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.
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.