Photographer Chandan Gomes on his exhibit People You May Know, built out of archived digital interactions

Through this installation, Chandan Gomes tries to understand the loneliness and ideas of fidelity as they exist in relationships formed in the digital age

Rosalyn DMello July 02, 2018 16:52:37 IST
Photographer Chandan Gomes on his exhibit People You May Know, built out of archived digital interactions

She is Tara Banerjee. She is candid about her motives. She “likes to stalk gullible photographers online and then wreak havoc in their lives and relationships.” He is Chandan Gomes. He fits the gullible bill, making him prime prey. She appears as someone he may know on Facebook. She baits him by initiating dialogue. He bites. The rest is People You May Know, a raw, confessional, fleshy and messy photo-novella-like series of correspondence that isn’t afraid to confront, head-on, the trope of two strangers meeting in virtual space and their failed and successful attempts to construct and evade the notion of embodiment.

Even before his interaction with Tara, though, Gomes, barely 30, a philosophy major from St Stephens, Delhi, had already established a name for himself as a photographer unafraid to wrestle with profundity in his image-making process. His uncanny style and his eagerness to journey on truth-finding missions perhaps made him a worthy victim of Tara’s meddling prowess. Between 2011-15, he created, for instance, the artist book, This World of Dew, the consequence of his pursuit of the creator of an unusual book of drawings of mountains he found at a hospice in Jaipur. Gomes began to create visual parallels to the drawings he eventually learns were made by a girl named Aini Haseena Bano, whose grave he then visits in Baran. This work earned him the Foto Visura Spotlight Grant in 2014 that helped him evolve the book. He has shown widely through solo and group exhibitions in India and abroad, and currently teaches at the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts & Communications, New Delhi.

As Gomes fell further and further into the rabbit hole that Tara constructed for him, he began to lose sight of the boundaries between the real and the virtual; setting him on an investigation into the nature of truth and memory while simultaneously compelling him to confront the many ghosts of his troubled past and his continuing turbulent relationship with the present circumstances of his life. Nurtured by Devika Daulet-Singh, director of PHOTOINK, who nominated him for the New Discovery Award at the 2018 edition of the prestigious photo festival, Rencontres d’Arles, he evolved a series out of his interactions with Tara that makes its debut there on 2 July.

Photographer Chandan Gomes on his exhibit People You May Know built out of archived digital interactions

Chandan Gomes/Courtesy of PHOTOINK

“The exhibition is conceived of as an installation—a bricolage of photographs and objects set inside a space to simulate how the work was created in the artist’s bedroom, almost always at night,” he said in an email ahead of the premiere. “There is a chair and desk placed along the middle of one wall on which lie objects from the artist’s daily life—his laptop, one small pocket diary, current reading material, a wrist watch, ear phones, coffee sachets and pain-killers. The laptop will enable the viewers to experience the numerous conversations between the two protagonists of this work.”

The 36 works in total are printed on archival paper and mounted on Aluminum Dibond, with each dibond sheet fitted with a channel on the back, thus mirroring the collapsible borders between the analog and the digital at the conceptual core of People You May Know. Gomes provocatively disrupts our conventional understanding of the medium of photography in the age of digital manipulation, serving us a body of work that goes where few Indian male photographers dare to — into the vulnerability and fragility of the self, inadvertently contesting any easy perception and representation of masculinity. It is also a document that attests to how, in an age governed by social media dependency, algorithms have taken over the role previously occupied by fate.

Firstpost spoke to Gomes ahead of his debut at Arles. Edited excerpts follow.

Who are you, Chandan Gomes?

Often, the shortest question is the most difficult to answer. I think in context of this interview, I am the sum of all my answers and a little more (or less).

I'm thinking of how our generation, the one you and I are both part of, has witnessed in an eerie way, the birth of digital relationships. Where the generations before us had "pen-pals" and therefore had a different reception of the meaning of distance, and how it could be qualified as safe or un-safe, bridgeable or irremediably vast. We, on the other hand, grew up in an ICQ world, which broadened in many ways our conception of who constituted a stranger, and how easily one could talk to strangers from the presumed safety of one's home, assuming digital guises and even alter egos, or adopting fluid gender roles in order to communicate. People You May Know seems embedded in this history, but it also seems to reveal how, in the 21st century, so many more dimensions have been added to what used to be just three: Age, Sex, Location (ASL). Tara found you through Facebook. What led you to pursue a dialogue with her? And was your decision to continue the dialogue an act of artistic premeditation?

In the virtual world everyone appropriates, imitates who they want to be, but hide who they really are. While conversing with Tara, I could be everything I was not out there in the real world, without having to prove myself. At the same [time], I could also be myself, without having to worry about being judged. I was living a paradox and like Alice, I fell into a rabbit hole… on several occasions I tried to end our conversations, but I failed quite miserably!

To answer the second part of your question, I will begin by briefly explaining my practice—as an artist, I do not work on projects—I photograph anything and everything that catches my attention and curiosity. In due course of time, some of these photographs come together to tell a story, while others exist by themselves. For the longest time, I was archiving our conversations only to build a record of them. It was a pursuit devoid of any artistic ambition. Only when I saw these hundreds of screenshots together for the first time, I felt that I might have a story to tell. I thought of our conversations as [a] book of secrets that can be shared with others.

Photographer Chandan Gomes on his exhibit People You May Know built out of archived digital interactions

Chandan Gomes/Courtesy of PHOTOINK

You talk about secrecy (‘Happy with a secret.’). And I imagine this feeling emerged from your knowledge of this private conversation that you were having with a total stranger and perhaps her attentiveness towards you that made you see yourself differently. One strategy you're clearly using is that of exhibiting screenshots of these private conversations, rendering the secret public, in a way. What were some of the decisions you had to make when navigating the secrecy of this affair while simultaneously making art of out it, art that will now be displayed in an international set-up?

These conversations rely on anonymity, facelessness and chance. Tara could be anyone. Throughout this work, I have questioned this divide between the virtual and the real—what is this divide? Should it even exist? What happens if Tara does not exist outside Facebook? Or outside Facebook, she is not the Tara I know? What happens to our conversations then—what should I make of them? This entire journey has been in the dark… by making this work I am attempting to bring some light to it.

Decisions like which conversation to use in the photographs and how to contextualise them were crucial in the making of this work. The challenge was to ensure that the secretive nature of our conversation is retained in the photographs. There was a lot of trial and error involved in making these collages.

There seems to be this recurring motif of the act of "reaching out"; and the focus on "suicides/sudden deaths" is fascinating, because it also says so much of the great loneliness that seems endemic to our times; an irony considering how communication has never been as easy as any moment before in our history. You’re making this point that you reach out to people you “may know”; but the subtext there is also the false sense of familiarity that digital media bestows on us; the feeling that we may know someone because we are privy to the digital manifestations of their selves; but in reality, we may not know them at all. What were some of the discoveries you made while chartering this ambiguous space between the known self, the unknown self and the unknowable self and the ‘other’, who is a stranger equally known, unknown, and unknowable?

Your question touches the core inquiry of this work—what is this loneliness that most of us feel, despite living in times when everyone is connected through technology? I often found myself speaking to Tara on Facebook, while in the company of my family and friends, the people I claim to love. The more Tara and I spoke, the quieter I grew in the outer world. But the loneliness remained; only the way it manifested changed. Before Tara, I was seeking companionship in the real world. After meeting her, I started feeling lonely outside the virtual realm.

In retrospect, this work is a portrait of the person I am—conflicted, indecisive, impatient and forever struggling with the notions of ‘self’ and ‘other’. The ambiguous space you speak of is where I like residing now. The unknowable attracts me the most because as a proposition it is fluid and not caged either by fact or memory.

Photographer Chandan Gomes on his exhibit People You May Know built out of archived digital interactions

Chandan Gomes/Courtesy of PHOTOINK

“I hope I am not merely a social experiment for you.” Tell us about this line. As a photographer who can otherwise claim the privilege of defining his gaze, did you feel subjectivised? Did you feel like, for a change, you were the person who was being directed to pose, who was being re-framed?

To be honest, this role reversal was quite unsettling and discomforting. Often I felt I was getting the better of Tara, only to realise it was the other way around. This anonymous, faceless person got the best and the worst out of me. I use to wonder, what if she decides to make all our private conversations public? What if she is an elaborate prank being pulled on me? What if there was nowhere to arrive, or rest, even momentarily in this journey—where does closure lie then? These questions drove me towards making this work.

Self-inflicted wounds, their documentation and the prospect of their healing: This seems to be another significant narrative thread; a form of deliberate self-exposure. Were there other references that came to mind while you were building this narrative retrospectively? Were you apprehensive about bringing in your own personal struggle with sanity into the narrative?

Secrets are often confessional in nature—I started sharing the most intimately guarded details of my life with Tara. Initially I feared being judged by her, but as our conversations progressed that fear was dispelled. As an artist it became important to acknowledge my own suffering first, before I photograph someone else’s. To have the necessary courage to speak about my tryst with illness and self-harm, so that the next time I turn the camera to someone in a similar state, I know how far to go and where to stop.

Often photographers, artists, make a spectacle out of the suffering of others, but they forget to ask themselves—what if they were at the receiving end?

I know this work will open my past to a lot of scrutiny, maybe even ridicule. And I am ready for it. I believe in a definition of courage that takes into account human vulnerability. The macho photographer image never interested me.

Photographer Chandan Gomes on his exhibit People You May Know built out of archived digital interactions

Chandan Gomes/Courtesy of PHOTOINK

From the beginning, you bring in the shadow of your mother's memory disorder. Your work becomes obsessed with archiving the digital, and in doing so, incorporating into it elements of the analog. Tell us more about the commentary you are invariably making about the fractured nature of contemporary memory making; how it is in a sense split between the virtual and the non-virtual worlds we inhabit.

I am archiving the digital in order to make the intangible tangible.

Memory in the virtual world is fleeting and fragile. All my conversations with Tara exist in a cloud or a cache; they lack the physicality of letters.

Archiving enables me to preserve these conversations and make photographs out of them. And for me a photograph exists in print; on the computer it is just an image file. My parents were hobbyist photographers and I grew up shooting film, pasting photographs in the family album and writing letters to relatives and friends. Analog has a special place in my heart, that is why I enjoy making hand-made books. If you examine the form of this work, it is that of a photo-novella and lends itself quite naturally to the book form.

Suppose in the coming decade, Facebook crashes or becomes obsolete like Orkut did, all our conversations will cease to exist. And without these conversations, Tara and my relationship will be as good as a rumour. After investing two years of my life building this relationship, relentlessly photographing around it, I do not want to leave its survival to chance and more importantly to the very technology that enabled it grow in the first place. Ironic, isn’t it?

Photographer Chandan Gomes on his exhibit People You May Know built out of archived digital interactions

Chandan Gomes/Courtesy of PHOTOINK

You eventually fall deeper into cyber space when you begin to photograph Tara (clothed) over Skype. Did this act uncover any truths to you, besides her revelation of the naked body being like clear water in that it reflects its own image? There’s a transgression of boundaries; on the one hand those imposed by the concept of monogamy, on the other, those imposed by the screen. There’s a preoccupation, I feel, with the concept of embodiment and consciousness, wouldn’t you say?

Photographing on Skype was a surreal experience. It certainly revealed the extent to which I was willing to go to find Tara. The extent to which I could bury myself in our conversations, even if it meant to confront a past I have been running away from for almost a decade.

The work raises the question of fidelity—what does it mean in the digital age? Is fidelity only restricted to the physical act of making love? Is the physical act the only way to make love? What about those who do it on the phone, on Skype or on Facebook—what they feel, is it any less real? In one of our conversations, I joked about cheating on my partner with my laptop. To which Tara replied in the affirmative. But unlike me, she was serious about her answer. That was for the first time I consciously thought about the two lives I was leading with two different people. The realisation created a deep-rooted conflict and in my photographs you can see how it unfolds with the passage of time.

You are right in your observation—there is certainly a preoccupation with the concept of embodiment and consciousness. I still can’t articulate clearly about it and may be that’s [why] this work exists. I do not think it provides all the answers, but it certainly raises a few pertinent questions.

What have been some of the responses you've received to this body of work?

I have not shown this work in India or anywhere else until now. I am waiting for this exhibition to open at Rencontres d’Arles on 2 July. I am quite eager to see how people respond to it. A lot is at stake here!

Updated Date:

also read

These Indian museums are working to spread the message of climate change
Arts & Culture

These Indian museums are working to spread the message of climate change

A new initiative called Indian Museums Against Climate Change (IMACC), is spearheading this movement in our country. Launched by Bengaluru-based non-profit organisation ReReeti, it brings together eight museums around the country to work for this common cause.

India intends to operate S-400 missile system to defend against threats from Pakistan, China: Pentagon
World

India intends to operate S-400 missile system to defend against threats from Pakistan, China: Pentagon

According to the Pentagon, throughout 2021, New Delhi continued to implement a foreign policy aimed at demonstrating India's role as a leading power and net provider of security in the Indian Ocean region

Dr Rajneesh Singh: The BJP leader from Ayodhya who wants to 'unlock' the secrets of Taj Mahal
India

Dr Rajneesh Singh: The BJP leader from Ayodhya who wants to 'unlock' the secrets of Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal or Tejo Mahalya? The current BJP media in-charge in Ayodhya district, Dr Rajneesh Singh, has filed several RTI applications, seeking information about the heritage site. He says he will now take the matter up with the Supreme Court