YOUNG WAVERING photojournalists, such as myself, often go in search of pictures with a sometimes wanton thirst. They move cities, living their days out of cheap bus-stand lodges or friends’ apartments, and nights drinking outside cheap bars on Church Street. Anything that provokes a narrative. They probably think that like Nan Goldin, they’ll make pictures representing the transgressions of young urban dwellers. Faltering, perhaps they’ll meet a young queer poet and dance writer and find a subject. Over the next six months — furtive conversations over cheap whiskey at watering holes, words punctuated by drags of cigarettes and post-ganja confessions in bedrooms — they will take pictures of their friends, teasing out nuggets of a story. Rolls of film fed by curiosity. As Goldin put it, “It’s the form of photography that is most defined by love. People… take them to remember people”. This love is born out of a long-standing relationship between the observer and the subject.
On the face of it, Kushal Ray’s Intimacies is a series that could be seen as a representation of domestic decline, even a “human catastrophe”. Critiques of Ray’s photographs as an episodic representation of the decline in Kolkata’s middle class, the 12-room, family home of the Chatterjees, seem to encapsulate the slow withering of a joint family. They see Ray’s interiors as a metaphor for the politics that aims to unmask the accident of poverty. Perhaps, even a representation of his working class family’s poverty and violence; stages of personal degradation and suffering.
Occasionally, Ray’s series follows the tradition of socio-political photo documentary. Ray himself admits that he is mirroring Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street’s depiction of poverty and family in Harlem in Kalighat. Or even catch hints of Richard Billingham’s Ray a Laugh series, which portrays his own family — an alcoholic father, large mother and unruly brother — in their council flat in the West Midlands, England. The collective experiences of viewing these works is that they seem to contain an implicit social critique, that explore the otherwise unregarded proletarian subject matter, which is a quality seen in Intimacies as well.
At other times, Ray’s photographs grow almost surrealistic features. In the Kalighat series, the photographs seem to belong to a rhetorical and ritualised system of the family portrait yet simultaneously contradict the system by its lack of posing or placement of characters. Upon closer examination, the family becomes more ordinary. The reader is given access to all occasions and moments in their life — their happiness, sadness, death and even their boredom is recorded on film, over 8,000 photographs in all shot inside the house. Thus it becomes difficult to maintain a distance from the Chatterjees. Like old acquaintances, they appear less strange, fascinating and more ordinary with each photo.
The relationship between the artist and the subject can be exploitative or respectful, dis-empowering or empowering, cruel or loving, ethical or aesthetic; in Ray’s work the undercurrent of this relationship seems to haunt us on each page beyond the obvious social circumstances of the Chatterjees. His work reflects the complexity of this relationship. For Ray, seeing this family through a camera’s lens differs from seeing a family member face-to-face. He starts photographing his friend and supporter Manju Chatterjee with a certain critical distance but the distance between observer and subject wanes till they become heartrendingly, indistinguishably entangled. The mundane is suddenly layered and becomes memorable, the investment of the photographer stays with you like the last caption in this book: “It broke my heart to take this picture.”
Intimacies: Photographs by Kushal Ray, ntroduction by Kunal Basu is published by Niyogi Books. It’s available on Flipkart
Note : (Originally Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 9 Issue 22, Dated June 2, 2012)