Christopher Pinney in conversation with Ronny Sen on his photographic engagement with the coal mining region of Jharia, Jharkhand.
Christopher Pinney (CP): We thought it might make sense to kick off with a few what I think of as “ethnographic” or “anthropological” questions because there is quite a lot about the current show and the Jharia images that puzzles me, and I want to know more about their making.
My first question to you is how did you come to be in this place? What took you there? What conversations, commissions, indications did you have from people, to what extent are those all your companions? Also, how long you were there, where you were staying, what your routine is. I see this as very much an ethnographic project and what I’m very keen to know is what kind of an ethnography was involved in producing this amazing body of work.
Ronny Sen (RS): I always knew about Jharia. I knew it mostly from various photographic works. I knew that there was a fire there which has been burning for the last hundred years. But I went there mostly as a producer for these two French filmmakers Tiane Doan Na Champassak and Jean Dubrel, who were making a film for France 5, which is the government television channel in France, like Doordarshan our state broadcaster. I was with them for three months. Initially, I did not plan on making any work there so I did not pack a camera.
The primary focus was to help them with whatever they want. With access, with food, with travel, with everything. There was a lot of backend work that had to be done. Jharia is infamous, with its criminals and mafia groups and corrupt government officials. So, usually what happens is that people quickly go to work for three days, seven days and they come back. Like the way people photograph Kashmir. So there is this recipe of working in a disaster zone and Jharia was also like that. It is interesting that you talk about ethnography, because in a place like Jharia which is already talked about and has received such television publicity, it is very difficult to make any different kind of work. When a big TV crew goes to a place and they work on something, they corrupt the whole space. The locals they engage know they will get paid, and in return are expected to give certain answers. It is very difficult. But the guys I was working with were different kind of people.
I had lot of respect for Tiane because he had come to Jharia 20 years back on an assignment for Geo and became fascinated with it. He told me he had dreamt of it since, the fire appearing in his mind’s eye. Importantly, they wanted to do something for three months, not just three weeks or a month. Whenever we talk about the time that we need to invest as film makers and as photographers, the time that you spend at a stretch is extremely important. When I first saw that huge big black landscape, it was something that I had never experienced in my life before. And then I understood what Tiane said.
At that time Instagram was new and I had my phone, so I took pictures from my phone and I uploaded them on Instagram without any plan, never thinking that they would win an award. I figured that maybe something could happen here, on the sidelines, while they worked. So we got a place to stay in Dhanbad which is an hour’s drive from Jharia. We would drive to Jharia, to the coal mines as early as 4 o’clock, working till 6:00 - 6:45. We would come back and sleep, then wake up again at 3:30 - 4:00. So that was our schedule for a very long time. After a month, I started shooting beginning with a series of landscapes. But I knew that I had to make a “documentary work”. I didn’t want to do what had already been done. I had a couple of aspirations as far as Jharia was concerned.
One was, obviously, to build a story in a certain way. But there was another very big aspiration - I wanted to know colour photography. Prior to this, I had been comfortable with black and white, and a certain kind of image making had always sort of excited me. But, to engage with colour was something that I realised that Jharia could give me. Because it has a very unique palette of colours. With colour images there is a particular kind of colour probability that I have always liked. There was a certain kind of colour work that I wanted to do but that kind of colour work was extremely difficult to do in a country like India. Jharia gave me a colour palette which was closer to black and white I would say.
CP: With muted, subtle language, one thinks of your Polish series as being somewhere similar….
RS: But that was later.
This came first, and then I learnt how to take images in a vertical format. After that, I went with my phone and did the same thing. This was on a mobile phone and what I did in Poland was on transparency film. Those were positives, but the format was same. It was all vertical. I still want to learn how to make colour images in a horizontal format. The other thing was to look at a landscape in a vertical form. We are always seeing landscapes by masters which are invariably horizontal. Paintings, photographs, everything. You imagine a landscape and it is either horizontal or panoramic. But to look at the whole world from the phone, like we do today, one realises the world has moved to the vertical. Even the movie images that we see today, we see vertical movie images ten times more than we see horizontal images. I have stopped watching TV for a while now, my friends have also done the same. So our world is on the phone which is a vertical machine. The world is vertical today.
CP: So, what gets lost on objects, and there are benefits in turning landscape into a portrait form. You see for me it seems like an interesting provocation, but one might sort of lose a sense of the enormity of what’s happening in this landscape, one loses all aspects of scale, width. A lot of the things that I think connect with is the allegorical political intent of this really informative work.
Ronny: Every generation has a specific format to work with. In history if you look at different photography formats, the different formats for moving images, all moved through different things before evolving into something else. Today everything is mixed up and nobody really knows what is happening. For example all the monitors today, from the phone to the computer, to the MacBook, everything is 16:9. But there is no film of this aspect ratio. It is either 120 mm film or 35 mm film. 35 mm is a 3:2 format. There is no 16:9. So who are they making it for?
Instagram began with the square form. I don’t know why they decided to go with square considering the phone itself is vertical but maybe because it is the safest. Whether it is a horizontal or a vertical monitor, a square will fit into both. If you are a practitioner, if you’re a cinematographer or a photographerorafilmmaker,to look at the world with a certain format is a practice which needs a lot of time. So, if you look at all the masters,fromgreatcinematographers to great photographers, all their life they have always stuck to one format. In my generation, it is interesting because, we have to train ourselves to look at the world in different ways - from a square, to a 5:4, to a 3:2, to a 16:9, to a cinemascope. There is everything. So, when I was shooting my first film I got frustrated because I couldn’t look at the world with a 16:9. It always felt that either I was too close or too far, or my feet wouldn’t make any sense. I would move closer to something, and but it wouldn’t work and I’d come back. But even then it did not work.
I spent a long time just looking at this rectangular 16:9, to know how to fit the world into it. But the habit of looking at the phone and the habit of looking at everything on a vertical screen is a practice in itself. That sort of translated into looking at landscapes in the vertical format. I can’t really say if there is a benefit or not. It all boils down to this toy that our generation has got.
CP: The two French filmmakers who finish their documentary - is that the correct term - how do you conceptualise your body of work as aligning or disaligning with what they did. Do you see it as complimentary in any way, or as a very different project?
RS: Their project was mostly about making a film and I don’t know what kind of film they made but I know what kind of shots they took. They had their own process of recording sound, and looking at the world. But I was not really involved in the creative side of their work. I was more concerned about the logistical support, to give them whatever they wanted. I was not influenced much by their sort of image making. As I said, I was looking at everything in a completely new way, and my aspiration was to understand colour. To look at a landscape from a distance. I wanted to be very far away from everything, but at the same time have a certain proximity as well. It is a vague sort of balance.
Because at end of the day you do not want to say everything to everyone. It is not art then anymore. So what do you do? You find a way to say everything after coming to a point when you’re not saying anything at all. In this show, there are no captions. The images are mysterious.
CP: So your hope is that the viewer goes away and reads up about ecological destruction?
RS: Not, really no. Every good work that I admire talks about many things. And the only way to do it is to be at one place and dig deeper. And then it allows you to get to other places. The moment you look at this body of work, you know that it is about the environment, about ecology. But I think my idea was to talk about many other things. For example, Jharia is a story about Jharkhand and India, but the same kind of landscape can be found all across the world where you get natural resources, whether it is diamonds, gold, coal, or oil. Wherever there is a natural resource, there is violence inflicted upon the people who inhabit that space. So how does that shape up in the form of a landscape? What does it look like when everything is ruined - you’ve extracted everything from the earth. It is like looking at the future. The world is run by people who control natural resources but what happens to the people who live in these places? I have seen the Maharaja of Jharia, his houses, big mansions and palaces But one of the family members of the Maharaja told me that he has got no money. With the power shift the control over coal changed hands. In the event, he has nothing. He recalled when he was younger, driving to the Oberoi Grand in Calcutta in a Mercedes Benz, several people waiting on them. The family can no longer afford such luxuries. There is a big palace but little else. If you look at the history of power shifts in the region, you realise no one could stay there for long. I asked a man whose family has been involved in the illegal coal-selling business, whether his family has benefitted a lot from Jharia. And he told me very candidly, that it has been going on for the last three generations. I then asked him what he thought would happen to him if all this coal that the government controls today is given to private organisations? And he told me something very interesting. He said that it would be like going back to the British Raj. Because, according to him, when the British were mining in the area, they would not allow anybody to come inside and pilfer the reserves. Under the supervision of the Indian Government, people can easily take this coal and sell it in the secondary market, and make a living. Even the poorest of the poor.
CP: It also fits with your churning of time, it is simultaneously stretching out endlessly but also in some kind of repetitive loop that offers no advantage of hope.
CP: So let me change the topic a little bit if I may? I’ve so far avoided using the term allegorical and all that in many of these images, but in your wider body of work, I’ve always been struck by what I assumed to be its allegorical intent. You have an ongoing fascination with crows and birds, and so one thing I think about your work is that it seems happy to reject acuity and a certain aspect of contingency in the sense that contingency contributes to the acuity and the stasis of the image. What you seem to embrace about contingency is movement, everything gives a kind of vivacity to the image. An uncertainty a kind of inner life in the image. One of the things that I especially like about a lot of your work, I’m thinking here especially of your earlier series “Don’t Breathe” taken in general unreserved compartments where you see these kinds of ghostly blurred anxious figures peering up at you, the photographer, in these horrendously cramped general compartments.
I see something of that black and white aesthetic in this ongoing series of images of crows and other birds. And every time I see those I think of this line from Walter Benjamin in his Little History of Photography written in the 1930s, where he talks about photographers being descendants of the augurs and haruspices. There were two classes of diviners and the augurs, who have studied the four problems of the sky and noted the position of birds in the sky. Calculating the proportions of both, they could tell the future. The haruspices or the haruspex were those that determined the entrails of animals. So, when I look at your images, I always think this is augury in practice, this is 21st century augury. And you know there are notable traditions of augury in Tibet and Japan that are still very much alive and well. Now I know that at a kind of everyday level of truthful falsity you would disavow this poetic interpretation, but I’m wondering if it’s an interestingthingtothink with.A lot of your images, then, seem to have some divinatory potential. They have a message to convey about the futureand Isensethat in a lot of your work, in its desire to escape fixity and straightforward acuity, it seems less about imprisoning things in the moment of exposure and giving them some kind of vibrational freedom in the moment to exist in the future.
So I’m wondering whether you are sceptical of the kind of broader issues about just taking it to the metaphorical level. Photography might be divinatory, might have something peculiar if it’s not to say, look this is what is happening at this place in Central India when, whenever these were made. This is something happening now into the future and there is something to be learnt from this. I wonder if you ever have thoughts about that in relation to the political work that you do. So sorry, this was about birds, divination and politics….
RS: Every honest work is political at a certain level. Even if it’s about birds, it’s about a certain belief, and a certain way of engaging with everything that we are surrounded by. And to look at the world, and it takes a lot of time to understand what is one’s position in it. It’s a way of life I would say, to look at things. It is biological. But as far as being a cynic, as where there is no hope. A lot of these academics find it interesting. I don’t know why? But with images many things have to happen together, and there is always the craft that is important. There is the aesthetic but one cannot get on with an aesthetic exercise when producing work. One has to understand what the issue is. You make work because there is something that you believe in. And for different photographers, images mean different things. For me on many occasions it is also about telling the world that, Come! Look at our space. Look at our world. This is my world. This is the world I mimic. There is a certain energy here, energy in the moving.
I’m fascinated by things that I do not see. I think with photography, just because it deals with real people and real life and real locations, doesn’t mean that it always has to deal with reality. Lots of people have always tried to compare photography and painting, that if painters could escape realism, then photographers could also escape realism. But the thing is photography deals with real people and places and that is probably its biggest challenge. So how do you escape realism? Or how do you do something where you are not just describing a place, you are sort of creating one which is, in a way, translation of your belief systems. You chose something from the world to depict but you don’t necessarily want to present it in an aesthetic way. You don’t want to tell people that, “look I make beautiful images!” but you want to say that “look this interesting work, now come see what is here.” You hold their hand and take them into a journey. And that is what all of us want to do.
But in order to do that also, there is a language and craft in understanding the image. One has to understand the rhythm, what happens, what is the pace, what is the energy, what is the movement, what are the shapes, forms, textures, how does the mind react to it. And then how do you create images that you don’t actually see and that is the toughest part but also the most exciting, to show something that nobody has seen or to show something that only you know exists.
I’m fascinated by a few things; the crows are one of them. The general compartment in the train is another object of interest. I am taken not by the middle class but, the kind of people who travel in this section. Who, during the day are divided by religion and race and identity and caste and so on, but at night are all sleeping on each other. There is no place to sit, so they sleep like this. And then I’m also deeply interested in sleep now. Because in a sense, that is the only way you can resist the system. There are all these migratory birds that go from one place to the other, they fly for months. They don’t sleep. So can a commando fight for two weeks without sleeping? Can we go to that level? And it is happening in strange ways...
The reality is, when I am awake, either I perform or give service, or I am consuming. These are the only two things I do. But when I sleep, I withdraw from this pattern. I’m fascinated by sleep in different spaces, and how it affects our lives. Anyway, we’ll talk about something else...
This conversation took place on 28th September, 2018 at Tarq, Mumbai.