Renowned photographer from Kolkata on a prestigious EU project
World renowned photographer Kounteya Sinha gives an exclusive GB interview to Saheli Mitra, about his latest global project New Homelands and why he loves returning to Kolkata
• What is the new EU project New Homelands all about?
New Homelands was both a path-breaking and a brave idea devised by Delegation of the European Union in India headed by Ambassador Tomasz Kozlowski. The delegation argued much has been written about European travellers to India but relatively little is known about Indians in Europe. Europe was aware of the incredible contributions being made by Indians living in the continent but they wanted real first-person stories of such contributions. So, they announced the first ever European Union Diaspora Fellowship last year and invited applications from Indian journalists and photographers across the world.
EU believed that a cultural project of such magnitude - which has never been tried before - would showcase how Indians have made useful contributions to the countries they live in within the EU - that will help deepen understanding and goodwill between the two regions. The mandate was very interesting – find Indians in eight countries of your choice and document them through photographs and interviews.
I am very bad with applying for global fellowships but I was pushed and nominated by His Excellency Laimonas Talat Kelpsa - the young and dynamic ambassador of the embassy of Lithuania to India who was very aware of my repertoire as a photographer. Hundreds of applications poured in for this super prestigious fellowship and I was one of the three chosen to carry out the project.
• Why was New Homelands so challenging?
New Homelands was the most challenging work I have ever done. Imagine landing up in a complete foreign land and go looking for Indians – none of whom you know - you don’t know where they live, what they do, which ones have the best stories.It’s like being in the middle of a vast ocean and your compass does not work. You therefore have no clue which direction is land. And all of this in a matter of seven days in each country. Two decades of journalism came really handy in this project. I didn’t just click incredible people and faces, but their inner beings – who they are, what they do, what makes them happy and what makes them sad. A single picture to capture the person you see and the person you don’t. I did over 120 such interviews in the 65 days I was in Europe, hopping between Italy, Slovenia, Greece, Lithuania, Denmark, Spain and Cyprus.
The Indian Diaspora project to document the life of the Indian diaspora in its EU member states was a game changer. A lot has been done to highlight the diaspora in the US and UK, but till now, very little is known about those who live in Europe.
• How did you plan out your work?
My plan was simple - stop, knock, meet, discover and reveal. And that is what I did. Every human story is worth documenting. That is how one finds ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The photo shoots and subsequent interviews revealed the greatness of the human spirit. I spent hours with families across Europe getting to know the “real them”.
EU is a continent. Several countries and different worlds packed inside one boundary and hence unlike anywhere else in the world, several varied worlds inside one world. I went to every country with a mood for some serious urban hunting – discovering one incredible Indian and then tracking others through invisible footprints. You will see in my stories immense struggle, endless heartbreak but a feisty character – the one who survived against all odds, the Indian who made Europe kneel with his tenacity to survive and an undying need to be successful.
• Where have your photographs been exhibited?
The photographs I took have been exhibited in Delhi and Mumbai at their most prestigious galleries – Indian Habitat Centre and the National Centre for Performing Arts respectively.
The exhibition will travel to other cities as well. New Homelands is also being conceived as a book – the first such planned exclusively on the Indian diaspora in Europe.
• How do you define yourself – global citizen, globe trotter or travel writer?
I am no global citizen or globe trotter. I am a student of this planet. I follow stories to where they are. If that makes me travel the world, so be it. It is therefore never about the place as much as it is about its soul.
When I travel, I don’t go looking at places as much as I go looking for its soul.Travelling and embracing unknown worlds, unknown communities and alien customs teach us that the world does not begin and end with us.
• You keep travelling across the globe. What do such travels teach you?
Travelling changes the way we interact with the world. You understand the rules of nature – it never takes what it does not need.Nothing teaches you more than the open road.
I found my best friends in them. So, I always tell young people – head out, get out of your bubble, go meet the world, its people, its cultures and its cuisine. It will shape you to be better, more sensitive, more observant and above all more ecstatic.
• Why has photography always appealed to you? You click amazing photographs of known places and they are almost like photo stories. Do you think pictures appeal to the audience more than words?
My father Soumitra Sinha is my ultimate hero. For me he is the greatest photographer ever. Again, it was his hobby. So, photography for me is my invisible umbilical cord with the greatest man ever – my father.
I also have an unquenchable thirst to know, an undying need to discover and explore the unknown, the absolute obsession to move constantly and to follow the one true religion – knowledge. All my work has to have a meaning, a purpose. It has to make my feet bleed, my heart weep, push my limits and open my eyes. Photography for me is my order and my chaos. It is my karma and my service to humanity. It is my religion and belief.
• What is your advice for amateur photographers?
If you are brave enough to take a picture, be equally brave to show it. It is your utmost duty to show respect to the picture that allowed you to click it – drag it out of anonymity and give it life.I see a lot of photographers talk about their camera models and the shutter speeds and the technical bullshit that they think define them.
I have only one camera, that’s a D 90 Nikon. For me photography is all about the eye. Pictures are taken by people not by machines. Both journalism and photography have a very common strand – discovering and revealing the unknown. A very powerful medium to change and to protect, to glorify and to reveal.
• Which were your memorable photographic shows?
My first show 6262 revealed to the world a story very few knew – Rabindranath Tagore’s silent contribution to the freedom struggle of Lithuania.
My second show Hiraeth was about a community of people like me for whom home is everywhere – a community of urban nomads.
My third show Stone was a modern-day reality – questioning who is more alive – people or buildings. It talked about how sometimes walls and stone have more life in them than people.
New Homelands is about incredible journeys – Indians – each one of them heroes who didn’t fear the unknown but embraced uncertainty.
• Given a chance what will you choose – writing/photography? Which medium according to you is the best medium for expression?
This is like being asked to choose between my heart and my head. Both are intrinsic part of me. I can’t do without any. I am a journalist first and then a photographer. I am on a short sabbatical – I do the same thing now as I did earlier – tell stories. The medium has changed slightly – from words to images. When I create art, I am absolutely true to myself and my subject. My photographs are living beings, not just images in paper. They sweat, they cry, they toil and they celebrate.
• Despite being a global citizen, you often return to Kolkata. Is it like returning to your roots or something else draws you to this city?
Kolkata is the city of my birth.Every bit of sensitivity that I have, every bit of love for the arts, every bit of sense of competition and achievement – I have learnt here. Unfortunately, because of my work, I have lived out of the city for 17 years.
Kolkata means a lot for me now than it ever did before. At a time when I lived in the city, we were swamped with studies and tuitions and deadlines. There was never that sense of discovering a city. I also didn’t have money to take a taxi and roam about it, discovering its hidden side at will.But now, I start my day everyday by getting on a taxi around 5.30 am and aimlessly driving around, stopping at will, documenting it to my heart’s content.
Every show I have done till now, I have opened it in Kolkata first.The city is now my muse.I spend at least 12 days in a month in Kolkata now. I work out of it.
The city is even more spectacular now. It is seeing a resurgence of arts and cultural festivals that it was always known to be a mecca for. What’s best, it is being made to rise like a phoenix by Kolkata’s young. Organisations like Calcutta Instagrammers powered by thousands of enthusiastic young photographers and documenters are flooding the internet with some of the most spectacular photographs of the city. Very few cities around the world are seeing such resurgence.
Never before, has Kolkata’s food seen so much attention as now - thanks to an increasing number of incredibly knowledgeable food bloggers. Being in Kolkata now, at this present time, is the best thing ever. It’s a real intellectual rush. After long hard journeys across the world, this is where I want to return. I love what is right and what is wrong with this city. Its history, its madness, its chaos, its order, and its people – everything fascinates me about Kolkata.
• You have toured several nations, met stalwarts from various fields, how many of them know of Kolkata? And how do they relate to this city? Is it just Tagore and Mother Teresa?
Kolkata mostly is about the Nobel Laureates – Rabindranath Tagore and Mother Teresa. It is quite unfortunate. That is why I had initiated the historic Sainthood Project last year – which was named by art critics as one of the top 10 art projects done globally by Indian artists.
It was the first ever crowd funded show to portray the city of Kolkata in Rome. The Project coincided with the canonisation of Mother Teresa as a saint in the Vatican.
Calling Kolkata ‘the city that gave Mother Teresa her name,’ I turned Rome’s iconic cobbled streets as an open-air gallery. For 12 straight days, I stood on the streets of Rome, Padua and Venice to showcase photographs of Kolkata. I exhibited 50 photographs of Kolkata. Since the whole world gathered in Rome around September 4, 2017 to celebrate the canonisation of Mother Teresa as a Saint, I just wanted the world to know the city that made her a household name globally.
The show became a massive success. From Americans to Europeans, Africans to Asians – all stood with me holding photos of Kolkata – showcasing them to the world in Italy.
• Do you plan to do any project on Bengal/Kolkata? Or have you already done? Elaborate
I have done three large shows in Kolkata till now, all of which became massive global hits. I have been putting together a show which will open in Kolkata in late February.
• You have been to the most happening parties and meet ups. Can you share a few experiences that you will always cherish?
For me, what remains in my mind, are things that matter. I have been incredibly privileged to have met the greatest of world leaders and game changers – from Bill Gates to Bill Clinton. I have also undertaken the greatest journeys people can think of, for which I am greatly humbled.
I have covered conflicts as far as Ukraine and as a journalist been invited three years in a row by the Royal Swedish academy to cover the Nobel Prizes in Stockholm. I have interviewed over three dozen Nobel laureates across the world. I have many very prestigious invitations for the year end but I will be spending them in prayer – in the Golden Temple in Amritsar to a Church in Delhi. One can never forget who gave all this to us. The whole year of 2017 has been an incredible lesson for me in fearlessness. I will spend the year end praying and thanking the Almighty.
• What are your plans for 2018?
I am on a sabbatical now. I am finishing four large book projects. I have six large photo shows planned for 2018 – many of them outside India.
I have chalked out a plan to travel across 22 new countries in the next year. That would mean by end of 2018, I would have seen 82 countries extensively – taking me closer to my goal of having travelled the whole world by 2022.
I am also doing individual projects – some of them very challenging and outside my comfort zone in 16 different countries.