Debsuddha gently frames the isolated lives of of his two elderly aunties

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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

The Goswamis’ milky skin and blonde, feathery hair have rendered them victims of lifelong bullying and segregation

Debsuddha’s poetic images exhibit little of his photojournalistic beginnings. The Kolkata-born photographer initially studied engineering but abandoned the profession in 2011 after one year of working. “I was trying to fulfil my family’s wishes,” he reflects. “So I just quit and started to teach myself photography.” 

Three years later, Debsuddha was freelancing for several news agencies. However, he gradually became disillusioned with news photography’s onus on the individual image, ready once again to do something different. He embarked on a succession of personal series, which have brought him to where he is as an artist today. It’s a place that, he stresses, is constantly evolving: “With every project, I feel my style changing.”

In 2017, Debsuddha quit freelancing and dedicated himself to creating long-term documentary series, conceiving his project, Towards the No Man’s Land They Say, which is ongoing. The series of melancholic black-and-white images centres on the Indian portion of the Sundarbans delta – a cluster of low-lying islands in the Bay of Bengal filled with tangled mangrove forests. Over the last 20 years, the sea level in the delta has risen dramatically by around 3cm each year – a much faster rate than the global average. The effects have been devastating: shrinking land masses forcing communities to uproot their lives. 

The project is still evolving, but a focus on the psychological effects of displacement sits at the heart of the work. As Debsuddha articulates: “As communities flee for economic and environmental reasons, the effect on their identity is profound.”

Caption: Untitled

However, Debsuddha’s next project, Belonging, which is also ongoing, was the photographer’s real turning point. “It changed my perception and allowed me to develop my style,” he reflects. The images are mesmerising: quietly framing the isolated lives of Debsuddha’s two elderly aunts, Gayatri and Swati Goswami. The Goswamis are albino – their milky skin and blonde, feathery hair have rendered them victims of lifelong bullying and segregation. The pair inhabit a lofty two-storey house, 164 years old and set back from a road in Kolkata’s Hatibagan neighbourhood, from which they rarely venture. 

In 2020, following the advent of Covid-19 and a mentor’s encouragement, Debsuddha began photographing the Goswamis at home, gently picturing their isolated lives (which were rendered even more so by the pandemic) through pensive, almost whimsical, colour images. “My aunties are shy,” says Debsuddha, “but in time they started opening up to me and the more I understood their stories, the more the work grew.”

“The pandemic has brought the value of human relationships to the forefront of the public conscience,” says Delhi-based photo editor, curator and writer Tanvi Mishra. Mishra nominated Debsuddha, as did British photographer Martin Parr CBE, and editor-in-chief of Magnum Photos, Simon Bainbridge, who guest-edited this issue. 

“Debsuddha’s project expands from this present moment, speaking about isolation not as a symptom of contemporary life but as a human condition,” continues Mishra. “The story has the potential to connect with many that have felt this distance from the world. However, the work does not locate itself in trauma. Instead, it provides an intimate view of the solace of sisterhood and the fragility of old age.”

Caption: Untitled
Caption: Untitled

Debsuddha had also conceptualised another project before the pandemic hit; one in which he would collaborate with his father. However, Covid-19 put this on hold and tragically took his father’s life last year. “I started working with him directly when he was alive, but lockdown prevented me from continuing,” Debsuddha explains. 

“Finally, I have returned to the series, which has become a monologue with my deceased dad.” The series is far from finished, but the photographer hopes to have made some progress by the end of the year. As with all of his work, the process is ongoing with no clear endpoint. It’s an approach that echoes the fluidity of Debsuddha’s development as an artist: his reflective nature and openness to experimentation enabling him to create distinct, considered work replete with feeling and emotions. 

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.