Imagining the world’s end, the photographer’s latest project guides us through a spiritual narrative exploring India’s colonial past, landscape and elusive, ghostly characters.
When I speak with Soham Gupta, he’s feverish and waiting for the result of a Covid-19 test, (it turns out to be negative). It’s worrying but it’s also strangely appropriate, as he points out, because we’re talking about Eden – his depiction of a ruined city being reclaimed by nature. Shot in West Bengal, Eden shows huge trees taking over their surroundings, abandoned buildings sinking under creepers, dead animals left to rot, decaying pictures and shrines, a handful of inhabitants. “In a way, it has become a symbol of what we are heading towards, if the virus is not contained,” says Gupta. “The end.”
But it is a coincidence, or maybe prescience, because Gupta started making Eden well before the pandemic broke out. Its origins can be identified in his 2018 photobook Angst, which he shot in Calcutta at night. An innovative mix of short stories and richly-hued portraits, it was immediately hailed a classic, shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation First Photobook Award and Les Rencontres d’Arles Photo-Text Book Award, and exhibited at the 2019 Venice Biennale. It also attracted criticism though, from those who felt the depiction of people from the city’s fringes was dehumanising.
Gupta shakes off the criticism. “I wanted to provoke a reaction, and I did.” Elsewhere, he notes he wanted to shake Calcutta’s more comfortable residents out of their complacency, to force them to think about their less fortunate neighbours. Even so, it seems the sheer force of the response to the divisive project – for good or bad – hit home. After publishing Angst, the photographer did some soul-searching and decided to create something different and new, he says, something that would, “break from my mould”. Shot in gritty monochrome and a few Polaroids, and focusing on the landscape, Eden looks very different. It still includes portraits of the apparently dispossessed though, but they are the characters with whom Gupta says he “created a fiction”.
Indeed, the whole book presents this story-like narrative because it depicts a city that doesn’t exist, combining images shot over a wide area into a portrait of one place. Gupta says he was partly inspired by a trip to Angkor Wat years ago. “From that time, I have been romanticising about the idea of creating a world of my own,” he says, “I am interested in creating dystopian worlds – imaginary, stemming from my mind”. Though it’s imaginary, it’s a vision created with fragments borrowed from the real world. In one photograph, we see a mark of graffiti which reads ‘Eden’, for example, painted by someone near his home in Calcutta; Gupta found the people he photographed inhabiting the abandoned buildings.
This mix of fact and fiction also runs through Angst. Both books draw on reality, you might say, but are creations born of Gupta’s very particular lens. Both also evoke the idea that though there’s one world out there, our take on it is subjective – something that’s surfaced elsewhere in his work. His series of nude portraits, L’Appel Du Vide, which he shot in France, started out “primarily as an ode to our bodies that are real, not plastic,” he explains. The project evolved as he spoke with his subjects about their histories, hopes, fears, failures and joys, until in the end it was “no longer just about our bodies, but about our souls, about our memories and our ghosts, our insecurities and our fears”.
Still, the buildings he photographs for Eden are very particular, grand colonial constructions that date back to Britain’s rule in India. Its dominance began in 1757, when the British East India Company won a decisive battle victory against the Nawab of Bengal. It carried on for 200 years, until independence in 1947. During this time India suffered severe famines, such as the Bengal Famine of 1770, in which an estimated 10 million people died, decades later followed by another in the same region in 1943, taking the lives of some three million. Debates rage to determine the degree to which Britain was responsible, though it’s worth pointing out that during the famine of 1770, the British East India Company still pulled in revenues of £174,300. Remnants of this wealth linger, as do remnants of other rulers’ riches.
“Bengal is a weird place,” says Gupta. “You have magnificent colonial buildings and you have palatial buildings built by the Indian feudal lords or zamindars when they were at the pinnacle of their success. I went once in search of a gunpowder magazine a bit further from the Calcutta Docks. All ships needed to unload their gunpowder before entering Calcutta. While I was there, I found an ancient post office which existed during colonial days, now in ruins.”
Gupta says these ruins are ‘haunted’ by the people he found, who he describes as ‘ghosts’, a term which may again risk charges of dehumanisation. On the other hand, they’re residents who have made their home in a place where millions were – and still are – impoverished, while others grew rich. From this perspective, seeing them as ‘ghosts’ might evoke another reference; Kwasi Kwarteng’s 2011 book, Ghosts of Empire: British Legacies in the Modern World, which argues that the negative effects of British colonial rule are still felt worldwide. For the people in Gupta’s Eden, perhaps, these effects are all too real, making their homes far from paradise. They are “struggling and dwelling in the ruined world,” says Gupta. “Survivors still breathing.”
It’s a dark vision of a badly ruled world now nearing apocalypse, but Gupta’s project also suggests a more positive reading. If both people and the land have been ransacked, it’s fitting that nature now rises up. The next stage, perhaps, is for the people to do the same. Maybe, like new trees and creepers, new worlds are taking root – or rather, new readings of the world we all inhabit. “In history as in nature, decay is the laboratory of life,” reads a quote at the start of the Eden book dummy; the quote is from Karl Marx’s Capital I, and illustrates the idea that, in disenfranchising the workers, capitalism sows the seeds of its own destruction.
Meanwhile the sheer fact Gupta is making and showing work also points to new directions – because his work, like work by other non-Western image-makers, is finally penetrating the Eurocentric photography world. “Photography has become much more plural,” says Gupta, picking out Indian photographers and curators such as Sohrab Hura, Prashant Panjiar, Dinesh Khanna, Bharat Sikka and Sudharak Olwe as inspirations, as well as the “talent-making machines” of Pathshala South Asian Media Institute in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the Angkor Photo Workshop and Nepal’s Photo.Circle. “We have never been so visible,” he says.
Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy