create a review of Farah Bashir Rumours of Spring (for that, you’ve got to read this sensitive narration). Still, it’s about the harsh growing up years of an individual, which unfortunately continues for countless children even today.

Analogue Life vs Digital Numbness

by Samar S Jodha

As a photographer, I often get asked if I prefer analogue photography or the present digital?

There has been a lot of debate among professional photographers about why analogue was better and digital has become more like a carpet-bombing syndrome and hoping the correct image will pop up.

But here, I share the experience of analogue life (beyond photography) with many friends (non-photographers) of that era. Like analogue photography, the most significant thing many of us miss is slowness—the act of engagement with the sounds, smells, and the taste of visuals. The act of observe, to absorb, and feeling the deeper connection on the insides, and the less about the projection. The art of listening to one’s voice and not getting lost in the commotion on the outside.

The present era of digital noise has made our analogue antennas on the inside go silent. It’s impacted us so much that our behavior with society, friends, or even loved ones has put us into those trappings of instant gratification. As a result, we have become poor at self-expression, fear the judgmental space, or even at some level, lost the very purpose of having our individuality.

Fortunately, many of us know what this digital beast is doing to us. But there is always hope, the reset button which came into action during the last two years of COVID. The reality check, the opportunity to experience less is more and, most importantly, able to keep our sanity in place. I feel there is enough room to rediscover that voice and relive that life of analogue which is still within us

His Holiness the Dalai Lama Something Personal

By Samar S Jodha

About the photo: 20 years apart, and no prize for guessing who has aged!

Today the 14th Dalai Lama, known as Gyalwa Rinpoche to the Tibetan people, turns 86!

In the late 1990s, I had my first opportunity to meet him for a cover story shoot for First City magazine.

We landed up to a warm welcome into his home in McLeod Ganj (Dharamshala) We were given precisely an hour to be with him. The writer had her questions, and I had my part in taking the pictures. No one can resist hearing and talking to this evolved soul. So, I, too, had a few questions for him; as one can imagine, it was a great experience. As many of us have heard or seen his interviews, he has a great sense of humour and the gems he delivers.

Unfortunately (fortunately for me), it started to rain, which meant his following schedule, his walk got seriously delayed, but the good news was he could give us more time.

The conversation was great, and when the rains stopped, he was heading for his walk. And he asked me, would you like to come for a walk with me? And the answer was more than a Yes!

We made a few more pictures with lots to chat about and hear his great thoughts. Photography used to be a mystery then, and he wanted to know if my mission was to take just pictures or say something more. I can’t recall what kind of stupid answer I may have given. But the question remained in my head.

Years went by, met him a few more times in private and public gatherings (I have a good collection of scarfs given by him). It also led to him writing an essay for a photography exhibition and a forward for the #agelessmindandspirit book.

About a decade later, one day, I was getting out of an elevator at India Habitat Centre in Delhi, and as the door opened, he was standing there with his staff. Now, this is not an everyday affair to bump into His Holiness, that too at an elevator door.

He looked at me and said, you are that Photographer! Now let’s not forget, here is the only man who has met hundreds of thousands of people in person (movie stars, presidents/public figures fade away with time), and I was more than surprised by the elephant memory he carried. And before I could respond, his next question was, where is your camera? (This was pre-phone camera days)

One always carried a small pocket camera, which I instantly pulled out. He asked his assistant to take a photo of us together, and yes, with his disarming smile.

Thankfully I, too, was staying at the same place & got invited to see him in his room. Yes got the signature silk scarf from him. We spoke about the #Phaneng project, the marginalised Buddhist community and the opportunity I got to live and work on capacity-building projects with them. He took the show catalogue and said to keep in touch (I guess we are not on WhatsApp)

Leaving his room on the way to the elevator, and what struck me, that first meeting a decade before and the question he had for me, You taking pictures, or are you trying to say something.

And the answers started to emerge. I had taken my departure from the world of Ad photography, and publishing commissions .. and turned the corner into the unqualified space of sustainability & capacity building and the role of an artist going beyond art. So at some stage in life, there is a question we need to ask. Do we qualify ourselves with education, exposure, and privileges to only survive this life’ journey? (ok, throw in the creature comforts and desires) OR are we going to go beyond the expected camera handling (in my case) and impact at least one life out there?

Yes, the struggles, the temptation of highlife, the pressures of paying bills or the desperation to define some obscure legacy to leave behind. Something I, too, have struggled with, fallen a few times, but your strong sense of conviction and perseverance can help you sail onto that journey of self-discovery.

I don’t think one needs His Holiness (I was a fortunate one), but enough issues are crying out for attention. It is just a matter of are we using our eyes to hear them, wake up the compassion within, or just suffering from being comfortably numb.

Wishing this soul a very Happy Birthday, and thank you for inspiring this world for a better tomorrow.

The Journey of Your Camera

by Samar S Jodha

National Camera Day ( let’s Not confuse it with World Photography Day
the celebration of the art, craft, science, and history of photography, which falls on August 19th of this year)

So, what is the journey of this instrument which documents your visual language (painting and other creative forms are not that democratic for most of us)

It started with a daguerreotype camera, commercially manufactured by Alphonse Giroux in 1839 in France. Then came the film camera by George Eastman in 1885, the kodak camera.

Enough of history on cameras… so fast forward, the arrival of the commercial digital camera in the early 1990s and finally the camera riding onto your mobile phone (a bunch of Japanese / Korean manufacturers in the early 2000s)

Before the digital camera, the analogue era of photography practice/camera ownership was limited to three categories,

1. The professionals

2. The amateurs/students of photography

3. The rich folks who could afford to buy this mysterious machine.

The rest of the masses didn’t touch it because it was too expensive or complicated to load a film, forget shutter speed/ F stop etc.

But today, we are all part of this picture-making process (each year, over a trillion images are done worldwide), All because those technical bits are not the challenge, unlike in the film days. Which also brings the democratising of this art form (art to some, photography to others)

As some would call it in the professional photo world, this disruptive tech demolished a considerable part of commercial photography. It suddenly removed that wall/barrier of tech knowledge/experience as part of the photo practice.

So, the upside, this tech arrival leads to everyone can be a photographer. You could be a physicist or a five-year-old child; taking a picture became easy. Which also brought literacy of photography, where anyone could compare their style to the other millions of images being shown/shared (social media platforms being the most significant trigger)

At the same time, the overload of images (pics, snaps in the amateur world) also created a level playing field on being a photographer. But the real challenge is how to make your pictures heard/seen which stand out in this digital noise.

The solution does not lie in carpet bombing with your camera (basically overshooting and hoping something will work out), not creating/seeing the image in the camera but on the editing table (overkill on photoshop)

So why is the history of this craft and its practitioners more relevant than ever? During the analogue/film days, you developed the image in your head and not in the tool, the non-instant gratification (shoot and look at your screen addiction of today) when one was limited with expensive film usage, the art of pause, observe, absorb, engage, and finally indulge in hitting that shutter.

The camera never made an image, but only a technically good photograph. And for an impactful or memorial image, one needs to read much deeper into that frame one is creating and not get stuck into the auto mechanics of that digital device of today.

Meanwhile, what has it done to the professional photography world? There are much more risk-taking/ experimenting individuals, and it needs severe balls of steel or power girl (figure of speech) to make a success in the biz.

Now back to the history of the camera; if you are interested in where it all started, there is one place to be. It’s the most extensive camera museum in South Asia, situated in the suburbs of Delhi (Gurgoan). It’s not only packed with thousands of cameras but has a fascinating timeline of that camera’ journey from the 1800s to date. And if you are interested in learning traditional methods of photo printmaking or newer ways of being a storyteller, there are superb workshops by experienced teachers at the museum.

More info on Museo Camera Centre for the Photographic Arts: https://www.museocamera.org/

End of the day, that camera (with its history) is just a tool, but the actual picture-making is all about what you are experiencing and the story you want to share in that two-dimensional art form

Traditional Camera- Vageshwari/early 20th century/film size 10”x12” (shot at Museo Camera)