South of Nothing | Bidoun
O Calcutta! It’s hard to know, especially if you’ve been weaned on turn-of-the-20th-century accounts of the Indian city, how to feel toward it. Pity? Fear? Macaulay thought Calcutta almost too primitive to qualify as a city, “a place of mists, alligators and wild boars.” Kipling deemed it “one of the most wicked places in the universe.” Later, documentarians and television reporters, especially those inclined to sanctify the work of Mother Teresa, portrayed Calcutta as a den of poverty and squalor, as an endless night that only the celestial light of Christianity could redeem. Leprosy and typhoid, turpitude and soul rot: if a city could be the sum of every snarling, spammy TripAdvisor review ever written, it might look like Calcutta.
At first glance, Soham Gupta’s photographs seem like more of the grotesque and gangrenous same. His is a cast (and maybe a caste) of city-dwellers — mostly men, more young than old — in various states of infirmity or distress. They wear shabby or filthy clothing. They ooze lesions or ulcers. Those that smile reveal erratic teeth. Some are disfigured by vitiligo, strabismus, or burn marks. One, almost impossible to look at for any length of time, has enormous tumors that resemble drooping testicles, a missing eye, and a clump of swellings where his mouth should be. This latter-day Elephant Man appears as a slur of facial parts.
Here is a man, naked (why?), a stump for a right hand, leaning toward the camera in a posture of permanent imploration. One man holds his penis between finger and thumb: he looks startled — is he mid-piss? Mid-wank? Here’s an older guy, crouching amid a putrefactory stretch of land rife with plastic bags, grungy cartons, and discarded food, filling his face with what might be maggots. Others exhibit enormous foreheads, mysterious smiles, eyes puffy from insect bites or alleyway brawls (or worse). Often there’s an abject androgyny at play: it can be difficult to distinguish the men from the women.
The photographs themselves do not reveal much about the circumstances of their taking. It is always night-time. There is scant backlighting. No street signs or familiar buildings to give us our bearings. No context. Most of Gupta’s subjects occupy — or are stranded in — the frame. They are alone, only tenuously connected to any nocturnal or subaltern community. (To even talk about “community” seems like a romantic projection.) They emerge from an opaque night only to return to it. A shot of a man draped in tarpaulin is ambiguous: the tarp blanket offers insulation; it also looks like a ragged coffin. The whole city has become a black studio in which Gupta’s men and women prowl and perform.
Perform? “All of these pictures are staged,” Gupta has said. I don’t know what exactly he means by “staged,” but for some the very word will set alarm bells ringing. Viewers accustomed to seeing India through a humanitarian lens will be discombobulated, perhaps even disturbed, by these photographs. They’re not exposés or cries for reform, indicting the disparity between the rich and the poor in contemporary India. Do they display a relish for the outsiderdom they capture? It’s easy enough to imagine them being attacked as hipster slumming or some kind of human ruin porn. That was a charge leveled at Iranian-Jamaican photographer Khalik Allah’s Field Niggas (2015), a film that consisted almost exclusively of close and medium shots of the prostitutes, wobbly crackheads, and aggrieved itinerants who hang around the corner of Lexington and 125th Street after midnight.
But what makes Gupta’s work so delirial and discomforting is precisely the blur of real and unreal, real and surreal, real and fantastic. His photobook Angst opens with a suite of six page-sized portraits: the first four depict a man unable to remain upright, steadily floored by exhaustion or intoxicants, at once pitiful but also — whisper it — funny in his uselessness. The sequence concludes with a young glitter-faced, sweat-panted woman, crawling on her knees, licking her arm contentedly — and then a faddishly dressed young man whose evident stupefaction may or may not derive from MDMA.
Angst is full of imagery that seems indebted to social realism and Global South reportage, but hazier and weirder. Gupta’s men and women often recall monged-out ravers, free-festival dowagers, racially indeterminate club kids. (I am reminded of Boy George, in Charles Atlas’s The Legend of Leigh Bowery, describing a particular look as “space age Paki.”) If some of his subjects seem poised between living and dying, between present and future, there are specters here, too, of the street Arabs and lodging-house outcastes of Victorian shilling-shockers and penny dreadfuls; of Hamsun and Munch and the frigid terror of Scandinavian modernity; of Tod Browning and Diane Arbus and Larry Clark and Johnny Knoxville; of the country proles wreaking vengeance on jaded urbanites in Omar Ali Khan’s Zibakhana (2007); of the Gathering of the Juggalos. In one shot, a matted-haired man, his face obscure to us, appears to be clutching an outsized doll; then a thought occurs — perhaps it’s the doll who owns the man.
“In Calcutta,” writes Gupta, “when you have nothing except frustrations within you, life makes A MASTER OF CAUSTIC HUMOR OUT OF YOU.” Gupta’s own writing appears throughout Angst, a book that aligns itself less with classic photo-textual consciousness-raisers such Jacob Riis’s How The Other Half Lives (1890), Jack London’s The People of the Abyss (1903), or James Agee & Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) than with Hubert Selby Jr.’s The Room (1971), a novel set in a prison cell and narrated by a nameless wild-tongued protagonist: “They don’t know the terrors that go through your mind as you lie there in the pit waiting for a hint of light to tell you that the night is over.” Often occupying just a fraction of the page, there are micro-vignettes, blurting poetics, sorrowful howls, gibbets of found dialogue, City of Dreadful Night reveries. Bits of the text, printed in capital letters, give off the febrile hysteria of a Chicago tabloid.
Gupta is not interested in developing sociological analyses or grand theories about Calcutta’s immiserated. From their fragmented lives, the improvisatory dances they do to get through each day, the rough-and-tumble of their neighborhoods, he fashions eerie, harrowed text–image portraits that also reflect his own concussed, free-forming inscape. Here everything — the night, its architecture, its denizens — are mutable, mutant, theatrical. Trees and bushes assume corvine shapes, slum dwellers morph into stumpy homunculi, fortified homes become Anglo-Saxon circuit boards. Night is real and night is confected. Soham Gupta is laughing and Soham Gupta is crying. Tragic laughter and bawdy tears. “WHEN LIFE’S HARD,” he writes toward the close, “TIME’S A MOTHERFUCKER.”
Calcutta Chronicles | The Hindu
Before heading to the 58th Venice Biennale, photographer Soham Gupta shares why he loves to capture the city in the dead of the night
Loneliness and decay inspire him. In 2015, when he came for the Delhi Photo Festival, photographer, writer Soham Gupta said: “Photography helps me purge all my anger and fear and anxieties, it helps me channelise euphoria as well.” Soham is one amongst 83 artists who have been chosen for the Venice Biennale by curator Ralph Rugoff. Known for his seminal work “Angst” that began in 2013 on the streets of Kolkata in the shades of the night, his essay in nocturnes is a symphony in melancholia.
His subjects are enshrouded in an impenetrable, dolorous black from the shades of night time. In 2018, Soham was selected by The British Journal of Photography as one of 16 emerging photographers from more than 500 nominations made by a global panel of experts. In the same year, his book, “Angst” published by Akina Books was shortlisted for the Les Prix du Livre: Photo and Text Book Award at Les Rencontres d'Arles and the Paris Photo - Aperture Foundation First Photobook Award.
Just before he leaves for the 58th La Biennale di Venezia, he shares his evolution with us.
We think of Kolkata as a city of vibrant and varied colour, of everyday idioms ravished in exotic hues. But Kolkata for you belongs to the darkened embers, to the dead of night; please tell us about your genesis
In 2013, I got a chance to participate in a workshop mentored by Antoine d’Agata, one of the most radical and important voices in photography today. In what seemed to be endless nights and days, he psychoanalysed me and my batch-mates by asking endless questions. At the end of the workshop, I got to learn more about myself and why I was doing what – and realised I had been unconsciously making images of people at the margins of society for years, because of my own alienation as a frail child and having experienced a turbulent time growing up. My heart howled at the sight of men and women rotting away on the streets, especially with mental illnesses – and it is often a dead-end for most – rotting away, waiting for death to come liberate them.
The cult Bengali singer-songwriter Kabir Suman, who ushered in a renaissance in modern Bengali songs in the nineties was one of the first people here to bring up a conversation and write a song about a mad, homeless man on the streets. The song is etched in my mind since a long time – and makes me uncomfortable even today.
Did dropping out of college at a difficult emotional turning point, create an alchemy of isolation?
I hated school. I never fitted in. Quite a few of them were really horrible and merciless to me – and if the circumstances had been like it is now, many could have been in trouble. But then, I don’t have a lot of regrets – the ups and downs of life mould us into who we are today, the life experiences shape us, shape our outlook, and shape what we produce. College was fun – because suddenly, there was a lot of independence to express my own views. But the baggage of my past was catching up with me – and as my back hit the wall, there was only one path left for me – photography.
Your texts for your photographs reflect you as a voracious reader. It’s almost as if you bring alive the incantations of 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire. Would you like to comment?
It is strange that you brought up Baudelaire in the conversation. I love his poetry. And it also happens that Gustave Courbet, who is one of my favourite painters (along with Goya) was loved by Baudelaire, I got to find out sometime back.
Looking at some of your portraits reminds me of “Last Exit to Brooklyn”, by Hubert Selby Jr. Do you agree that there is a similarity?
My work is marked by the same harshness, the same angst that defines Selby’s work. “Last Exit to Brooklyn” is my favourite book.
In Delhi 2015, at your exhibition you had written the words: “But our Calcutta, this crumbling city, it echoes with the cries of pain and the howls of agony, everywhere during heartbreaking winters, when the other half is having the most beautiful time of their lives.” Is Kolkata like an acrid taproot that plays out situational ironies?
Calcutta is a strange place – I don’t know where and how to begin. The opulence and the grandeur – as well as the poverty and deprivation is unlike any other place, I think I should share an anecdote with you.
When I started my journey as a photographer in 2008-09, Lightstalkers was in vogue – and the figures I looked up to in those days were mostly photojournalists, many of them working at that time in the hell-holes of Afghanistan or Iraq. On their website, Lightstalkers made possible for professionals to post updates about their whereabouts and this helped me get in close contact with many photojournalists who passed by Calcutta. The world around me changed – fresh out of school, I was haunting places frequented by the westerners in the city – from dingy, sleazy backpacker paradises to British-era boutique hotels like Fairlawn, back then run by Calcutta’s very dear Mrs. Smith, who in her heydays had hosted Dominique Lapierre, Gunter Grass, Merchant Ivory, Shashi Kapoor and the Kendalls.
I haven’t been to Fairlawn in a long while, ever since they closed the bar downstairs – but on balmy summer evenings, interesting men and women would gather for a drink – typical Graham Greene outsiders: missionaries and their volunteers, the impoverished expat, the homesick backpacker, journalists and photographers – all mingling together in the western oasis of our crumbling Calcutta.
One day, while working as a fixer and having stayed back for a drink, I overheard a most peculiar conversation going on in the next table: a group of middle-aged, affluent gentlemen were comparing experiences in the city – and then raised a toast to poverty. ‘To Calcutta! To Poverty!’ they uttered in unison.
Robert Clive, the architect of the British Empire called Calcutta, ‘the most wicked place in the universe’ and poet Rudyard Kipling named it the ‘city of dreadful night’. However, it was author Geoffrey Moorhouse, who is perhaps more accurate in his description of the city. “Very few people have said anything nice about Calcutta,” he wrote, “unless they were Bengali.”
Calcutta is my beloved city – but apart from being a criticism of the social disparity, my work “Angst” is probably one of the last works to come out of Calcutta which chronicled the effects of the man-made Bengal famine of 1943 as well as the tragic three decades of economic inertia which led to how we are today – even though the city is changing fast, as most of it gets gentrified.
Your images are soul searching–they have an insignia of isolation, of deep despair. The leper playing with his mosaic of memories as he holds on to a doll, and the Durga idol in the dump both speak to us about the decadence of man and time.
The idol in the dump is about many things. At times, religion, devotion –– they seem to be the biggest farce of all – the sight of the autistic teenager in a wheelchair smiling ahead impishly at the alter, his mother with graying hair behind him lost in prayer, the sight of the bitch carrying in her mouth, the limp body of her dead puppy, the sight of endless streams of urine flowing through the gutters, and on its slimy surface, the reflection of the moon – and you end up disowning god in anger.
The leper is a symbol from society but an outcast too. This is about the inward trance of isolation and the acceptance of a life of utter despair .When life’s hard, time’s going slow – the harder it gets, the slower it ticks – until one day, suddenly, it stops ticking altogether, when tears dry up, when hope, like god, is nowhere to be seen, when the numb body can feel burning agony no more, when the body is an empty shell breathing; that’s when madness overcomes you, that’s when you grow wise, that’s when suddenly you forget, that death comes as the end – and unexpectedly, hope rushes to you – on littered streets and stinking fly-buzzing dustbins, on a winter night’s brutal rainfall or a summer afternoon’s flaming streets, when dogs lose their bark and thirsty crows maddeningly search for a drop of water – and – bored folks in the backseat of their air-conditioned cars gaze at you, wondering why such a filthy rotting beast like you is giggling in happiness by the roadside, laugh at the unreasonableness of madness, failing to realize it’s necessity for you to keep living on until the municipality folks on a foggy dawn find you lifeless, clean up the body, cleansing the city’s soul.
(The Venice Biennale has three Indian artists in its exposition - Shilpa Gupta, Gauri Gill and Soham Gupta)
Best Books of 2018
Selection by Dewi Lewis
As a publisher, I often come across books I admire, but only occasionally ones that I also wish I’d published. Soham Gupta’s Angst is certainly one of those. It’s not an easy book. Its focus is night time on the back streets of Calcutta, its subjects largely people whose lives are broken — people on the edge, the poor, the disfigured, the mentally disturbed — people living in a shadow world so very different to our own. But Gupta is no voyeur, he is a storyteller who offers up a bitter mix of anger at what he encounters and sensitivity in how he portrays it. Alongside the photographs, he weaves sharply crafted stories of the street that add to the layered sense of place within which the book operates. For me this a work of great honesty and resonance.
The PhotoBook Review
Fall 2018 | Aperture Foundation
In Soham Gupta’s Angst, a collection of fragmented stories runs alongside a series of startling photographs shot in the deep night of Calcutta, India. Lovers, club kids, naked mendicants, and taxi drivers are swaddled in darkness, isolated from contextualizing details as they slump, crawl, and dance through the night. Occasionally, a gnarled tree, a fragment of architecture, or a tangle of bushes places the subjects physically on the margins of both Calcutta’s cityscape and society. The staccato, poetic texts serve, in part, as a guide to the various characters and magical scenes encountered – a fitting proxy, for Gupta, who has often served As a fixer for Western photographers and journalists. “You stumble into prohibited parts of public space one might never enter otherwise,” Yasufumi Nakamori, the newly appointed senior curator of international art at Tate Modern, London, says. “The images are raw and shocking, as the book guides the viewer through Calcutta’s darkness.
"MOULTING SKIN, GROWING HANDS"
Photography is borrowing from sculpture, painting, fiction and cinema to create an expanded field. Shweta Upadhyay reports about contemporary Indian photographers and their new interventions.
…This shift towards self-reflection is also evident in Soham Gupta’s Angst. Gupta’s subjects are the nocturnal, shadowy figures of Kolkata streets, a topic that might seem like a done-to-death cliché, but is salvaged by Gupta’s execution and style. Gupta uses staged photography and biographical accounts of these people, which allow expressive agency and voice to powerless people, even though some accounts of domestic abuse, sexual harassment and madness are harrowing. In the performative portraits, the body of the subjects is the context, the field and the screen. The city recedes in the night in these close-ups; this visual device insinuates that the world is inhospitable and for these marginals, their bodies are their only home. Angst comprises decayed bodies, deformed bodies, pulverized bodies, disease-ridden bodies, grotesque bodies, bodies making subversive gestures and idiosyncratic moves, kissing bodies, naked bodies, desiring bodies in a state of abandon. These unbridled bodies that are marked by eros and violence are the detritus of society, misfits beyond rehabilitation, and evoke disgust, forbidden desire, visceral shock and nightmares of self-transmogrification. “Like the hunchback in Victor Hugo’s novel, these characters are repulsive as well as humane, and are meant to evoke extreme reactions,” says Gupta.
He calls these vignettes of love and squalor as self-reflective. For Gupta, the place is as much Kolkata as a fictive hellhole fermenting in the dark pit of his inner world; these figures are real as well as projections of his subconscious. While viewing these abject and obscene elements, a psychological tension is built. Since these bodies are inescapable, the viewer is forced to look at and through the various perforations of these bodies, as well as to confront the overlooked dingy corners of their own self and the world. One photograph that punctuates the series of portraits is of a huge, hoary house besieged by ivy and with a pool of collected water outside its entrance. Looking at it, you intuit that it is not a house but a person packed with covert ghosts and demons, reminiscent of a quote by writer Hilda Doolittle in Tribute to Freud, “We are all haunted houses.”
This new way of looking and representing has dramatically changed the photography scene in India. Indian photographers are staking a claim in the international photography world on an equal footing. It is evident from the outcomes of several international competitions and awards. You will find at least one Indian photographer, if not two, shortlisted in every competition. Last year, Dayanita Singh won the Paris Photobook Award. This year, Sohrab Hura’s book Look It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!! was shortlisted in the Photobook of the Year category and Soham Gupta’s Angst was shortlisted in the First Photobook category in Paris Photobook Award. The Steidl Verlag award went to Indian photographer Tenzing Dakpa this year for his book The Hotel. The Invisible photography award in the Art Category also went to an Indian photographer.
The photograph is moulting skin, growing hands that borrow from other sources. Many photographers, as a creative method, are turning inwards and are striving not for the real but for something ephemeral and ungraspable that is beyond the image. The chosen subjects have shifted from the streets and the outer world to the private domain…
OUR CALCUTTA, THIS CRUMBLING CITY,
IT ECHOES WITH
CRIES OF PAIN AND HOWLS OF AGONY...
It is a lament of despair that is heavy with the burden of multitudinous individual anguishes—each heaped above the next—amounting to an almighty collective wail. The wracked city of Calcutta contains these cries, emits these cries, and fundamentally is these cries. Journeying into the nocturnal world of this forgotten land and its forgotten people—among them drug-addicts, prostitutes, vagrants, street-entertainers and the mentally-deranged—Soham Gupta, in his acclaimed book ANGST (Akina Books, 2018), chronicles the bleak and disturbed existence of those dwelling on the margins of society through a haunting collection of portraits and short-stories. Yet, as much as Gupta’s work ventures into the peripheries, the faraway shadows of an abandoned, and almost-timeless, place, it ultimately transcends them. Far more than a documentation of a city and its people, at its heart, it serves as an expression of a psychological state, rooted in something more essential and nuclear.
With the night pervading, ubiquitous and a seemingly infinite phantom throughout Gupta’s work, it acts metaphorically for the unconscious, the vast abyss that harbours one’s innermost fears. As we descend ever-deeper into its darkness, encountering the myriads of its peripheral souls, weary from their anxieties of scarred pasts and uncertain futures, we thus find ourselves falling further into the depths of Gupta’s very own psyche. In the very Nietzschean sense, Gupta’s gaze into the abyss inverts, ineluctably transforming into an introspective gaze into his own abyss. Himself a victim of depression, physical and sexual abuse and crippling asthmatic attacks which plagued his childhood, Gupta is no stranger to the torments of isolation, non-belonging and vulnerability. Embedded with these latent traumas, each portrait thereby functions as a projection of his own experiences of existential angst.
The images are collaborative in nature, the result of intimate interactions in which Gupta and his subjects would confide in one another, exchanging stories of regrets, fears, hopes and dreams. In one affecting moment, he recalls “Raju, a heroin addict, who proffered a syringe as a token of generosity. He said it was all he could give me.” It is Gupta’s very humane approach that rejects any criticisms that the images may be in any way exploitative or voyeuristic in nature. Like Seiji Kurata was when documenting the underground world of Ikebukuro’s misfits, in Gupta, we find a man bearing an instinctive affinity with those existing on the margins of society. He walks with and amongst them, identifying with their pains and their longings. “THIS CITY OF OURS/ CALCUTTA…”, he begins to ruminate, a poignant, albeit elegiac, affirmation of the community in which he was born out of, and will always remain.
Broadly, ANGST raises questions about social morality and Darwinian capitalism, in turn critiquing a severe and unforgiving society in which the weakest and most vulnerable are neglected. More at its heart, it is a very personal reckoning with a place and its people, and fundamentally a manifestation of one’s ineffable feelings towards it. Oscillating between his despair of the city’s horrors and his unconditional love for its people, we feel Gupta wrestling with its extremes in something akin to a strained love affair with Calcutta—in his own words—his “muse”. Perhaps this serves as the overarching anxiety of Gupta’s work—the struggle to marry, let alone comprehend, these conflicting sentiments. “After all, this bitter place you see remains with me wherever I go. It is indelible. I will never get Calcutta out of my system.”
Here is a sense of entrapment that permeates Gupta’s work. As the “[ECHOING] CRIES OF PAIN AND HOWLS OF AGONY” remind us, for all its seemingly infinite anguishes, what we have witnessed is a space of confined perimeters, with no exit in sight. The groans reverberate, rebound and compound within the city’s four-walls, a hellish chamber devoid of even the slightest glimmer of light. For its inhabitants, it is the only reality they know, and perhaps the only reality they will ever know. They just go on living, lurking beneath the shadows, invisible to the rest… As Hubert Selby Jr. wrote in The Room (1971): “They don’t know the terrors that go through your mind as you lie there in the pit waiting for a hint of light to tell you that the night is over."
“Photography was the easiest part – what gnawed at my soul were the stories I heard and the things I witnessed,” says photographer Soham Gupta. His book Angst is not an easy read but you can’t bring yourself to stop going from one page to the next. His photographs are accompanied by short narratives and together they speak of a reality that many of us prefer to stay oblivious to. Here, we see the people that live on the margins of society. Those that we prefer to keep out of our periphery vision, literally and metaphorically. In this poignant series, he captures the poorest of the poor in Calcutta – the homeless, destitute, vagrants and wanderers in the dead of night.
It was between 2009-2011 that Gupta was working on a series of portraits of drug addicts and the down-and-out that would take shelter under the Howrah Bridge in Calcutta. Building on it on and off, it was then in 2013 that it became taking shape into the collection that Angst is today.
There is a sense of melancholia that seeps through each photograph and line of text in Angst. The visuals are unforgettable with a kind of nightmarish quality that makes you introspective in a way, taking you on quite a whirlwind of a journey with snippets and fragments of other people’s lives and experiences, interspersed with flashes of beautiful, yet haunting photographs. Many that become the muses of his lens are people Gupta says he knew from before, though he is always on the lookout for ‘characters’ and people he can work with. “I’d been offered a syringe by a drug user once, who said, ‘This is all I can give you!’ I am not judgemental, I don’t believe in morality or any of that crap, so, people find it easy to bond with me. Moreover, I am still very vulnerable; people can sense that I think,” he tells me.
Going through the series, you can see the ease of some of the people being photographed in front of Gupta, but I can’t imagine it being a simple interaction and making of photographs. Gupta does this with a kind of authenticity that makes people more than photography subjects. The accompanying narratives are written by Gupta himself, all stemming from his field-notes. He keeps a journal of his experiences, weaving them into tales that are real, yet fictional – making his work take on an almost surreal detail of a dream.
You’re a voyeur in this dark world of Angst, with the mystery of the night and shadows as your backdrop. “The night symbolises Hell,” Gupta says simply, “I want Angst to stand as testimony to the requiem of countless dreams in a metropolis, even as it is a record of my own angst-ridden youth.”
Angst, published by Akina Books, was shortlisted for the Photo and Text Book Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles in July and for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation First Photobook Award. Gupta tells me that people have either loved Angst or hated it, and he likes it that way. For this writer, Angst is an experience worth taking and a book that needs a spot in your collection. Though the standard edition of the book is currently sold out, a second edition is in the works for 2019.
A troubled childhood and the artist’s struggles in finding his own place in society lie at the inspirational heart of the Angst series by the young Indian photographer Soham Gupta. The multi-year project was shot entirely at night on the dark streets of Calcutta, where Gupta documented the less fortunate and most vulnerable inhabitants of the city – the outcasts, the junkies, the lepers, the insane, and the prostitutes. Tagging along on his nocturnal wanderings is a rather uncomfortable process.
“It’s very performative in nature. All of these pictures are staged”, says Gupta about his photographs. Usually he photographs people with whom he feels some emotional connection, taking his time to build relationships with his potential subjects. He listens to their harsh stories of sexual harassment, madness, domestic abuse, running away, and hunger, often while sharing some jokes and a bite to eat. Out of these experiences and observations come written notes, which he then uses as the raw material for fictional writings. And later when he feels the moment is right, he takes the flash lit portraits, which he sees as a wholly collaborative process.
The series was recently published as a photobook by Akina, after its first dummy had been produced during publisher’s workshop in Kathmandu. With its thoughtful design and smart production choices, Angst stands out from the usual crowd of photobooks. The cover depicts a couple in a tender kiss shot against complete darkness, as the title of the book is split in two vertical lines over the image. The dark images on the endpapers are a clever device used to force our eyes to adjust to the book’s enveloping darkness, featuring what looks like an old building wired by branches of trees – as our eyes recalibrate, more details become visible. The title of the book then appears again with one massive letter per page, the bold graphic design amplifying its presence. The book opens flat, and the strong smell of ink adds to its overall sensory experience. And a quote from Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel The Room hints at Gupta’s inspiration: “They don’t know the terrors that go through your mind as you lie there in the pit wailing for a hint of light to tell you that the night is over.”
Shot at night, the portraits slowly come forth from the darkness, and the light on the faces creates a theatrical effect. The book opens with the sequence of photographs capturing a man in slightly different poses as he lays on the ground, and few spreads further, shots of the expressive face of another man, as he make gestures with his arms. These images evoke a sense of vulnerability, madness, and quiet helplessness. A photo of a woman on the ground follows: as she turns her head, we see that her face is painted gold, as she touches her arm with her tongue, adding a performative element to the scene. A few spreads later, a woman in a pink head scarf holding a stick falls deep into her own thoughts, her eyes closed and her mouth slightly open. Gupta’s subjects often look straight into the camera, with confidence or curiosity, its presence seemingly comfortable.
As the portraits pile up – a boy covered in white fabric, a naked man with amputated right hand, a smiling man holding two bunches of flowers, a woman holding a baby, a man sitting on a pile of a rubbish dump picking food – a heavy sense of loneliness and isolation takes hold, yet there are also moments of people smiling, dancing and hugging. A shot of two older men caught in a friendly hug is warm and tender.
Gupta’s writings appear throughout the book, setting the atmosphere and adding further layers of meaning. These texts (usually taking up no more than third of a page) first grab our attention with the playful use of typography, via eye catching arranged paragraphs, and capitalized and bolded words. The mix of observations and stories is at once brutal and poetic: a driver of a fancy car crashes in a poor neighborhood and gets lynched by an angry mob; a parking-fee collector who always greets Gupta with a smile talks about his routine and sharing his dreams; prostitutes wait patiently for clients; a young woman dances wildly to the song played on a mobile phone. Gupta also notes that “in Calcutta, when you have nothing except frustrations within you, life makes a master of caustic humor out of you”. These vignettes, mixed with striking and sometimes unsettling portraits, present a despairing slice of life in Calcutta.
One section of the book alternates texts and sets of full bleed black and white images printed on different paper stock. It is almost impossible not to stare at some of these arresting and often visually disturbing portraits. One shot captures a young girl with her tongue out and her eyes wide open. Another is of a man disfigured by neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition which forms tumors on his face, making it look as if his face is melting; while a black scarf covers part of his head and as he looks straight at the camera, there is deep sense of loneliness and vulnerability in the portrait.
Across the history of the medium, odd-looking outcasts and socially transgressive people have always attracted the attention of photographers. From the forbidden Parisian life of Brassaï and the American freaks and marginalised communities of Diane Arbus to the circus dwarf of Bruce Davidson and the intrusive portraits of Bruce Gilden, the lives of others, especially when they lie outside cultural and societal norms, have offered opportunities to examine how we define ourselves and others. Gupta’s photographs also bring to mind the harsh but incredibly personal and soulful portraits by Anders Petersen.
As Gupta captures his ghostly figures, he avoids the trap of harmful exploitation by building an honest and compassionate dialogue with his subjects, treating their fears and vulnerabilities with a sense of measured respect and grace. Gupta writes that “deep within Angst runs my anger, my frustrations, my hatred for a world in which there is no place for the weak, where weaklings are left to rot”, and we feel this strong empathy in his photographs. His provocative pictures arouse reflected feelings of human connection and community, rather than the look-at-this separation and isolation we might have expected. As a photobook, Angst is a well-conceived and thoughtfully produced object, with photographs and texts that are interwoven via a mindful editing process deeply rooted in Gupta’s engaged position. It stands as a solid contender for 2018 Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation First PhotoBook Award.
LA PEUR AU VENTRE DE SOHAM GUPTA
Le projet de livre s’était déjà fait remarquer en 2017 au Cosmos Arles Books. Angst de Soham Gupta avait été récompensé du premier prix dans sa version PDF. Le voilà maintenant en dur, publié par Akina Books et en lice pour le Paris Photo - Aperture Foundation First Photobook Award. Le livre est malheureusement déjà épuisé, mais l’éditeur en conserve quelques exemplaires qu’il mettra en vente pendant Paris Photo. Une nouvelle édition est prévue pour 2019.
Né en 1988 en Inde et basé à Calcutta, Soham Gupta s’intéresse, comme le dit son site, «aux thèmes de la solitude et de l’isolement, des abus et de la douleur, des passés cabossés et des avenirs incertains, des tensions sexuelles et des dilemmes existentiels». Lui-même a un «passé de merde», nous confie-t-il, c’est pourquoi il regarde les autres avec empathie : «J’ai toujours été un outsider, voilà pourquoi je photographie les marginaux.» Pour Angst, Soham Gupta a déambulé la nuit dans les rues de Calcutta (et ailleurs en Inde) pour des rencontres impromptues. Alors que le pays avance sans regarder ses pauvres, le photographe fait face aux délaissés, aux fous, aux marginaux, après un temps d’échange nécessaire. Ce travail lui a pris plusieurs années.
Comme partout dans le monde, en Inde, «les pauvres sont toujours plus pauvres et les riches de plus en plus riches», constate le photographe. Mais surtout, le système de castes est encore vivace. Et les Indiens sont aussi racistes que par le passé, remarque Soham Gupta. Il rappelle que la question des intouchables remonte aux débuts de l’hindouisme quand les peuples du sud de l’Inde étaient caricaturés en singes ou démons. «C’est un fait que ceux qui ont été opprimés pendant des milliers d’années doivent encore aujourd’hui faire face à des luttes socio-économiques : les gens continuent à plonger dans la merde pour nettoyer le système d’épuration – et tombent malades ou meurent.» Toutes les personnes du livre Angst ne sont pas forcément des intouchables mais ce système de discrimination sociale est à la base des inégalités, reconnaît le photographe.
Si le système ancestral d’organisation sociale est à la base des injustices, Soham Gupta évoque aussi le passé colonial : «Le pillage et le vol que nous avons connus parce que nous sommes une colonie sont aussi une raison pour laquelle nous sommes dans un état aussi pathétique – qui peut oublier la famine au Bengale en 1943 ?»
Au fond, Soham Gupta photographie des personnes qui lui ressemblent. En proie à de violentes crises d’asthme pendant l’enfance, le photographe a grandi dans l’angoisse de l’étouffement. «Au plus profond d’Angst se cache ma colère, mes frustrations, ma haine pour un monde dans lequel il n’y a pas de place pour les faibles, où les faibles sont laissés pour compte.»
Précisons que Soham Gupta est passé par une résidence à Niort, en France, où il a réalisé «l’Appel du vide», une série de nus avec les habitants de la région. Ces portraits sombres traduisent une grande fragilité. «La vulnérabilité et l’insécurité sont au cœur de mon travail.» Tous ses modèles sont désormais des amis.
De la nuit comme fond de studio, Soham Gupta fait émerger une procession à l’extrême du dénuement et de la décrépitude, Angst, l’image fixée de sa propre angoisse.
Où en es-tu avec la nuit?
La nuit, pour moi, est la toile de fond sur laquelle se déroulent tous les drames que je reporte dans mon travail : la jubilation, les tensions, les anxiétés, la confrontation de la vie et de la mort, la violence, la décrépitude et également l’espoir. Mon travail traite d’une cour des Miracles. La nuit, d’une manière ou d’une autre symbolise ça.
Les personnes que tu photographies sont des exclus vivant aux marges de Kolkata, ta ville. Il ne semble toutefois par y avoir d’implication sociale dans le regard que tu portes. Que veux tu partager avec nous, les spectateurs?
Tous mes modèles sont des personnages, et avec eux, je vise à créer un Disneyland sombre de ma façon, où ces personnages comme sortis de mon imagination chancellent et se pâment, se confient et avouent, se font l’amour les uns les autres et se jouent de tout le reste, aspirant à quelque chose comme un Quasimodo de Hugo ou un Tralala de Selby qui n’en finirait pas.
Angst évoque une multitude de contes entrecroisés qui auraient mal tourné. Connais-tu les histoires derrière les modèles?
Je connais d’innombrables histoires de personnes dont les rêves de grande ville ont tourné à l’aigre – Je connais cette mendiante musulmane qui doit faire face à l’hostilité quotidienne des mendiants hindous parce qu’elle vient faire la manche aux abords du temple en portant un médaillon de la déesse Kali pour faire croire qu’elle est hindoue. Je connais des femmes qui ont cédé leurs enfants pour de l’argent. Je connais des personnes qui ont subi la violence dans leur domicile, et qui se retrouvent maintenant à la rue, des malades mentaux, terriblement vulnérables, attendant que la mort les libèrent.
Cette confrontation avec la nuit et les marges de ta cité ont-elles été un exutoire à ta propre angoisse?
Je m’identifie avec les personnes dont je fais le portrait à cause de ma propre aliénation en tant qu’enfant-malade-chronique et adulte se cabrant contre un certaines attentes au niveau social. Mais cette confrontation m’a-t-elle aidée ? Je ne sais vraiment pas… J’ai été, de temps en temps, profondement affecté par la pure brutalité des choses dont j’ai été témoin. Mais encore une foi, cela m’a-t-il changé en tant que personne ? Je porte peut-être un regard plus cynique sur beaucoup de choses de la vie. L’optimisme de la jeunesse n’est plus, couvert comme une chape par ces 5 années passées à travailler sur Angst.
Tu te réfères souvent à Hubert Selby Jr., en quoi te sens-tu proche de son monde? Et quelle musique ou fond sonore pourrait accompagner ta galerie de portraits?
Je pense que la nauséabonde crudité qui émane de Requiem for a Dream ou de Last Exit to Brooklin n’est pas très différente du taudis impitoyable que décrit mon travail.
Quand à la musique, je suis sur le point d’enregistrer ces chansons obsédante d’une clocharde alcoolique que j’écoutais souvent il y a quelques temps. Elle est toujours là. Il faut juste que j’y retourne et enregistre ses chansons.
Que viendra après Angst?
Je travaille sur une série qui traite de mon environnement proche; on verra la forme que ça prendra…
The British Journal of Photography
ONES TO WATCH 2018
The “fictive hellhole” of Soham Gupta’s series Angst makes for challenging viewing. Since 2013, with the night as his backdrop, the 29-year-old has been creating a haunting constellation of portraits of those living at the margins of Calcutta society. Drawing on a troubled youth spent struggling with societal expectations, Angst is a despairing, personal reckoning with a world in which the weakest and most vulnerable are neglected.
The project started following a workshop with Antoine d’Agata and Sohrab Hura (a Ones To Watch in 2011) in Cambodia, where Gupta was encouraged to move away from his background in photojournalism and build on his innate interest in loneliness and vulnerability. Setting out on his own nocturnal journey through the streets of his hometown, Gupta began photographing and writing short fictional texts about the people he encountered. After instigating conversation, he would then collaborate with them to create a portrait. “It’s very performative in nature. All of these pictures are staged,” he says. “I’m creating this thing that isn’t just mine; it’s also of the people that I’m photographing.” In both text and image, there is a tenderness towards these night-dwellers that lies beneath the brutal testimony of their circumstances. Though stripped of context, the complex dynamics and many layers of Gupta’s self-described “muse”, Calcutta – the “crumbing city” that Angst grows from – are ever-present.
Constantly learning from his day job as a fixer and translator for photographers visiting Calcutta, Gupta counts personal hero Don McCullin as an admirer, and his brooding vision has made an impact both at home and abroad. Angst was exhibited at JaipurPhoto 2018 and will be shown this month at Influences photography festival in Beaucouzé, France. Winner of the Cosmos PDF Award 2017, it will also be published by Akina Booksand launched in Arles this summer. Nominator Erik Vroons, editor of GUP magazine, says, “Normally I’m not in favour of photographers encountering people who live in the shadow side of our world as they never asked to be brought to bright exposure. But in Soham I recognised someone who somehow is not a complete outsider. Like Bruce Gilden never was when shoving his camera in people’s faces in New York. Being there among these strangers is what defines his own being.”
Gupta is now working on translating his intimate exploration of vulnerability to other contexts. L’appel du Vide is a series of nudes he created in collaboration with residents of Niort, France, during a 2016 residency. Meanwhile, in his latest project, The Prophecy, he turns inwards, focusing on his own solitude.
Los Angeles Review of Books
One thinks of India as a land of vibrant and varied color, of tile and textiles in everyday life that ravish with the most exotic hues. But Soham Gupta decided early on, when he dropped out of college at a difficult emotional turning point, that he would shoot exclusively in stark black-and-white. His subject became the unfortunate denizens of Calcutta’s meaner streets — prostitutes, junkies, lepers, the insane — whom he cajoled and befriended enough to gain their acceptance, and even their collaboration. Gupta’s nocturnal series, Angst, enshrouded them in an impenetrable, dolorous black from which they seemed to emerge as if from the photographer’s own imagination. The play of harsh light on their bodies and faces creates a theatrical atmosphere that almost redeems their deprivations and the pitiless blight of Calcutta. They are disturbing portraits, some difficult to look at without cringing (particularly that of a man so disfigured by a genetic condition called neurofibromatosis that his face sags pendulously down to his chest as if melting). But Gupta’s unflinching capture of the city’s underbelly is an artistic coup that manages to appear brave and sympathetic, not exploitive. He insists that these ghostly figures are beautiful to him, and it’s not hard to believe it’s true because of his own past alienation as a frail child. In some ineffable way, he identifies with them.
The title of Gupta’s self-published book, Diary/Fiction, reveals his aim — to entwine the hellish scenes he encounters on his nightly rambles with his own inventions. Like characters in a Beckett play, the people that lurch and swoon in front of his camera seem to peer out from an absurd world in utter resignation, neither defeated nor saved. Though the series is ultimately a critique of the vast disparity between the wealthy class and those barely surviving, living side by side in an extremely congested urban grid, it is also a vivid reckoning of just how many shades of humanity exist in the lower depths. One might guess that Gupta had been inspired by, say, Diane Arbus in his choice of marginalized human oddities. In fact, he was incited far more by a book — Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby Jr. “I think my work has the same harshness and cruelty that characterizes his writing.”
A passage from Gupta’s book, mounted at the entrance to the exhibition of Angst seen at the Delhi Photo Festival, attests to his own acrid literary taproot:
But our Calcutta, this crumbling city, it echoes with the cries of pain and the howls of agony, everywhere during heartbreaking winters, when the other half is having the most beautiful time of their lives. You just got to lend your ears to those silent cries, whether in the depths of the neighborhood garbage vat, by the trapped soul of the stinking dead cat and the unconscious mad man, flies buzzing around them, or in that country liquor bar buzzing with the grumbles of impoverished melancholy drunkards […]. The city, like that forgotten pot of tea, feels so bitter the tea-leaves resting in the teapot’s womb — like your love for Calcutta — responsible for all the bitterness.
La Nouvelle République
C'est un garçon incroyable. Frontal. 28 ans, une intelligence rare qui affleure dès les premiers mots : « Je veux produire beaucoup, beaucoup, beaucoup parce que je veux avoir plus tard le regard le plus large possible sur les années de ma jeunesse ».
La détermination rivée à la flamme de son regard, Soham Gupta écrase la vérité à grands coups de flash. Visible à l'espace Michelet, sa série sur les pauvres de Calcutta, rencontrés au plus près dans un parc de sa ville natale, résume on ne peut mieux son travail. Qu'elle soit lépreuse et difforme, d'une tristesse abyssale ou aux confins de la folie, la vérité inonde ses portraits. Ce qui change fondamentalement des images déjà vues sur le sujet, c'est son aptitude à exprimer le réel sans verser dans le pathos du misérabilisme. L'image est là, telle quelle, il la livre à la liberté de chacun avec une sagesse impressionnante pour un petit bonhomme d'à peine 30 ans. « C'est mon langage. Sans doute une façon radicale d'exprimer ma propre colère ou ma frustration. Un peu comme ces femmes russes qui montrent leurs seins pour se faire entendre ».
" Une célébration du corps "
La nudité, c'est d'ailleurs le thème qu'il a choisi à Niort. Une première. A mille lieues des codes pudiques de sa culture, ce qui a été un choc pour lui. Des Niortais se prêtent au jeu. La vérité est là, nue, de pied en cape face à l'objectif. « Je ne cherche pas à prendre de jolies photos, des choses typiques. C'est une célébration du corps tel qu'il est, dans le plus grand respect de ses imperfections », lâche-t-il. Là non plus, aucune ambiguïté. Pas une once d'érotisme ni de chemins tordus.
Il avait découvert la photo en 2005 avec le boîtier d'anniversaire de son père. Il s'y est mis sérieusement depuis 2009. « Une façon d'évacuer les choses négatives et d'être plus heureux avec moi-même », confie le diplômé en journalisme.
La Nouvelle République
Sébastien Acker | Translated by Paul Muse
He is an amazing boy. Up-front, 28 years old, with a rare intelligence that is revealed as of his opening words: ‘ I want to produce lots and lots and lots of work because I want to have later the broadest possible view of the years of my youth.’
With determination shining in his eyes, Soham Gupta pins down truth in sudden bright flashes. On show at Espace Michelet, his series on the downtrodden of Calcutta, met up close in his hometown, sums up his work better than any other could. Whether of people suffering from leprosy and misshapen, of abysmal sadness or on the edge of madness, his portraits are brimming with truth. What is essentially different from other such images is the author’s ability to express the subject’s squalid reality while not falling into pathos. The image is there, as is, and he delivers it for everyone’s free interpretation with wisdom that is impressive in a young man of almost thirty. ‘It’s my language, no doubt a radical way of expressing my own anger or frustration. A bit like those Russian women who show their breasts to be heard.’
A CELEBRATION OF THE BODY
Nudity, as it happens, is the theme he chose to explore in Niort. A first. A far cry from the modest codes of his culture, and a shock for him. As it turns out, the people of Niort play the game. The truth is there, from head to toe, facing the camera.
‘I am not trying to take pretty pictures, typical things. It is the celebration of the body as it is, in utmost respect for its imperfections,’ he says. Here again, no ambiguity. Not an ounce of eroticism or twisted motives.
He first discovered photography in 2005, using his father’s birthday camera. He has been working on it seriously since 2009. ‘A way of evacuating the negative feelings and being happier with myself,’ says the journalism graduate.