The Sixth Sense
The Sixth Sense
This is the first of many interviews we are planning to do with photographers worldwide. We want to find out about their own projects and the role photography plays in their country.
Sutirtha Chatterjee photographed in a school for people with blindness in Kolkata, portraying its students and visualizing their dreams. We talked with him about how he arrived at the topic, his experience of translating blindness into photography and about how to fund free projects in India.
Sutirtha’s project is also our first print publication. Have a look at it here.
ueberall: Hello Sutirtha. Please introduce yourself and your work.
Sutirtha Chatterjee: I am a photographer based in Kolkata working independently on long-term photography projects. I have worked with national and regional dailies in Kolkata from 2012-2016. After completing my graduation in Journalism, I started working as a freelance sports writer and photographer with a regional daily from The Times of India group. In 2013, I was offered a job as a photojournalist in a tabloid from the ABP group where I worked till October 2016. My works have also been published in various magazines including Tasveer Journal, Curry Magazine, The Quartz and The Wire.
I gradually started losing interest in my work as a photographer for the daily because photographs are treated as evidentiary documents. I began to feel that there was no space to look into a story beneath the surface. I realized that a story cannot be told with a single photo. Stories that I covered as a journalist neither began before my eyes, nor did they end when my eyes moved on. I felt that the most honest way of representation is to stick to a story and see it through. Hence, in 2016 I decided to quit my job to focus on long-term storytelling.
Currently, I am working as an independent photographer on long-term projects. Born and raised in Kolkata, which was once the capital of the country, I have moved houses several times from a very tender age. Born of many homes, I am interested in visually exploring the themes of memories, fantasies and awareness and how these collectively construct our identity
ue: Why and how did you start this project?
SC: I was very curious about blindness from a very early age. When I was about 10 years old, I was diagnosed with colour blindness. It was and it still is difficult for me to identify certain colours. In spite of this, I felt as capable as any other child my age. During the course of an assignment for the tabloid, I learned that India is home to the world’s largest number of people with blindness and that number increases by nearly 30,000 every year. As we know in a class-divided society like ours, people with disabilities are ostracised and marginalised. They become victims of their situation, in which they had no choice. Especially in rural areas, people generally look down on the blind, denying them everyday necessities and treating them as outcasts, without regard for their intrinsic value as human beings or their individuality. With the tabloid, I was often assigned to make pictures for stories which revolved around blindness or blind schools. While shooting for these stories I realised how complex blindness is and I was drawn towards the issues associated with it. I got an opportunity to further the scope of the work in August 2015, when I was selected by the Goethe Institute for a four day workshop. For the workshop I revisited the blind school that first piqued my interest, Lighthouse for the Blind, and further explored the issues surrounding the visually impaired.
At first, these students were very sceptical about the whole idea of being photographed. It took me a lot of effort to understand their ways. They often wanted to know what I would do with the photos and often suggested that I send them to their families back in the rural villages. They were never really curious about the way they looked in the photos since they knew that they would not be able to see them. And since they have a very concrete idea of what they are doing and where they are, they could often tell what my photo showed.
I spent a couple of weeks just conversing with these students. My interactions with them encompassed a lot of areas. We often discussed sports, sometimes music and mostly food. They took me into confidence and started sharing their stories with me, hoping that these stories will be given a voice. For instance, I had a great conversation with a student named Brihaspati Mahato. Mahato is a student of arts and is keenly interested in philosophy. He explained to me how they dream and what their dreams are comprised of. This deeply affected me, and at the same time, I understood how important and critical their other senses are. He said that his dreams are mostly comprised of feelings. His memories are constructed around the sense of touch, smell and hearing. He remembers a tree by its touch and a flower by its smell. He remembers visiting a seaside in West Bengal and remembers how he felt when he got into the water for the first time. He recounted to me how he often dreams of that seaside.
ue: How did you experience working with people with blindness? Did you ever struggle with the contrast of photography as a visual medium and their inability to see?
SC: Working with the visually impaired students has been profoundly insightful for me. I realised that when visual information is absent, the scattered fragments of life are often restored in form of unique experiences. Blindness intensifies the other senses which somehow makes the simplest moments of everyday life more meaningful and vivid. The students could notice/feel things that I otherwise wouldn’t have acknowledged: the sunshine on the face, the wind in the hair. In a way, they taught me to appreciate little things that the world has to offer.
Initially, it had been a struggle to tell the stories of the visually impaired with photography, which is essentially a visual medium. I often felt that it was just an exercise of power for me because I don't have their experiences. My ability to see with my eyes gave me a privilege that made me blind to their concept of sight. How can the disenfranchised have an equal footing in the work? To tackle such contradictions, I interviewed a group of visually impaired students and talked to them about their dreams in order to understand how they perceive reality. For sighted people – like me – the reality is often understood purely through the physical act of seeing. For people without eyesight, it is understood through absence. I wanted to explore and analyze their dreams, in a quest to understand and see the nature of their reality and respond to their experiences visually. Thus, the process of collaboration with the students began, where we (the students and I) recreated some sequences from their dreams in order to inquire and understand their perception of reality.
The work has now, in a sense, moved away from documenting the lives of the students to recreating the experiences of the blind in an attempt to understand blindness as a whole. Bordering somewhere between fantasy and documentation, the work aims to challenge the role of the visual realm, the core denominator of photography, in how we receive information and know reality. Thus I want to raise the questions: Does that which we see become reality? When we are deprived of sight, do we create a different reality?
ue: Will you keep working on the project? Do you have any plans to expand it?
SC: "The Sixth Sense" is still a work in progress. The dreams of the students often tell us more about their intrinsic human values and individuality which are often disregarded. Thus, the aim of the project is to collect many such stories and share them with a wider audience. Also, I am keen on experimenting with other mediums such as sound to recreate their experiences which will give us more insight into what it feels like to be blind. It is a herculean task ahead of me and I am not sure when will this be complete.
ue: In your view, what role does photography play in Kolkata? How can you fund a free project?
SC: In Kolkata there has not been much support for independent projects. People are uninitiated about the long form of photographic storytelling. The idea of a photography as a profession is restricted to the realm of photojournalism and documentation of lifestyle. There are no galleries representing photographers, except for one – Experimenter – and there are no organisations in this region which extend financial support to photographers committed to long-term storytelling.
On the other hand, there is a lot of original and honest work happening here. In 2016 the Getty Images Instagram Grant was awarded to Ronny Sen, a photographer based in Kolkata. The Magnum Foundation's Fellowship for Social Justice was awarded to Soumya Shankar Bose, another photographer based in Kolkata. Their efforts are drawing more attention to works emerging out of this region.
There are few funding opportunities available for photographers in India. In 2016, The Alkazi Foundation introduced two yearly grants. One for documentary photography and the other for a photo book. The Umrao Singh Sher-Gil Grant for Photography gives a yearly grant to encourage independent voices in photography in India. The Toto-Tasveer Awards for Photography are given every year to two individuals between the age groups of 18-30 on projects that excel in visual storytelling. In 2017, my project The Sixth Sense was recognised by TFA and that helped me take the work forward.
The Sixth Sense is also the first of hopefully many ueberall publications.
Have a look and purchase it here.