subject / predicate
Exile in Calcutta : Reconnaissance of Displacement by Thomas Meyer
In 1947, the Border Commission drew a random line across the Bengal; even villages were cut in two. The Hindu-majority west remained a part of India. The Muslim populated east became part of Pakistan and later Bangladesh. Millions of people fled from wars, unrest, and poverty to the other half of Bengal. Calcutta (now, Kolkata) was shaped like no other city by this stream of migration, which has lasted to this day. Almost thirty percent of its inhabitants come from Bangladesh.
In his series Exile in Calcutta, Thomas Meyer shows us 18 environmental portraits of people living in Calcutta, whose roots belong to the present territory of Bangladesh. The individuals talk of what Calcutta means to them, their old and new homes, the possible trauma of being rendered homeless and making their way into a new environment. In doing so, they form a patchwork quilt of the modern experience of surviving as refugees. The Portraits are accompanied by some urban landscapes from Calcutta.
Thomas Meyer is a Berlin based photographer, who works for various international publications. He is a member of OSTKREUZ-Agentur der Fotografen and lecturer at the OSTKREUZSCHULE-School for Photography. He also taught photography at the HTW, Hochschule ftir Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin (University of Applied Sciences). He studied at the School of Art in Bremen and has been part of the Master’s class of Arno Fischer in 2007. Thomas answers five questions from Mustafa Zaman.
1. Talking about environmental portraiture at the inauguration Shahidul Alam mentioned that the genre lends more 'agency' to the person being photographed. How is it different from all other portraitures – if one sets aside those that are candidly captured without the consent of the people being photographed?
To be honest, I don’t think it’s like that. It all depends on what you want to tell. I also do classic American portraiture and sometimes even opt for shots that are closer. But with this project, I wanted to tell something about the environment the persons have to deal with on a daily basis. Showing people in their own surroundings tells something about their social status and about their lives. I didn't know much about these people before I met them and did the interviews. It would be ridiculous to try to capture their 'soul' or the 'essence'. It is just a project where I staged people with a story, in one of their habitats. But this has a documentary value and the way I did it, I think, also brings into view an aesthetical aspect.
2. I am sure there is more than just eliciting consent from the sitter involved in the making of an environmental portraiture. I would like to have your account on the aesthetical and ethical aspects of this genre.
You have to deal with the location; light being an important component you need to decide where and how you would stage the person. But these are mostly aesthetical and technical aspects. For me it was also really important to treat each person the same way, no matter what their social status is or was, I was keen to portray their dignity. Of course they are staged, but without any exaggeration which might have affected their representation.
3. The story telling facilitated by your works needs textual accompaniment. Without the help of the story told in language one cannot imagine the humanity of the sitter in your recent series. These pictures surely are not based on a traditional concept of photography. Do you look at this framework as an extension of the conventional idea of the singular image telling a story?
Most documentary photography genres need at least some captions for the audience to understand the whole story. But you are right, without the short statements the project wouldn't work the way it does. It is really important to have these statements with the pictures, because then you get the idea of what it is about as well as the whole humanity aspect to be transmitted. As the history of these people cannot be extracted from the images alone, the texts help in getting the contexts. Together they bring the story to a new level. That is why I did interviews with these people, and some even lasted for more than an hour as I attempted to extract the sentences which I thought adequately threw light on the subject.
As I come from editorial photography, most of my assignments are combinations of pictures by me and text written by journalists, for me this seems like a 'traditional' way of photographing people. I never worked according to a concept of singular pictures telling the whole story…
4. If this is the new documentary genre, please tell us when and how you got involved in it and what is it that makes you keep working along this representational technique?
For me this is not 'the' new documentary genre. I know quite a lot of projects which use this method. But anyway, with this project, I had to find a solution to achieve all the aspects written above in each single work.
5. Exile in Calcutta tackles the subject of displacement –which for you is an imported point of entry into people's lives, do you think that the sense of loss and longing that your works bring to the fore, will have people rethink their political allegiance to forces responsible for placing borders as macro-level solution to micro-level problems? In short, what social impact do you think they will have on the Bengalis divided along faith, not to mention other chasms caused by class and gender?
It was my first time in India and I was really interested in the people, how they live their lives and what their stories of displacement are. Because displacement is a worldwide phenomenon since earliest human history and my work Exile in Calcutta is just an example of that. I know that it has a political and religious aspect to it, but I tried to keep it as personal as possible. It is not meant to be polarizing or divisive, but more inclined to understanding the fact that behind every displaced person there is a history – some are tragic, some are not so tragic.
I don’t think this work will have any impact on Bengalis in general. But maybe, a few people will become aware of what displacement can mean and, in the process, sympathize with them and understand their common past.