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Exploring Alterity

Exploring Alterity
British photographer, Justin Coombes, explores the concept of ‘alterity’ for Habitat Photosphere’s photography workshop titled Talking Photography: SpeakingFor Others, on August 13 & 20 at India Habitat Centre in the national Capital.

Being in India as a foreigner can affect your sensibilities in myriad ways. And when you are an artist, it is bound to reflect in your art practice as well. It’s time once again for an out-of-the-box, interactive photography workshop that explores the unusual concept of ‘alterity’ in photography to be conducted by London-based British photographer Dr Justin Coombes. 

‘Alterity’, to quote philosopher Biran Treanor, is ‘that aspect of things, and others, that is (absolutely) unfamiliar, alien, or obscure’. Participants will learn to use photography (and text as well) to tell a very short story from an unusual perspective. It might be from the point of view of a bird, a dog, an historical figure, or even an inanimate object such as a building or a piece of rubbish. Both the sessions will be interconnected with each other through interactive exercises, photography sessions and slideshow lectures. 

Dr Coombes, a PhD in Fine Art from the Royal College of Art said,”I live in London but the reason I am out here in India at the moment is that my wife is Indian and I am producing a number of projects here, in part with a view to our eventually relocating to Delhi. On my first visit, we experienced some threatening behaviour from a man on the street who objected to our being together. One cannot experience racism, or at least one cannot reflect on it and try to understand it, without experiencing ‘alterity’. On the sunnier side, at our wedding, I definitely experienced lots of wonderful moments of ‘alterity’. It was a beautiful, traditional Hindu ceremony in Lucknow. Being the groom, and one of the very few white people there, I was very much aware of being on show, and of my ‘otherness’.”

Dr Coombes himself has been exploring the subject of alterity through his own art. “Recent photo-text works have given voices to a lovelorn, brain injured, acid-scarred crow; the Taoist and Buddhist deity Kannon; a pregnant, nesting kingfisher, and an officious Tokyo tour guide,” he says.

On Day 1 of the workshop on August 13, Dr Coombes will give an introductory talk and lecture on the history of ‘alterity photography’ that is photography that is used to show a viewpoint that is not the photographer’s own. The lecture will cover works from 1840s to the present day and is intended to provoke participants into thinking as imaginatively as possible. “We will look at some fascinating pieces. These include works from the 1940s by the Sri Lankan photographer Lionel Wendt and the contemporary British photographer Ivar Wigan. In these two examples, we will see how Wendt’s work invites us to see ‘through’ his own homoerotic gaze and Wigan’s view takes us to an Afro-American pool party.  Wigan’s work is especially germane to my theme here, because, like many good photojournalists, he invites us to see through an imagined insider’s eyes. I had assumed when I first saw this photograph that it was taken by a black American, an ‘insider’ at the party, not a white British man.”

Following the lecture, participants will work in pairs to plan and conceptualise the photographs they have to take over the next one week before the second session of the workshop that will be held on August 20.

The second session on August 20 focusing on editing will begin with participants discussing what they have photographed over the past one week, what stories they are trying to tell and what problems they have faced so far.  Dr Coombes will help each pair to refine their work, add text to accompany pictures wherever required, and in short, create a body of cohesive and coherent work. 

“The aim of this two-day format is to at least be able to create a mini-photo story for each participant and to have a wider sense of the creative potential of photography, especially in relation to storytelling and its capacity for showing others’ perspectives,” says Dr Coombes.   

In addition, the workshop will also give the budding photo enthusiasts a sense of how to develop their mini stories into a larger project, perhaps a photo book and even an exhibition. The workshop will be held at Experimental Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre from 11 am to 3 pm. One can call at 011-43662024/25 for registration with Rs 2000 for both days.
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