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.