One thinks of India as a land of vibrant and varied color, of tile and textiles in everyday life that ravish with the most exotic hues. But Soham Gupta decided early on, when he dropped out of college at a difficult emotional turning point, that he would shoot exclusively in stark black-and-white. His subject became the unfortunate denizens of Calcutta’s meaner streets — prostitutes, junkies, lepers, the insane — whom he cajoled and befriended enough to gain their acceptance, and even their collaboration. Gupta’s nocturnal series, Angst, enshrouded them in an impenetrable, dolorous black from which they seemed to emerge as if from the photographer’s own imagination. The play of harsh light on their bodies and faces creates a theatrical atmosphere that almost redeems their deprivations and the pitiless blight of Calcutta. They are disturbing portraits, some difficult to look at without cringing (particularly that of a man so disfigured by a genetic condition called neurofibromatosis that his face sags pendulously down to his chest as if melting). But Gupta’s unflinching capture of the city’s underbelly is an artistic coup that manages to appear brave and sympathetic, not exploitive. He insists that these ghostly figures are beautiful to him, and it’s not hard to believe it’s true because of his own past alienation as a frail child. In some ineffable way, he identifies with them.
The title of Gupta’s self-published book, Diary/Fiction, reveals his aim — to entwine the hellish scenes he encounters on his nightly rambles with his own inventions. Like characters in a Beckett play, the people that lurch and swoon in front of his camera seem to peer out from an absurd world in utter resignation, neither defeated nor saved. Though the series is ultimately a critique of the vast disparity between the wealthy class and those barely surviving, living side by side in an extremely congested urban grid, it is also a vivid reckoning of just how many shades of humanity exist in the lower depths. One might guess that Gupta had been inspired by, say, Diane Arbus in his choice of marginalized human oddities. In fact, he was incited far more by a book — Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby Jr. “I think my work has the same harshness and cruelty that characterizes his writing.”
A passage from Gupta’s book, mounted at the entrance to the exhibition of Angst seen at the Delhi Photo Festival, attests to his own acrid literary taproot:
But our Calcutta, this crumbling city, it echoes with the cries of pain and the howls of agony, everywhere during heartbreaking winters, when the other half is having the most beautiful time of their lives. You just got to lend your ears to those silent cries, whether in the depths of the neighborhood garbage vat, by the trapped soul of the stinking dead cat and the unconscious mad man, flies buzzing around them, or in that country liquor bar buzzing with the grumbles of impoverished melancholy drunkards […]. The city, like that forgotten pot of tea, feels so bitter the tea-leaves resting in the teapot’s womb — like your love for Calcutta — responsible for all the bitterness.
Angst, by Soham Gupta, will be shown at Les Rencontres de la Jeune Photographie Internationale in Niort, France, March 9 through April 15.
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