Amrita Chakravarty: Following the Delhi riots earlier this year, you have initiated a documentation project using Instagram as a platform. The page, “A Good Riot”, collates statistics, visuals, and first-person accounts of the events that unfolded across a single week in February. Instagram has in fact emerged as a prominent site of daily political activism with users posting memes, news broadcasts, analyses and footage of unfolding headlines on the app’s ephemeral stories feature. How do you see your archival project within this larger culture of online activism?
Chandan Gomes: Public memory is short lived. We move from one event to the other, from one accident to the next. In February 2020, Delhi witnessed the most gruesome riot since 1984. We do not want people to forget what happened in Delhi. We want them to remember that many lives were lost, homes destroyed, dreams shattered. We want to tell the stories of survivors and victims. With this thought in mind, I undertook “A Good Riot” initiative with my friend and colleague Sanket Jadia. Though the presence of this project is online, we would like it to go beyond it and reach a much larger and diverse audience, especially those who might not agree with our perspective. To build a conversation, a sustained dialogue is the larger aim of this project.
AC: To the extent that political comment has become an almost default part of online life, with people interspersing links to political stories amid light-hearted posts about their day, what do you think is the platform’s own role in shaping a particular culture of public discourse? Against this, how do you characterise your participation within structures to an extent overdetermined by the social media ecology of Instagram?
CG: Instagram like most other social media platforms is about the ‘self’. The ‘other’ exists within this context. In these polarised times, social and political beliefs play an important role in defining both the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. Having said that, sharing snippets of ones daily life remains central to platforms like Instagram and Facebook. Hence the interspersion you speak of is bound to happen. And it is not necessarily bad. I say so from personal experience - I have friends from school, college and work whose political beliefs are opposite to mine; this often brings us in conflict. However, things we share from our lives - how was our day, what we saw, read, where we travelled. Photographs of loved ones, photographs of gatherings and celebrations; so on and so forth - it is this everyday that keeps the dignity and humanness in our relationships. Today our identity is reduced to binaries - you either support the government or you are against it. You are either a nationalist or an anti-national. There are no grey spaces left; there are no layers to people anymore. Empathy and patience are virtues are that are becoming increasingly endangered. Hence in retrospect, the ecology of Instagram somewhere allows those layers, those greys to exist. It keeps the prospects of a shared imagination alive.
AC: “A Good Riot” follows previous projects in which you have variously looked at public movements - in “The Unknown Citizen” - and media use - “People You May Know”. These took a more introspective approach, through photo essays and artistic collages. In “the Unknown Citizen”, you consciously eschewed the documentary label, while in “People You May Know”, you questioned the very foundations of what constitutes an archive in a world of exclusively virtual interactions. In this current project, however, there seems to be a more conventional understanding of the role of testimony and of the forensic capability of the photographic and video image. To what extent, then, do you see “A Good Riot” as an extension of a longstanding interest in documenting/understanding the present, and to what extent does it break with these previous projects, perhaps because of the perceived need to directly intervene?
CG: As a photographer/artist, I have always been more interested in nurturing a gaze, instead of building a style or aesthetic. Hence I have made diverse bodies of work, each with a distinct approach. However, what remains common is the use of photography as a medium and a not an end in itself.
“The Unknown Citizen” is a protester’s account of the movement that emerged after the gruesome gangrape on 16 December, 2012. I was continuously sharing photographs on Facebook in order to involve as many people as possible in our agitation. I used to go to various protests and see my photographs on banners and posters. I did not care about credit or copyright. I felt this mass dissemination and appropriation was the purpose of those photographs.
“People You May Know” is a deeply personal account of love, longing and identity in the age of the Internet. Here I completely move away from the traditional documentary framework and tell the story using photographs, collages, screenshots of conversations and film stills.
“A Good Riot” is the first collaborative project I have undertaken. In its nature, it is certainly more conventional than the previous two works. However, it is also the most challenging - I have to ensure here that I as a photographer/artist remain completely in the background. Unlike ‘The Unknown Citizen’ where I was an active participant and not merely an observer; or “People You May Know” where I am central to the work, “A Good Riot” demands a certain distance, without compromising on the intimacy. I have to ensure that the people I am photographing, whose stories I am sharing, they remain at the forefront of the documentation. I have to also ensure that this project expands into a pan India study and can involve many more photographers, researchers and artists in due course of time.
AC: Do you think these kinds of visual archives and annotations are in some sense, a successor to the great project of photojournalism in the twentieth century?
CG: Certainly visual archives like “A Good Riot” question and expand the traditional definition of photojournalism. This decentralisation of perspective or a record is essential to empower people to tell stories of their struggles, trials and tribulations.
AC: With the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic, the project is ostensibly on hold, as is the wider public movement of which it has been a part. What do you see as the possibilities of continuing the documentation remotely?
CG: The project is on hold as far as field visits are concerned. However to utilise this period of lockdown, we are in the process of making a set of stories/posts from the photographs, videos and research material we have collected in three weeks of extensive fieldwork. We are also crowd funding for some of the survivors we are in touchwith.They need support in these difficult times and we are trying toaid them in various ways. Our aim is to ensure that the conversation on this riot and its aftermath does not die.
AC: To continue the point on decentralisation, a certain primacy of the photographer-documenter is at stake, when the community of survivors are equipped to produce their own visual records, and these can be sourced virtually. How is the very role of the photographer reconfigured then when the primary drive is not so much to produce the visual documentation, but the secondary operations of post-production - organising information, constructing narratives, building online networks and connections. In a sense, the physical presence of the photographer at the scene of the crime is not the most vital function.
CG: As I have mentioned above, people should be empowered enough to tell stories of their own struggles. “A Good Riot” is a small step we have taken in that direction - in this context we do not see ourselves as photographers or artists. We are rather working as citizen journalists who want to keep this riot in public discourse. The stories we post are in collaboration with the survivors and victims we are documenting. We let them decide how they want to be represented, what they want us to share. We do not want to create a monument of their misery, reduce them to ‘subjects’. We want to share their truths. Activism is an important part of the documentation we have undertaken - we are constantly in conversation with different stakeholders like human right lawyers, NGOs, welfare associations, etc. all working towards the rehabilitation of survivors.
However the role of the photographer or the artist is still important, especially in the aftermath of a tragedy like this. It is very easy to represent all the loss and destruction in terms of information and statistics. But our endeavour is to move people, to evoke empathy. To build a humane conversation on this riot that goes beyond the usual blame game that is played in news studios. Being an artist/photographer enables me to connect with realities that are not mine; to feel a stranger’s pain or suffering. And share these stories responsibly and with dignity. And where does this begin? The first time you greet survivors, look at their faces, hear their voices. And you hold the camera to your eye, with the hope that you will make a photograph that embodies the humanity of that moment; that speaks of loss and pain without objectification of any kind.