Debashish Chakrabarty’s luminous images are an inquiry into the cosmos and our existence within it

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Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 500 nominations. Collectively, these 15 talents provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Throughout the next few weeks, we are sharing profiles of the 15 photographers, originally published in the latest issue of BJP, delivered direct through thebjpshop.com

“Photography works as a home that holds all my enquiries and explorations of the various kinds of human experiences,” says Chakrabarty 

As a schoolboy in Dhaka in the 1990s, Debashish Chakrabarty was captivated by images from the Hubble Space Telescope. The writings of astronomer Carl Sagan and string theorist Michio Kaku inspired him to look at the cosmos, not only from a scientific perspective but from a political one as well. 

“I could have become a scientist if I had been a better student,” jokes Chakrabarty. He was particularly drawn to the fundamentals of light, and how in photosynthesis, light is the origin of life. Since there were no observatories in Bangladesh, Chakrabarty searched for a way to recreate astronomical events himself.

As a mechanical practice, photography became an organic extension of this interest. But much like a scientist observing the universe, the apparatus was only part of the equation. “I’m not really concerned about the technological aspects of photography. I have other questions about me, my existence, and what’s happening around me that I want to make sense of,” Chakrabarty explains. “Photography works as a home that holds all my enquiries and explorations of the various kinds of human experiences.”

© Debashish Chakrabarty.

This process is present in Figuring (2019–2020), a project born out of a malfunctioning shutter. Chakrabarty cut through the shutter’s frame, leaving no mechanical control over its speed. Left with a light-catching device with only a tiny sensor, he had to retrain himself. He wanted to start a dialogue between the decayed camera, how we understand objects, and how these objects could potentially be seen. “Although photography is a container of my thoughts and experiences, it also adds new things,” he says. “When accidents happen, the whole process teaches me something.”

It was also an inquiry about light that led the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute graduate to create Stardust (2014–2020), a project based on a fictional narrative about a species so advanced they can move through space-time across the cosmos, seeking out their origin and future. By combining his scientific knowledge with this story, Chakrabarty invites viewers to question their place in the universe in a world rife with territorial and political conflict. Chakrabarty asks: if we were made out of photons instead of atoms, would we experience identity and politics in the way we do today?

© Debashish Chakrabarty.
© Debashish Chakrabarty.

Chakrabarty was nominated for Ones to Watch by fellow Bangladeshi photographer and former One to Watch (2016), Shadman Shahid. “Debashish seems to have an expansive definition of photography, constantly searching for the limits of the medium,” says Shahid. “This courageous, exploratory spirit is what allows him to produce such unique works.” 

Looming above these experiments are Chakrabarty’s greater questions about science and how we understand our world. Though his first encounter with the cosmos came from Carl Sagan, he discovered similar ideas among Bangladeshi poets and thinkers. 

“The way we have constituted the mechanisms of science originated from European enlightenment, and this infrastructure of knowledge is backed up by their ideas,” he says. “It’s high time that we find a balance between Western modernity and local modernity. When you have to deal with the social and political scenario, you need to have an understanding of your own local ideas, about their existence, their struggles.” 

Alif Ibrahim

Alif Ibrahim is a writer, artist and producer based in Jakarta working with text and moving image. He has previously been published in Real Life Magazine, It’s Nice That, SPIKE Art Magazine and Running Dog. He received an MA in Digital Media from Goldsmiths College.