An approach to a photographic narrative – Joel by Debasish Aich

I’ve always maintained that art is something not to be understood but to rather, feel. There are a plenty of beginner photographers not too sure about how to approach non-trivial photography, i.e. which are not particularly apparent straight off the book. When I look at a picture, I try to listen what it is saying to me, what are the questions it is asking and how it is guiding my thoughts. I enjoy these personal experiences and interactions with art and try to encourage people to explore them too! This is an attempt to instantiate how I narrate a photographic collection I care about.

Debasish Aich is a little known photographer from Kolkata, India but I’ve been an avid fan of his work for a few years now. Joel  is one of his completed works and I found it to be remarkably no-nonsense, straightforward collection of pictures. I’ve been looking to write about it and how it made me feel for a very long time. I recommend visiting the work first and then read my rather large (1400 word) narrative of it!



“Not until a man has inwardly understood himself and then sees the course he is to take does his life gain peace and meaning; only then is he free of that irksome, sinister traveling companion” wrote Søren Kierkegaard in an August evening, a century before W. H. Auden scribbled “The fall of Rome”. Debasish Aich’s picture compilation “Joel” starts with the simple line from it which nonchalantly says how we all, the ‘literati’, keep an imaginary travel companion with us. Some of us wonders where he is from, what is his story, what he eats, drinks, who does he desire? Does he like the sun, or the lager beer, or what colour is his eyes, or is he free? Some of us don’t even realize he’s even there but invariably, at some point, our paths cross and we recognize them, fight them, then make peace, coexist, eventually opening up to each other. Season changes from spring to autumn to winter to spring again and so do change our haunts. Eventually, like the inevitability of all friendships, we part our ways; but this time we’re not sure which one of us is leaving the place and which one is staying there forever. Joel is a journey of a brief time period of such colliding paths and parting ways just to meet again someday, somewhere.

Aich starts Joel with a certain distant transparency. He wonders about the graffiti hashtag #freeJoel on his way to work which he sees everyday and portrays his version of the unknown, the Joel, so that he can ask him his identity. The next immediate questions, “who has caged him? Why he is not free?” will answer themselves as we explore. It is apparent that this picture collection indeed is very personal in nature but Aich is not the only one whom it serves. In my version of the narrative, there are two parallel plots; one for our protagonist, and one for its ghost that follows it.

In the first two pictures we see the arrival of the self, our protagonist, into a new abode. The deadpan aesthetic of the gas station reminds me of Hopper and his nonchalance. The unfamiliarity coming from the aloofness is evident in here which is starkly contrasted by the aboriginality of the third picture of the fallen tree in the woods; almost like a ghost,  living there for ages. Now coming out of it, it is trying to find and interact with the newcomer in the town.

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The fourth picture of the desolate road in the twilight towards the town feels like a segway towards the next three pictures, slowly acquainting us from the dodgy edges of the town to the residential area. Each of these 5th, 6th, and 7th frames are eerie introspects of a mundane, upside down, ripple-less way of life; although the canvas is filled with entertaining nonsense, it is in reality, soul-less and void. The next (8th) frame of the blue and pink letterboxes is comical, almost like a giggle upon the glums of the previous three backyards. This is as cheery as it can be in an overcast town, but now the ghost knows where our protagonist lives! It starts to creep its way through for the first time in the next frame. This is a pivotal point in the narrative because of the gradual way the green infects the concrete. The first infection is subtle and serpentine; almost like it is forming a crack, a divide on the psyche. The next frame reminds me of Haruki Murakami’s “Kafka on the shore” where the reality and the supernatural meets at the “entrance stone” in the shrine which has the power to reset the existence as we know it.

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The broken cycle on the eleventh frame quietly changes the narrative from the first person viewpoint towards more interactive between the protagonist and the ghost. The picture of the striking red car in the bright sunlight initiates the interaction and the eventual morphing of the two worlds. This red car is a whole new kind of immobility from the immobile cycle; everything is perfect, perfect weather, open road, nice organized neighborhood but in the middle of all this we’re standing still, almost mindlessly.

This mindlessness develops into the next picture where we’re directly staring at an ice-cream freezer in a supermarket but can’t really see the ice creams inside. It almost feels like our protagonist can’t seem to figure out why exactly he’s there! The mood extends into the next picture which is perhaps, the first proper interaction between the him and the ghost. Between them lays the division of light and darkness. It feels like a bargain, offering a long lost, abandoned trapdoor inside so that they could both connect somehow, interact and get to know each other.

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The sixteenth frame is another one of the most pivotal points in the narrative, where not one but two pieces of chicken are being thawed for cooking, almost like preparing for a meal for two persons. The normalcy, the raw acceptance in this frame effectively indicates a partnership that, until now, was just in their interactions. The melancholy in the little strip of sunlight on the next frame is both heartwarming and saddening. Coming from the unprepared meal for two, this is a picture of a well formed friendship! The strip feels like there is a defeated smile for it because we know that this will be gone soon. Soon the weather will change and all the sun will be a distant memory. The strip looks like we miss the precious sunlight already! The family of bicycles next is like a sigh out of the detachment and long seasons of solitary lifestyle in an alien land for our protagonist. This is not hope, but a reminder of a foggy memory.

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Season changes. The burning autumn red of the reflection of the trees towards the actualization of the burnt and decapitated birch inside of the leafless forest seems like an eerie invitation back to the supernatural, like the ghost is slowly calling us in with an inviting smile. This is a decision vortex where our protagonist is about to lose his self and implode. He must make a decision soon about how does he sees the other half of him. Is it weighing him down? Pulling him behind?

Winter comes and soon everything is bound to be covered in white uniformity. The time for the final confrontation is near and here we are at a crossroad once again, trying to know for the one last time, who am I? Who is the other me? What place is this?  The flock of birds screaming into the air in the twilight; what is the meaning of all this?

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The calmness of the greenery next frame is like a return trip from a camping. A trip where we were almost going to lose ourselves but we’re safe at last. And we’re returning back home, and its time to sort out the reality from the supernatural. In short, it is time to discard the expired, used up chores and move on.

The solitary pathway into the shimmering trees ahead feels like saying goodbye to a friend. It is like saying adieu to a very close part of me who I know I need to bid farewell; but who actually is leaving in this picture? Is it our protagonist who is moving on, or the other self of him, the ghost leaving him in his rites there and moving on to shadow a new life? The next frame is a huge poetic twist further accentuating the growing suspicion that the goodbye in the previous picture is not adieu, but au revoir; till we meet again. Until then things will be buried inside me, frozen into hibernation, but the other me is never truly gone.

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“Private rites of magic send the temple prostitutes to sleep;

All the literati keep an imaginary friend.

Altogether elsewhere, vast

herds of reindeer move across

miles and miles of golden moss,

Silently and very fast.”

(The fall of Rome, W.H.Auden)

The narrative ends with an inner shout to free the Joels, the other sides of us, the ghosts form the present and the past, to free them from confinement, meet them, know them, make friends with them, to fight, to tussle, to share, to coexist and, not to yield. After all, “One has to know the size of one’s stomach!”



Question: who is you photographic inspiration and why?


A photographer friend of mine recently asked me to write about some photographers that inspired my own works! This is a bit absurd for me because inspiration differs form love and while I can safely talk about the photographers I love, it is tricky to discuss about inspirations because it is supposed to be directly related to my work. I’ll start by saying a bunch of photographers that (at present) deeply impact my way of seeing things!

Just like the bodybuilders tear the muscle groups by lifting weights just to regrow new muscle tissues, ideas and perceptions need to be shattered from time to time in order to grow new strains of ideas and perception. After about 2 years of taking pictures, around 2013, I realized almost everyone including me is doing the same thing around; same style, same narrative and same perfect compositions year in year out. I needed to get out of the droll and the first jolt I’ve got from the slow-shutter-smooth-water-esque boredom was Antoine D’Agata.

Antoine’s pictures were a slap, on the face, with a chair, made of steel. I’ve never seen such honesty and spontaneity in any other photographers before that. They completely  changed my idea of making a picture and all the glory of the word “Picturesque”.

The first thing I noticed about these pictures are the defiant challenge on the face of all the things pretty and sober in our perfect little bubbles. To quote from one of his books Anticorps, “It’s a theory that is both spontaneous and instinctive, a relentless practice born from personal experience, an experiment through excess, a political questioning about what photography is not and ought be about, in precise and, most of all, concrete terms.” The dormant fear, paranoia and the deepest and most honest hungers of the human mind pushes you towards a parallel existence where you question the limits and rules of sanity.

Like his mentor Nan(cy) Goldin, he lives his works. Most of the time he is sick or in drug rehabilitation centers due to his relentless self-destructive sledgehammering on the walls of sanity, existence and stability. But as you spend more and more time with his works, you realize, above all, he is an explorer in a pursuit of another dimension, another reality that is being hidden from our very eyes. Like he says in one of the interviews on American Suburb X magazine, “My aim is not to provide answers. But all these questions we ask – that some of us ask and others choose not to consider, are my responsibility, and duty, to keep on putting forward and to keep seeking answers for – meaning, to keep diving into the void and exploring the darkness – not in the hope of understanding it all or of attaining anything in particular, but in order not to give up on the exploration.

After Antoine, my world of understanding a photograph was shattering and was in a rebuilding phase. Martin Parr once said, “Good pictures say nothing”. I stopped posting pictures in social media because I was bored to death with the burning dishonesty of perfectly timed decisive moment compositions and this culture of making good photographs of Unicorns taking a leak at the end of the double rainbow near the pot of gold and all of that captured in shallow depth of field with cutting age petapixel image sensors and f/0.95 lenses. Though I stopped posting them, thankfully I never stopped taking pictures. I kept looking for a new world full of photographers that pushes the boundary of our perception of the human psyche.

It was a February afternoon in 2014 when, chilling and planning an upcoming trip to Benaras in the grassless Kolkata Maidan, a photographer friend/senior asked me to check out a few images of Benaras from the book End Time City. We were discussing about a lot of photographers and their works such as Jacob Aue Sobol, Anders Petersen, Daido Moriyama, JH Engstrom, Nobuyoshi Araki,  Olivia Arthur , Sohrab Hura, Roger Ballen, Prabudhha Dasgupta, Munem Wasif and many more, but I had no idea what was waiting for me inside End Time City by one Michael Ackerman.

What Antoine’s works did to my perception about photography, Michael Ackerman gave it a new direction. My world shattered once again and a new rebuilding phase started. The  screams in Antoine’s photographs were replaced by the deafening silence of Ackerman’s surreal lighting, dreamlike fictional narrative and an eerie control of emotions in devastating landscapes.

Although his works may seem as personal documentary, Michael Ackerman is not interested in documenting anything. Like Antoine, Ackerman is an explorer, delving deep into the psyche to resurface with emotions that you never knew you’ll feel. But there the resemblance stops. Where the reach of documentary ends, Fiction starts. Ackerman takes pieces of emotions and weave them into a nonlinear storyline open to as many interpretations as the viewer’s brain supports. The speeding landscapes and haunted streets leading to the eerie buildings paired with the deranged portraits of wounded but defiant men might spur images of Auschwitz from the Nazi period to some. Some might find their own self in the narrative. His work is not to be understood, but felt.

Ackerman hardly talks. You won’t find him talking about his pictures much. Heck, you won’t even find his pictures that much unless you get the (really expensive, almost collectible, cult status) books but once you do, I can guarantee your perceptions about how to see will be changed forever.

I personally am still exploring his works for 2 years and I can’t say I am anywhere close to be able to discuss about his work to the full extent. However, Michael Ackerman changed the way I see and make photographs and life. It drove me to a turning point which will either bring some answers, or will probably make me insane looking for it.

Either way, I’ll be pushing my boundaries and I hope you will start doing the same.

Have a nice week.