Kolkata-based photographer Ritam Talukdar is the picture of calm against his chaotic desire for introspection.
Born in Barrackpore, West Bengal, Talukdar suffers from anxiety and depression, and a major symptom is prosopagnosia - which is the inability to recognize faces. The camera becomes his way of giving himself the space to confront these feelings with integrity. This not only reflects the subjects of his photographs, but allows him to objectively see things in a new light. Talukdar learned that by using the camera as a means of reflection and intimacy, you are gaining a new dimension of awareness that cannot be found through any other type of expression.
Read our interview with him, where he discuses how photography has helped him cope:
How did you get from being an aspiring photographer to actually doing it full time, for a living?
I have always worked with the realms of photography and advertising and film, often having various responsibilities. Somehow I got interested in the way photography is used to tell stories about identities, day to day lives, culture and unheard stories of resilience, bravery and acts that often go unnoticed.
I also like to weave fictional narratives using different feelings and forms of expressions and storytelling perspective to bring out a story in a unique way, but often trying to keep most of the actions in a real time sequence. As of now I am also trying to do some works related to photography and writings and family pictures from the family albums.
I still do product shoots, weddings, small social assignments and sometimes I do art and do exhibitions in galleries and try to sell the artworks to have a constant earning so that I can have ample amount of money to plan to develop my next stories that I work on personally, which involves a lot of travelling and staying at various places.
But I think, the more I accept the challenge of a specific visual form of artwork that I generally tend to accept to work upon, the more focused I become to bring out the best out of it. I felt somehow photography is one form where one can carry out to do their projects, individually. So I chose this profession specifically. I think it’s the dedication, which should never ever end for a visual artist no matter in what category of art he is working on.
How did you first begin taking pictures?
I remember during my college days, when I was staying away from home in a hostel, I was always obsessed with the camera on my phone. I couldn’t tell what I was interested in at that time, but I my friends were always complaining that I was taking too many pictures of them. But those frames kind of became memories for me to thrive on.
Later, I began working on an MBA in Media Studies. My course curriculum also had film studies as one subject, it was very practical and I learned for the first time how to operate cameras, learnt the basics of cinematography and by the end of the first year I was already making short films along with some of my friends.
Apart from watching cinema and learning about various aspects of film making I also started to read about photography. I think that introduction is the reason I actually decided to become a photographer. It may sound rather weird but since that day apart from making experimental short films and small videos, I spent equal time on the streets interacting with the people I used to meet, whose stories I was interested in and that’s when I spent actual time on taking photography.
Those photographs still mean something to me, as they speak of time, the essence of a free life.
How do you get the person, place or thing that is in front of the camera onto the film, chip or paper in just the way you want?
The one thing I believe in is interacting with the people, whose picture I would want to click. More than that once you get to interact you get to know the subject closely and you get to comfortable with him or her. That’s when I think you can get the best out of the picture. I think similar things happen with the place, where you have spent an ample amount of your precious time, not through an one time visit, but after visiting the place regularly, you develop a bonding with the surroundings and you familiarize with the ambiance and create a relation.
Which photographers influenced you, and how did they influence your thinking, photographing, and career path?
I was doing maternity shoots and baby shoots through hospitals, and also working as a product photographer for an e-commerce company. It was all going on fine, but my thought process took a sharper turn when I first came to know about Magnum. For the first time a vast world just opened up. I still read it like a Holy Book.
One of my favorites is Robert Capa; his passion, commitment and courage really helped me to understand what it feels to be present in the field, when it has already turned into a war zone. His portraits of Loyalist Militiamen which showed desperate hopelessness and yet resembling the universal nature of the effects of war itself, that is one my favorite photographs taken by him.
The photographs taken by Nan Goldin have helped me learn a lot about photographing humanity, narrating the changes and conditions along with experiences. This human narrative can never be the same because it will always highlight something in particular, the genesis of a pain or existence. It is a form of poetry and beauty. Her photography style is intent on loving life in any form it is being lived. And then there is Sohrab Hura, who can merge the real and fictional emotions so beautifully through a poetic journey of harsh and subtle images. He crafts beautiful storylines.
I feel we also need to try out varieties of work, breaking our own patterns to evolve in every possible way.
What it is you want to say with your photographs, and how do you actually get your photographs to do that?
Winter is generally termed as the happiest season amongst all. People get together with their old family members, some go out for holidays and the cities are draped in beautiful colors, carnivals and happy music all around. But for me it was just the opposite as I was involved with a Contemporary Art Foundation in Kolkata, and most of our International Art Events used to happen in the month of December to January.
After staying living away from home for eight years, I missed the homecoming season of December, when I used to gather around with my old friends and family members. I spent the winters in the rural areas in and around my hometown, which had a lot of subtle emotions and silence. Somehow I felt connected with these places that resonates a strange sense of absence and solitude. I was able to relate with these places by unshackling the state of mind that I was in, deeply hurt and trying to hide away from all. These places served as the perfect place for me to release my bitterness without hurting anyone, and without letting anyone know. They were all a part of strange connection, which I developed.
That’s how I photographed these places and sometimes to do that I use a lot of post processing techniques to play with the colors and the lights to bring out the exact flavor that reflect my state of mind.
Seasonal Depression is not something that is common in India. Has your background influenced your experience of it?
I have been suffering from depression and anxiety for the last four years and I have tried to develop a self documented photographic journey regarding this state of my mind and how I perceive my surroundings when I am feeling down. It is a journey full of uncertain mood swings, often forcing me to utter some nonsense to kill the silence. So for a time period I was always angry, always used to stay crammed up in a room, using addictive substances to soothe my mood. But the main change occurred when I tried to channel these emotions into a project. It was sort of a therapeutic approach, that I commited to and it worked for me. Even for a moment if I was able to capture that particular condition of mine, I became happy momentarily.
When I am feeling depressed, if my surroundings are changed, I felt quite helpless adjusting to new places more than to new faces. So when I used to engage myself in terms of work, after work I always used to wander around just to soothe my mind and to discover that perfect place where I can feel comfortable for a little while. That’s how I discovered some of these places. Sometimes during winter I wander off to remote areas just to get out of the lethargy that my mind forces my body to go into. Sometimes a little bit of sunshine does the trick to feel better.
These places all have an emptiness that I can relate to. I feel this sadness is clearly visible in each of the moments that I have tried to capture.
What gear do you use to keep focused on what you do best, as you photograph?
For the last six years I have used a small camera of Canon DSLR (Crop Sensor) to do all my assignments and stories along with an external flash of Digitek. This year I shifted to a full frame DSLR Setup, which I think will help me a lot. I also have a Yashica Point and Shoot and a Canon Film Camera and I have been working on a story that I'm calling Lost Spaces, which is solely on film.
What motivates you to continue taking pictures economically, politically, intellectually or emotionally?
Economically I felt that you need to work on other commercial projects so that I can arrange for trips, to be able to concentrate on the photojournalism I am interested in. I feel stronger when I am pulled by a strain of important news. Working in this field requires continuous study and research work, and it helps to know more about places and people and terms that we were uncertain about. Every story has an emotional aspect attached to it and I think I tend to go a lot into the depths of it, once I get a positive response. It gives a certain spark of excitement and intensifies the warm sentiments; a strange feeling to cherish.
Do you feel that your creative expression leads to a resolution?
I've never felt that my creative expression has ever lead to a resolution, but I feel it may give a voice to a question that is being asked. I am just another person who is lending my voice in terms of a situation that is in dire need of support.
For me, it has been a long and solo journey, starting from knowing nothing to the present time when I am trying my utmost to evolve into an artist who is capable of a wide spectrum of work. For me my creative journey has always left me relieved to have expressed something so clearly, in terms of a growing conscience that is always expanding and covering more diverse topics.
Images by Ritam Talukdar.