Each week, we’re asking different writers, artists and others to share some of their current favorites. This week we feature picks from photographer Preston Merchant.
Australian photographer Max Pam spent much of his career wandering dusty towns along the rim of the Indian Ocean in the 1970s and 80s, shooting loose and strange in a square format popular now because of Instagram. The pictures are personal, interspersed with reproductions of handwritten journal entries, annotations, and postcards. There are pictures of Buddhas and urinating women, guns, burqas, Batman, a severed kangaroo paw, camels, magicians, liquor bottles, temples, and dhows. It’s one big hippie notebook. Pam finds tenderness, delicacy, and joy linking the various Indian Ocean cultures he visits. The strangeness reinforces the humanity.
After a two-year stint in India for National Geographic that resulted in his first book, Steve McCurry spent six months following the monsoon from Mali to the Philippines in 1983. The result was Monsoon, a slim volume that nonetheless contains many McCurry classics, like the huddled Rajasthani women in the dust storm and the Gujarati tailor bearing his sewing machine above chest-high waters. McCurry is also a fine writer. His introduction details the hard landing of his airplane lost in storm in Mali and the collapse of a footbridge he was crossing in Goa. He spent two days in a hospital unable to bear the screams of the patients around him or to drink the water served to him by the nuns. He walked out before he was discharged.
Danish photojournalist Jakob Carlsen spent five years in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, shooting the Outcast/Untouchable/Dalit communities. Though most of the book is a chronicle of hardship — cleaning excrement, prepping corpses for death rituals, debt bondage — Carlsen also makes space for joy amid the turmoil. Barred from established temples, Hindu residents of the Wari Colony in Dhaka build their own worship space. Christians in Chennai take comfort in mainstream churches, even if they are often segregated by caste. An inter-caste couple from Nepal defy their parents and are married in Mumbai. The book also presents ample captions and explanatory text, much of it based on NGO and scholarly research.
4. Bollywood Dreams: An Exploration of the Motion Picture Industry and its Culture in India, by Jonathan Torgovnik
Jonathan Torgovnik’s pictures take in all of India’s filmi culture. The book opens with pictures of the mobile cinemas that bring movies to the countryside (villagers gather under a tent as the film is projected from the back of a truck). There are also shots of the artists who hand paint the hoardings and 18-meter cutouts of stars, a practice that is disappearing. Torgonik spent time with masala stars and Bollywood A-listers, set designers, directors, projectionists, dancers, extras, magazine hawkers, ticket buyers and sellers, devotees all. There’s even a haunting shot of a man pressing his ear into M. G. Ramachandran’s memorial slab in Chennai, hoping to hear his voice.
Art photographer Mitch Epstein married filmmaker Mira Nair and went to India in 1978 to meet her family and work on movies. He served as director of photography for Nair’s documentary India Cabaret and cinematographer for Salaam Bombay! Over several visits, he also wandered from Pushkar to Mahabalipuram, producing a book of photographs suggestive of a pilgrimage. But Epstein’s work is not just focused on obvious acts of devotion but also on the simple rituals by which India moves itself along — women drying saris at a tea stall in Galta, the hubbub of a flea market in Ahmedabad, a new bride photographing her husband in Kashmir. Epstein’s pictures are also notable for their inclusion of the middle class, a rarity in photography of India.
Preston Merchant lives in the Bay Area, California. A book-length photo essay, INDIAWORLD represents his ten-year journey among the Indian diaspora communities of North America, the Caribbean, Britain, Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. A selection of his images will be featured in an exhibit by the Smithsonian Institute’s Indian American Heritage Project called, “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation” (December 2013). Find him on tumblr and at @PrestonMerchant.