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When a photograph is a site for design

Photographer Rohit Chawla on his new show and why he wants to seduce, not shock, the viewer with his work

Chawla’s friend at Jantar Mantar, in 1981, when the photographer was 17
Chawla’s friend at Jantar Mantar, in 1981, when the photographer was 17 (Rohit Chawla)

When the pandemic struck, veteran photographer Rohit Chawla retreated to his home in Goa. Currently, however, he’s back in Delhi, spending hours at Spin, the home-grown furniture brand’s flagship experience store in Chattarpur’s Dhan Mill Compound. Here, he has put on display close to 80 images, spanning the past 30 years of his working life.

Called DesignEdit, the month-long show, which opened on 19 November, is different for two reasons. The first, it does not focus on portraits, which he calls the “mainstay” of his craft. It is instead, as the title suggests, an edit that brings together works, including portraits, that display a strong design sensibility—whether it is through his trademark use of props, or through a play with the physical design of a space, to make an image. The second reason is, DesignEdit rejects a gallery approach to showcasing his photographs, blending instead into the store itself. The images are strewn across Spin, arranged into the store’s show-spaces, so that customers can experience what a specific photograph might look like, hanging in their homes.

DesignEdit is also doubling up over the weekends as a platform for conversations with design professionals. On 5 December, for instance, public can attend a ‘freewheeling discussion’ among fashion designers Tarun Tahiliani, Amit Aggarwal and supermodel Lakshmi Rana, followed by one on the future of design education, with architects Saurabh Gupta and Pankaj Gupta, along with Amit Gupta, the editor-in-chief of the architecture and design portal Stirworld. Chawla also plans to take his show to Goa later this month, then Puducherry and Ahmedabad. In an interview, he talks about the show, India’s design culture, and more. Edited excerpts:

Why a design-focused photo-exhibit?

I think India is going through a design revolution. We are just bursting at the seams with great and beautiful design, which was not the case earlier. I remember as a child, I only saw good design when I travelled abroad. Ikea was my temple of design. This is not the case anymore. Indian craftsmen, young people — they’re all creating incredible design, and this is not just limited to clothes, food, packaging. In fact, I think design is the final frontier if you want to become a first world country exporting things. And I’m so glad that the Indian design community is packaging our products the way they’re meant to be. We have arrived at the global stage. There is also a lot of design education today; visual culture has intensified.

Nafisa Ali in Mahabalipuram, 1994.
Nafisa Ali in Mahabalipuram, 1994. (Rohit Chawla)

What was it like dipping into your archives?

Portrait is the mainstay of my craft, but I kept most of that away. I took images that were design-centric—some that might have been taken 20-30 years ago. It was interesting to look at my own design journey. I’d always taken pictures, but never had the time to really put them together and see a (common thread emerge). It seems like I had always kept looking for devices and tools to shoot with and create a sense of design.

What makes a good photograph?

Something that makes you stop. In today’s world, if a photograph makes you stop and look at it again, or if you remember it, it’s done its job. Because we are inundated by images all the time, on a daily basis. Do you remember the pictures you saw yesterday? As a photographer, if I re-look at my career, I’d be very happy if I have 10 images which could stand the test of time. Maybe the Ai Weiwei portrait (in 2016, recreating a refugee child being washed ashore in Lesbos) is one, the Vikram Seth portrait (in 2013, when the Supreme Court upheld Section 377) is another.

Sometimes a photographer is known for just one image in his life. I am a photographer who worships at the altar of beauty. I want all things beautiful. I don’t want to look at a beggar in Calcutta, shot with a flash — the poverty porn that goes to biennales. I’m not trying to shock, I am trying to seduce you with my image.

Poet Tishani Doshi outside her house, in 2017
Poet Tishani Doshi outside her house, in 2017 (Rohit Chawla)

What are your thoughts on a staged photograph as a space for the confluence of design and art?

Let me answer this by talking about a photograph I took at Enrico Navarra’s place in Saint-Tropez. This photograph is like graphic design in a photograph. The arc of a back, the Mao jacket (sculpture by artist Sui Jianguo) the colours, the tonality, the lines. I saw it in my head before I got her (to pose) there. The photo of Tishani Doshi, too, I had planned—of her going out of her house in the morning, that she should be wearing a white outfit.

An artist paints from scratch on a blank canvas. I’m trying to do the same with photography. Also, my own theory is that all good design is about subtraction. All I’m doing is getting rid of the unnecessary. But yes, I still use tools and props for design, (and include) certain architectural styles that I like. For example, (what I captured at) Jantar Mantar (one of the photos on display is the first one Chawla had taken when he was 17 in 1981) is form playing with open spaces. I haven’t put props there. I control where I put my model, in a quiet manner. 

DesignEdit is on till 15 December at Spin, Delhi. 11am-7pm.

Also Read: What's the point of a photographic museum?

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