How Women Artists in South Asia Are Reinventing the Photobook

Indu Antony and Kaamna Patel speak about publishing, feminism, and the initiatives encouraging a new generation of photographers.

Kaamna Patel, spreads from In Today’s News: Alpha Males & Women Power, 2019

Photobooks – August 18, 2021

By Deepali Dewan

Photobooks force us to think outside and beyond the photograph. They serve as activist tools and sites for introspection. In South Asia, photobooks have experienced remarkable growth in recent years, instigated by artists’ urges to tell personal stories related to their social, political, and cultural situations. This gesture carries the belief that these stories are worth telling, that they can act as connective tissue between people in a global nervous system. The photobook experience—understood as the compilation of skillfully produced pictures and texts, held in one’s hand and savored, attentive to aesthetic and intellectual pleasures—can arguably be traced in India to the Islamic book, especially Mughal-era muraqqa, which contain painted images and writings. In the nineteenth century, the Indian photographer Raja Deen Dayal’s albums, with their careful arrangements of texts and images documenting architectural heritage, military maneuvers, and VIP visits to princely territories, and assembled by hand as multiples, can be considered photobooks in today’s terms.

Through the late twentieth century, the cost of publishing in India was prohibitive, despite the diversification of photographic practices. Those who found ways did so outside the country, such as Raghubir Singh, whose photobooks captured a sense of geographic and cultural contemporaneity. Dayanita Singh has been recognized for rethinking the photobook by playing with scale, materiality, and the nonstatic sequencing of images. The economic liberalization of the 1990s in India led to better quality and more affordable publishing opportunities with specialized printers in tune with photobook and self-publishing cultures. Initiatives such as BIND, the Alkazi Collection of Photography photobook grant, and the Delhi-based Offset have encouraged a new generation of image practitioners.

From her home in Toronto, the curator Deepali Dewan recently spoke by video with two compelling makers of photobooks: Indu Antony, a Bangalore-based artist, and Kaamna Patel, a Mumbai-based photographer and founder of JOJO Books. Together, they discussed new works made just before and during the pandemic lockdown, and how photobooks can give visibility to women’s experiences.

Kaamna Patel, cover of Dori, 2021

Deepali Dewan: In India, the energy around photobooks and self-publishing that’s going on, is so relevant to the larger global practice of photobook making. Both of you are at the forefront of that energy and creating some of the most exciting examples. Kaamna, photography is the main aspect of your visual practice, and through that, you’ve come to photobooks. What led you to making books? And Indu, you have a varied artistic practice of which photobooks have been a more recent aspect. At what point did you turn to photobooks as a part of your practice?

Kaamna Patel: I discovered photobooks through a friend who was already working with them. It was actually thanks to him that I really understood what it means to publish, or even self-publish. In my head, I said, Wow, you can self-publish? Why have I been knocking on the doors of galleries all this time? That’s the reason I decided to self-publish. Then the risk is mine, the loss is mine, and if there’s any success in reaching out to people through this, well, then, I will have done it, and I will know for sure whether my voice is worth amplifying or not.

Indu Antony: I did my first-ever photobook project in 2008. Surprisingly, I found it the other day, and I thought, Wow, I didn’t even know this was a photobook. At the time, I had attended a book-making workshop, and I was really excited about the idea of making books by hand.

I am part of a collective called Kanike. We are four artists who get together, share a space, and also make work collaboratively. Jolly Bird (2020) is the first piece that we did together, reflecting on what we went through during COVID, when the lockdown happened from March onward. The book comes with a small note describing our lockdown experiences. The title Jolly Bird is after a song by S. P. Balasubrahmanyam, who we lost during COVID, and the work opens with his lyrics. It’s a small dedication to him.

The book follows the different things that we did during the lockdown period. For example, for the forty days of the lockdown, which were quite intense, every day at 5:20 PM, I would record ten words that describe how I felt that day, such as lonelylovesexInoscootereraserisolationme, and off. It was a way to relieve my anxiety. We also used a lot of the news headlines and images from the lockdown: “Bengaluru police is using drones trying to find lockdown violators.” “Sales for sex toys rise 65 percent in post-COVID-19 lockdown: Karnataka stands second.” We made just fifty copies of the book, and it was so surprising that within twenty hours all fifty copies were sold out. We were quite shocked to see how people were responding to this collective book.

Spreads from Indu Antony and Kanike collective, Jolly Bird, 2020
All works courtesy the artists

Dewan: Why Can’t Bras Have Buttons (2021), rather than a bound book, has loose pages collected in a box that opens up, and each page has a photographic image on it with text on the back corresponding to that image. How did this come about?

Antony: During the lockdown, everybody went into an extensive cleaning of their homes as I did. I found mountains of boxes that I’ve collected with objects from my life. I wanted to slow down. Though everything around was still, my mind was not still. So I started taking out each of these objects, and, at that point, I had only watercolor papers. So I was like, Okay, let me stitch each of these objects onto the paper using a strand of my hair and see what happens. The idea of having the book in the form of a box, where you open it with a tiny window, indicates a small window into my life—who I am. The box is made of Kora cloth. I went hunting for Kora cloth, which are rejects from the railways in Bangalore, and got someone to actually make those boxes. And then the box actually went into another Kora cloth bag stitched by me.

Dewan: Kaamna, your most recent projects are In Today’s News: Alpha Males and Women Power (2019) and Dori (2020). Can you describe these projects and give a sense of their materiality?

Patel: Dori means thread in Gujarati. I was playing on the idea of a “thread” that joins me to my grandparents, the focus of the book, and eventually that will join their story to future generations. I put everyone to work, and it became a family project, in a way. My aunt, who is their daughter, did the painted portraits of my grandparents reproduced on the front and back on paper that feels like canvas. She’s a dentist and also an artist. Actually, this book was a collaboration between all of their kids and me. At the end, there is a text in Gujarati and in English. One text is my voice, and the other text is a foreword by Veeranganakumari Solanki, who is a curator and a writer. My other aunt, who lives in LA, helped with the translations of both texts.

In Today’s News was made with yotsume toji, a type of Japanese binding, and with unbleached, uncoated paper that gives it a yellow tint. Essentially, the book opens with an image from the newspaper. And the title as well comes from a headline that I found in the newspaper. This project basically started as Instagram stories.

It was also a response to the fact that the #MeToo movement was still strong in India. I realized that through the exercise of making those Instagram stories, I had a lot of concerns cropping up in my mind, and I thought maybe I should put them down and see what comes through. The themes for me were primarily women’s sexuality; the evolving role of women in society, whether as a moral support system for men or as more independent, working individuals; and issues related to victims of domestic abuse. It was just kind of an outpour. I had this whole collection of images on my phone, and then, when I decided to actually explore it a little more, I started scanning and using a better camera.

Kaamna Patel, spread from Dori, 2021

Dewan: Has this past year in the lockdown been, in some ways, a generative and creative space for producing photobooks?

Antony: I don’t think either Why Can’t Bras Have Buttons or Jolly Bird would have happened if not for the lockdown. Why Can’t Bras Have Buttons developed because I was so craving touch. Looking at those objects in my memory boxes was like a certain kind of calmness. Not only were there good memories, but there were also heavy memories in them. But at least I had the tactility of touching them. So it came out of that space.

Jolly Bird, also, is a result of 2020’s events because all four of us were looking at how to survive the pandemic: What are we doing with our surroundings? What were we making and reflecting on? We put all of that together and then made the book.

Even though we find ourselves in a place where you can receive threats just for expressing yourself in your photobook, I hope that in a couple of years that will change. I think that’s a risk you take if you’re going to bare your soul in your work.

Patel: Actually, I wasn’t even thinking about making books that year. I took to writing, working on grant projects, proposals, residency applications, things like that. It was toward the end of 2020 when I realized Dori was almost there. It had been in the making for five years. I had done many different versions of it and many different edits, and I finally had come to this almost final stage. It was just about picking the format and getting the design elements together. So it was quite an impulsive decision. I said, Okay, it’s ready.

Dewan: To what extent do you find the photobook a space that is a good platform to bring forward a landscape of the personal? What does the photobook allow you to do that another format doesn’t?

Patel: Because books are small, for the most part, and intimate, you hold them close to you. As a reader, once I have the book, once I open it, I choose how much time I spend with the images, how I go back and forth through the pages, where I read it, whether I read it in my personal space, whether I read it in a public space. All of this allows you to experience somebody else’s story as if it were your own. That’s why it’s so conducive to communicating, honestly and candidly, a story that maybe you wouldn’t otherwise want to put up on the wall.

Indu Antony, Why Can’t Bras Have Buttons, 2021

Antony: Why Can’t Bras Have Buttons is a project in itself, and none of it would ever exist in any other format than this particular book. It’s a great format for people to express their personal narratives.

Dewan: Your work gives a certain attention to women’s lives that doesn’t often get seen in a public sphere. How do you feel the photobook allows you to do that? Kaamna, In Today’s News is as personal as Dori, because these are your selections from newspapers. I recall hearing you say that decontextualizing a newspaper image from its context and putting it together with something else creates a different kind of narrative that is very much about your reading of the popular press. But both works also occupy the space of giving visibility to women’s experiences and women’s lives in a different way than is often represented in the public sphere. Can you talk about that?

Patel: You are absolutely right. That is exactly what I was thinking of when I was taking these images out of their context and putting them into diptychs that made sense to me as diptychs—so basically putting them straight into another chronology. That’s because I really believe that images are very, very powerful in the sense that they show truth, but they can also show lies and make you believe they’re true. And somewhere in that middle ground is where you can arrive at a subjective truth, which reveals to you something not only about yourself but about what you understand about the world, your perspective on life, and everything else. So in that sense, yes, it’s deeply personal.

But as far as using photobooks to create a feminist space, I wouldn’t say that I am doing this actively. It’s definitely not an agenda that I am chasing. It just so happens that I am a woman who has been raised to be independent in a country like India. So the feminist message is really just a part of my story and a part of my life. It’s just natural to me. So it’s only natural that it comes out within the work I make because that’s the lens with which I view the world.

Antony: Why Can’t Bras Have Buttons, even though it’s about me, also talks about some form of abuse, some form of what my body has gone through, my own identity. Which is why it’s not all beautiful memories, but it is also about my existence, and my gender, and what I as a person have gone through.

Dewan: It feels like a very raw and honest representation of female life, and at the same time something that, I imagine, is very relatable for many of us. Do you feel there’s risk in that, in putting out this aspect of women’s lives in a space like India, or even in the world?

Antony: Since my book was released, someone wrote to me through Instagram, and he started threatening me. It’s still not an easy thing, because it took a lot for me to be as vulnerable as possible, to put out a book such as this one, to talk about things that my closest friends would not know. But I felt it was, in some way, important to do so. So, yes, it’s not easy.

Patel: Being a woman in India, and generally a woman in a man’s playground, at some point in your life, you are going to have to face abuse. Speaking out in a country like India is difficult because of this sense of the self-appointed moral police that encourages repression in our society, which eventually leads to us not being able to talk about our sexuality, or our needs, or things that are happening to us. It’s the shame culture that we live in—that’s probably where it’s coming from.

But I feel like it’s definitely changing. And the support systems for artists who speak out are growing. So even though we find ourselves in a place where you can receive threats just for expressing yourself in your photobook, I hope that in a couple of years that will change. I think that’s a risk you take if you’re going to bare your soul in your work, because you are speaking things that either nobody wants to hear or everyone wishes they could say, and so you find solidarity in it. Either way, it has to be done.

This article originally appeared in Aperture, issue 243, “Delhi: Looking Out/Looking In,” under the title “The Photobook as Public Space.”Deepali Dewan is the Dan Mishra Curator of South Asian Art and Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

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