Nighttime is always characterized by an absence of light – a feature we rely on to keep us attentive and safe. We feel things hiding in the tireless shadows, only to disappear when daylight returns at dawn. What we fail to realize is that these tumultuous situations exist in daylight just as often as they exist at night – it’s just a matter of perspective.
For photographer Arko Datto, these nocturnal realms offer the perfect space to create hallucinatory narratives about raw social and political issues. Using his flash to candidly capture both people and animals in their urban environments, his resulting images appear as highly aestheticized accidents – cinematic stills from a feverish nightmare. A departure from his acclaimed work Pik-Nik, the two series Will My Mannequin Be Home When I Return and What News of the Snake That Lost Its Heart In The Fire work to address current political climates in India, Malaysia and Indonesia. These two series will soon be followed by a third installation about Bangladesh, becoming a trilogy tied together by Datto’s abrupt camera flash in the darkness of nighttime.
In this interview, Datto speaks to LensCulture about the importance of visual narratives, what compelled him to make this new work, and the delicate balance that comes with pursuing political commentary while simultaneously rejecting stereotypes.
LensCulture: Your professional trajectory as a photographer is an interesting one, because you were on a different career path before you began pursuing this medium on a regular basis. From what I understand, you were in school for engineering. What made you switch modes to pursue photography?
Arko Datto: Well, my father is a photographer, so I’ve been around photography for a very long time, and I have to say, I stayed away from it because of that history. When it came back to me, it came back in this delusional way – I think that’s the best way I can put it. While I was avoiding it, I was studying science, and I was in Paris on a scholarship pursuing mathematics and physics. But while I was doing that, I started getting into photography in the city, going to protest movements in Paris, which are a dime a dozen there. I started working with people to develop an understanding of the disenfranchised in France – people on the lower rungs of the social order, as well as the diaspora and undocumented immigrants. That was the foundation for how I started photographing, but by the time I left Paris, I wanted to reframe it and start developing my art in my own way, as something more distinct.
LC: What kind of photography did your father pursue, and why did it compel you to avoid the medium?
AD: He was a photojournalist when he was in Calcutta. He did great stuff, but he didn’t do it for very long, and at some point stopped being very productive as a photographer. That was distressing for my family, especially my mother, which is why I stayed away from it. Photography was the enemy for a long time, but when it became a friend, it became a very good friend.
LC: Your work has really evolved with your latest images, and your last two series are the first chapters in a trilogy. Why did you divide the work into these separate parts, and what is the structure of this trilogy?
AD: I would describe myself as having multiple fields of inquiry. The work I’m most invested in right now is a really big project. As you said, there are three chapters, and the first one just came out as a book. The second book is going to come out next year, and the third one the year after. The trilogy explores the idea of the night. I’m looking at the night in the context of our developing world, primarily in Asia. So, the first book looks at India, the second book looks at Malaysia and Indonesia, and the third will look at the space in between those two: Bangladesh.
LC: Why is this exploration of night-time important to you? What makes the night so different from pursuing these themes during the day?
AD: I think it’s important to tackle these intricate ideas through the filter of the night. I’m looking at the experiences of people and animals caught in a confrontational moment – in the urban environments they are forced to live in. I describe them as “existential explorations of the night.”
LC: And what are the concepts you are exploring in that darkness?
AD: I want to explore the politics of representation, and I want to question and develop ways in which we use color to show the Indian subcontinent. There is a huge history of colonial photography in India that persists today, with photographers like Steve McCurry, who come from a very problematic perspective when they show the world that I come from. But I’m also simultaneously addressing the political situation in India right now, with its rising intolerance and fascism. We are in the hands of an extremely right wing, intolerant, fascist religious movement that has seized political power, so this work has a lot of symbolism and subtext that alludes to the way society is evolving here right now.
LC: The colors you use also work to subvert this traditional white gaze that has come to define photography of India, and I wonder if you could speak a bit about your relationship to color with this work. Everything is hyper-saturated and you’re pumping up the cyan and magenta, which is obviously an intentional decision for this series in particular, and stands in contrast to the more muted tones you use in your series Pik-Nik.
AD: Definitely. I came across this quote from Steidl after I started making this work, where he says, “Fuck the mid-tones.” I think that really makes sense with what I’m trying to do. I’m playing off these extremes of high and low key, and that’s the spectrum I look at. At certain points, I’m suffusing or infusing my projects with color, but it’s also an organic process. Of course there’s an artistic imperative, but I’m guided by what I see and what I feel.
For example, if we look at my images in Pik-Nik, it’s different. This is a project I do each year for two months – December and January – in eastern India. It’s the only time when the weather isn’t shitty, and the light is nice. I’ve been working on this project for five years, and over time it settled into that muted color schematic. It just made more sense for the images and for the mood that I was looking at. In a sense, my projects are also an exploration of myself and how I feel about them.
LC: And what made the saturation speak to you for this newer work?
AD: When we look at photojournalism, the way we see colors doesn’t feel very genuine – you can tell they are from an outsider’s perspective. I wanted to show people what the colors look like from somebody who is actually from that place, and these are the colors that spoke to me.
LC: As much as it is about color, it’s about how color is represented through light, especially because these images are taken at night, when luminosity is more sparse.
AD: Absolutely. Mannequin works in darkness, so every image is illuminated by flash. I’m bringing out things from the depths of the darkness, and it’s very confrontational – it’s brutal, and I risk getting hit or physically assaulted by the people I am photographing. It’s very edgy in terms of how I am creating this world – it’s a world that is used to existing in complete darkness, and I am bringing it out of that. But then of course in Pik-Nik, it’s all out there in the daylight, which is different.
LC: So what frame of mind are you in when you are taking these photos at night?
AD: I work on a more intrinsic level. If I have an idea for something, I get very into making it happen. In some ways, I sense an image and then I follow it. There are moments where I see a potential image before it happens, so I stop and think, “Okay, I have an image here, and I’m going to wait for that right moment.”
LC: Then I’m wondering how you would describe this work. Categories are always more limiting than not, and you’re commentating on things like traditional documentary methods, but I definitely wouldn’t categorize this as “documentary.”
AD: I would describe this project as a mixed art project, where it’s definitely not documentary work. A lot of images are taken on the street and are things were I do not interject, but there are a couple images of my friends or people that I know. I guess I would say a lot of these images are made with the idea of a constructed set. I look at it as a commentary on what reality actually is. It’s all about visualizing perspectives.
LC: When viewers come to this work and see your lengthy titles, I think they search for an explanation for the images in those words. How did you come up with the title Will My Mannequin Be Home When I Return?
AD: The title comes from sitting down with the images for a long time and seeing what came to me, and it’s a question, but it’s intentionally phrased without a question mark. So it’s simultaneously a statement and a question, which makes it existential. Mannequins are a big thing in Hinduism – you have thousands of gods and goddesses, and they are idols. We construct them out of clay, and then we throw them into the river. I wanted the title to be relevant, but to probe and push you to create your own narrative for the images.
LC: And in that same vein, how did you come up with the title for What News of the Snake That Lost Its Head in the Fire?
AD: That one is a bit less abstract. This is the work that looks at Malaysia and Indonesia, which used to be this tropical paradise. Right now, they are being degraded by development and massive palm oil plantations. A lot of this work is made in Penang, and a lot of this island has been lost to Chinese speculators who are building luxury condominiums. They are too expensive for the people in Penang to buy, and the people who have purchased the apartments do not live there. In the end, you have these luxurious towns that nobody lives in. The forests are being cut down to make way for these real estate projects, and the people from the land are also gradually being shifted out, because once you have a luxury apartment and department store complex, people from that area move away, and it becomes an artificial, constructed landscape.
While I was making this work, the world’s largest python actually came out from the forest into the hands of construction workers who were developing one of these sites. For the next three or four days, there was a media circus, and everybody was taking pictures and selfies, holding the python in their arms. After four days, the python died in the hands of the people, and while it was dying, it delivered a baby python – in this curious, strange case of proper poetic injustice. But that became a very strong commentary on where that entire region – and on a broader scale, where human beings in general – are headed. That’s where that title came from. I’m basically looking at different elements that speak to me in the works, and then I create this cuisine of recipe names that refer to some of the ingredients. Then, the way they are put together slightly edges you towards creating your own understanding of the works.
LC: It’s important to also speak about these images and how they are formulated into a book, because that is the primary mode in which you intended them to be presented. How did you sequence these images to guide readers through the narrative you want to present?
AD: In the book, we invite the reader to come into it as if they are taking a journey through the night. It’s a nightmarish reverie – you’re having a bad dream, you’re probably drunk, or you’re an insomniac. But imagine you are walking through the night, and you have these different images coming at you. You’re unsure of where you’ve seen them before – it’s confusing, like déjà vu. We had the original images, and then we took them to the surgical table and cut them up, blew them up, mixed and matched them with other images to create a sense of torpor – a sense that these civilizations will go on in the book.
LC: You also incorporate some words in the book. What language is this, and why did you go with that decision?
AD: The designer, Nicolas Polli, and I created a language that you can see when you open the interior flap. It’s a language that you can almost feel, touch, and maybe understand – but it dilutes comprehension. Nicolas studies a lot of Indian scripts, like Hindi, Bengal and others, and we made a mix of them to create that language. It stands as the language of the night.
LC: And how did your experimentation with color translate to the printing of this publication?
AD: The book is printed with six colors. Instead of the normal CMYK, we removed the yellow and replaced it with a fluorescent yellow, and then we added a fluorescent pink and blue Pantone, so there are three fluorescent colors. That’s why the book looks pretty wacky. The symbol on the cover is the letter M – which stands for Mannequin – and it’s luminescent, so it glows a bit at night.
LC: This work is so grounded in storytelling and narratives in its book form, so I wonder what it’s like for you to select individual prints to be displayed in traditional exhibition settings. How are you navigating this area of the photography world?
AD: For the last four or five years, I’ve been working by myself here in my studio, and have only recently been exhibiting in Europe. Of course, the risk is always there with work that is so intrinsic, with a delicate narrative and strong process. When you take a few images out and put them on a wall, they lose that narrative value. But a lot of the images do stand by themselves as single images. This is the balance I am working through right now.
For example, there is an image of a turtle that looks like it’s cosmically flying away in space. It references the idea of a higher power or a creator of the universe in Hindu mythology – his avatar is supposed to come down to Earth when society is in need of cleansing. That image really plays with the idea of where India is headed right now, and also plays with the juxtaposition of the word “cleansing,” which is being used a lot in political discourse at the moment. This image is symbolically strong and stands on its own while also speaking to the project, but I always refer people back to the book for the entire story.
LC: As you explained, this work acts as a general commentary, but it’s also incredibly personal. When you contextualize things and explain the narratives, of course it becomes more clear, but I’m wondering how you want people to approach this work if they don’t have you there to explain. What are the reactions you are looking for from your viewers?
AD: All of my projects are long-term projects, and they straddle the fine line between art and documentary – I do not categorize myself as either. I try to make it clear at every point that my primary imperative as an artist is to create worlds. When I work on these projects over a span of many years, they each become a world on their own that I create with my choice of subject, colors and composition. At the end of the day, I want people to immerse themselves in the world that I am creating for them. In a lot of cases, they are very different worlds – the world of Pik-Nik is very different from the world of Mannequin. But in a sense, they are logically consistent worlds in themselves – or at least I hope they are.
What I want is for people to be affected by that world they enter into. As an artist, I infuse the work with multiple levels of interpretation – there is the realm of aesthetic, there is the realm of colors, there is the realm of interactions you have with people, and then there is the political subtext. Of course, for people who are closer to me in terms of geography and politics, they probably understand that last point more than those who are not. But even if they don’t, I believe that there is a lot for people to take away from these works. It’s just a matter of coding. You can take away whatever you can from them, but hopefully in the end you are affected by the work in some way or another. I don’t want people to walk away feeling neutral.