Photographer vs historian
On the verge of the publication of his fifth photo book Howling Winds in the series A Myth of Two Souls, L’Observatoire speaks to French photographer Vasantha Yogananthan. He is about to unveil another chapter of his contemporary interpretation of the Hindu myth of The Ramayana. I came to know Vasantha as concentrated artist, sitting behind his multiple screen desk, totally emerged in the colorful world of India and unraveling the famous Sanskrit epic.
The ancient books of The Ramayana, first recorded around 300 BC, tell us the story of prince Rama who, exiled from his kingdom, travels for fourteen years from north to south India. Nearly every year Vasantha publishes a photo book offering a new visual reading of The Ramayana chapters. “The fifth chapter of The Ramayana focuses on the animals’ quest to find Sita, the princess who has been abducted by Ravana, the king of Sri Lanka. They look all over the country before finally reaching the shores of Tamil Nadu. It is the first time they see the sea and therefore the setting of the book is the coastline of India and Sri Lanka”, Vasantha explains.
" The idea was that by staying several hours with the same dog I might end up with a picture about who it was rather than what it was looking like."
“When working on a book project I go through three phases: first is developing a concept, second is shooting keeping that concept in mind but being open to accident, third is fine-tuning and expanding the concept.” In Howling Winds this resulted in an exclusive focus on animals and still life, capturing essential story elements of this part of the Hindu tale. “I spent much of my days roaming around with monkeys, birds, cats and dogs. The idea was that by staying several hours with the same dog I might end up with a picture about who it was rather than what it was looking like.”
When I was first introduced to the series, around the time of the release of the second book, I wondered how Vasantha was aiming to keep the audience captivated with the same subject over the course of seven books. With every new release I learned that for each book he adopts a different visual strategy that corresponds with the narrative of the Ramayana. The meticulous attention to detail that is put into the books is raging on all pages. He worked for instance together with an Indian artist who applied the ancient craft of hand-painting to his black and white photographs, herewith creating a fairylike atmosphere. Or, for the fourth book Dandaka, he adjoined 1970s comics, overlaying the photographs, creating a playful dialogue.
Also for Howling Winds, Vasantha found a fitting visual metaphor. “The idea of painting with acrylic over the animals came a few months ago thinking about the fact that the more you go towards the end of The Ramayana, the more black magic happens,” he tells me. Working closely together with Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi, founder of publishing house Chose Commune, he made clear choices in the editing of the book. “I realized that it could be a strong visual approach to do an entire sequence of diptychs, with no cuts and no white pages throughout the entire book. It features a spiral binding, to echo a road map where you would flip through slices of the landscape.”
When I ask him if he ever regrets taking on such an immense project, he strongly denies. “I don’t regret it at all, even though I would be lying if I say it has been a smooth journey. It is an organic process with a lot of back and forth. And each book’s release is a big step.”
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© L’Observatoire Magazine – 2019