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It was images from India that dominated a recent, high-profile exhibition in London. And though almost all of those who had shot the pictures were non-Indian, it was clear where young, talented photojournalists from across the world were heading to for stories - some untold, others clichêd - to document.
Walking around the HOST Gallery in East London - filled with more than 150 photojournalistic images from around the world - one thing is clear. India is where young photojournalists are heading towards to look for stories to document. For, at least 15 of those 153 images on display were shot in India, lazily traversing from Kashmir to Goa via Rishikesh, Varanasi, Bhopal, Rajasthan, Ahmedabad, Jharkhand and Mumbai. No other country other than the US and the UK had such a large cache of images representing it.
The images are the ones shortlisted for display by the Foto8 Summershow 2010, a competition for new, young and upcoming photojournalists from around the world organised by 8 Magazine, an avant garde biannual publication on photography, along with its sister website foto8. com.
The images from India are a mixed bag of social documentary, current affairs and art photography. On the one hand are sharp, evocative images rooted in the here and now, such as Alex Masi's photographs of the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy which mark the unresolved event's 25th anniversary, and Poulomi Basu's image of a training session of the first Indian women's army battalion to be deployed at the India Pakistan border. Others such as Nick Cunard's photo of ear-cleaners in Rishikesh, Kathryn Obermaier's portrait of a school girl in Varanasi, and Helen Rimell's of the chairman of the Houseboat Association in Kashmir are softer social documentaries.
8 Magazine and the foto8 website are a powerful independent voice in photography in the UK, known particularly for breaching the hitherto strict line between photojournalism and art photography. They have also been regularly organising talks, shows and screenings at HOST Gallery, an exhibition-cum-huddle space for young and old photojournalists.
Foto8 Summershow is an extension of the publication's efforts to bring emerging talents to the forefront. In its third year now, it received over 2, 500 entries of which 153 were chosen for display and six shortlisted for the final winner. British photographer Laura Shannock's "Shay", an intense portrait of a British teenager, was the winner and awarded a prize of £1500.
However, a few votes more and the award could have gone to Mumbai photographer Poulomi Basu. The 27-year-old's atmospheric image was a strong contender for the final win. In fact, one of the judges, Stephanie Braun - the curator of The Photographic Gallery, London's largest public gallery for photography - chose it as her favourite. As she stated, "This image works so well on several levels. On a visual level you have the amazing tonal range of the greens creating a beautiful, evocative photograph. However, when reading the caption, you find out that these women who are chatting casually in the morning mist are about to be sent off to guard the India/Pakistan border, suddenly suggesting a deeper, darker message. I love how these two levels - the composition and the content - come together perfectly in this image. "
Basu's image was part of an intense four-monthlong project last year, where she lived and travelled with the women of the Indian Border Security Force, who were being deployed at the LoC for the first time. Her photo-documentary - which explored the women's training, their homes and family, and their time at the border - was a part of her final project for her MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communications. The shortlisted image also made it to the final shortlist of the Ian Parry Award 2010 and won the Magenta Flash Forward Emerging Photographers Award 2010.
According to Basu, the image was a result of research, planning, pre-visualisation and serendipity. "I knew I wanted an atmospheric landscape image with the women because it is this land that they are fighting for, " she said. But the bland landscape didn't lend itself to dramatic images. And then, at 4. 30 one morning, as the women got ready for their training, Basu found her image. As she recalls, suddenly the colour palettes matched exactly with the green land reflecting off the women's khakis, and a large tree dividing the troops in half and sheltering them at the same time.
In comparison, Rimell's beautiful portrait of the chairman of the Houseboats Association in Kashmir was taken literally in the last hour of her two-week holiday in Srinagar. She knew she wanted to tell a story from the disturbed valley. "Everyone else was covering the riots and violence out there, " she recalls. But Rimell wasn't enthused by the subject. Then, while talking to the owner of the houseboat she was renting, she found the half-forgotten story of the beautiful houseboats - once a by-word in luxury tourism, now under threat of being closed down by the government. She decided to shoot portraits of the houseboat owners.
She met Azim Tuman early in the morning she was to leave. The image was not planned, says Rimell. She did ask him to sit by the window because the morning light was softly filtering in. And as he looked out, melancholia overcame his face - "as if he was thinking about how he could lose this beautiful morning landscape, " says Rimell - and a kingfisher landed next to him. "It is the perfect picture, I thought, " recalled Rimell.
Interestingly, while India is well represented at the show, Indian photographers are not. All the images of India, barring Basu's, were taken by western photographers. Basu believes the reason for that lies in the absence of a photo-journalistic community in India. "There is no dialogue, " says Basu. While in the West, young photographers have communities, groups, and forums to meet, talk and thrash out their art, in India, most photographers develop their art in isolation. And this, more than any essential lack of technique, believes Basu, keeps them out of the loop of international events.
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