The evolution of a photographer’s artistic process is necessarily tied to personal change and growth, and while Bharat Sikka’s numerous projects are united in their rich cinematic styling, each series functions as a distinct chapter in the greater story of the artist’s life. With a father in the Indian Army, Sikka and his family lived all over India throughout his childhood. Later on, when the artist moved to New York City to attend the Parsons School of Design, Sikka quickly realized that the inspiration he needed to pursue photography wasn’t far from home—it was right under his nose all along.
Since returning to India, Sikka has found ways to represent his country through images that steer clear of stereotypical documentary stylings, addressing themes of masculinity and representation. The resulting work entangles the personal and the collective, from his early images that focused on the life of middle class men in India, right through to his latest project—an intimate collaboration with his own father.
In this interview for LensCulture, Sikka speaks to Cat Lachowskyj about the evolution of his photographic process through each of his bodies of work, the importance of time and patience in creativity, and what prompted him to embark on his exploration of masculinity through photography.
Cat Lachowskyj: You’ve worked with photography in so many different ways, from editorial and commercial shoots to your own deeply personal projects. But when I step back and look at your work, everything feels symbiotic, like each project is an individual tile that makes up the greater mosaic of your mind. What would you say was the seed for your early work?
Bharat Sikka: I’ve been taking pictures for a long time, but I don’t shy away from experimenting or finding new ways to explore photography. I am always trying to find myself, searching for that one particular way of looking at things. I made my first project, Indian Men, while I was studying in New York. It was the first time I left India for an extended period of time, and I felt very isolated. The distance made me think about where I came from, and about the solitary existence of men in India. When I returned to my country, I felt inspired to explore the life of the Indian middle class man, so I started photographing my father, my uncles and my friends—mostly older men. I found a certain sense of humor and loneliness within them, mixed with dignity, and I wanted to tell their story. There were things that I saw from a distance while I was away from India, that I couldn’t feel or see while I was living there.
CL: Can you talk about the evolution of your work? How did the ideas you were interested in manifest in each of your ensuing projects?
BS: After graduating from art school, I started working on a project called Space in Between. While working on Indian Men, I realized it was important to document India in a way that wasn’t stereotypical. I wanted to deal with its politics, environment and emotion using a different type of visual. At the time, my contemporaries were generating stereotypical projects about the Maharajas, palaces, elephants and slums—these images were everywhere. To counter this aesthetic, I created landscape images with my 4x5 camera, which felt slower and closer to the subject matter. The country was changing in many ways—certain things were on the way to being lost forever. The socialist, closed decades of the 80s and 90s were shifting, and this new affluence brought with it a new aesthetic. I wanted to capture the times that I grew up in before it disappeared forever.
After that, I worked on a smaller project called The Road to Salvador Do Mundo, the place my family moved to just after my daughter was born. The village felt like this small, beautiful fantasy where I was able to contemplate the emotional charge that came with being a new father. Shortly after that, I worked on a project called Matter, which took me about ten years to complete. It was an extension of Space in Between, going back over what I had seen, which felt simultaneously poetic and dark because it spoke about the evolution of social, religious and environmental issues. Everything was in color, but the subjects felt very monochromatic. I wanted the viewer to experience a lack of color, because it was a departure from India as this incredibly colorful, joyful and spiritual place.
But six or seven years ago, around the time I was working on Matter, my studio completely burned down, and I took a very intense break from photography, because I didn’t have anything left. The first project I did after that loss was called Where the Flowers Still Grow, which is about men living in Kashmir. It started as a lighter, poetic version of the place and, like my other projects, it became heavier. I didn’t want to take any sides on the political matter; I just wanted to inspect it in my own way, documenting the people in their land.
There’s a thread that revealed itself throughout all these projects before I started working on my latest work, The Sapper: the idea of what it means to be an Indian man. And because I work on projects side-by-side over longer periods of time, they each reflect one another. It’s not a conscious, intentional link—it just happens on its own.
CL: In a number of these projects, you document the lives and situations of people other than yourself, like the work in Kashmir, or the commissioned project you did in Brighton for Photoworks called The Marlboro Theatre. How do you find ways to ensure that your interactions with subjects are less distanced and voyeuristic? Do you focus on a visual aesthetic, or is it something else?
BS: I personally love communities and places, and that’s why those elements keep coming back in my work. For The Marlboro Theatre, I photographed in Brighton, which was a totally new world for me. In the town, there is a bar called the Marlboro Theatre, and it’s an LGBTQ bar. I would meet people there and ask them if they wanted to be photographed. I returned to Brighton about six or seven times over two or three years, and I spoke to my subjects at length, always trying to incorporate something specific about their stories into the images. Even though The Marlboro Theatre is not a part of India, and my work is mostly about my own country, I thought it was important for me to bring these images back to India and show them publicly. I didn’t know a lot about Brighton’s LGBTQ community, which meant other people in my country didn’t either, which is why it was so important to share it with them in a public exhibition.
CL: How does this feeling translate into your work back home? You touched on this a bit already, but can you explain when you started realizing that a different representation of India was important to you as a photographer?
BS: While my education at Parsons in New York City taught me to think about my work in a way that I hadn’t before, I also felt like I lost something. The teaching and learning was imbued with so much American history and values, and approval coincided with an adherence to and understanding of that world. But at the time, India was the place that I understood the most, and the place that I could openly comment on. It didn’t feel right to comment on something I wasn’t a part of. Although I was lured by the West and felt like I needed to be a part of it, I eventually realized that I didn’t have much to say about it. When I started photographing, there was this heavy Magnum-influenced perspective and perception of my country, and there were a few internal people like Dayanita Singh who were working on documentation—but I wanted to take some more radical risks in its representation.
CL: One of the primary ways you subvert this representation is by incorporating different materials, processes and objects into your work. Of course the foundation of your work is photographic, but you push the boundaries of what that might mean. You can see this starting in earlier projects, like Matter and Where the Flowers Still Grow, where you combine still lifes of objects and paraphernalia with people and places. And then with The Sapper, objects and other materials become a part of each piece in a physical sense. When did you realize that inanimate objects were important to include in your work?
BS: When I started working on Indian Men, I was deeply influenced by film and cinema, and painters like Edward Hopper and photographers like Philip Lorca Dicorcia. After some time, I realized that even though my content was completely different, it was obviously heavily inspired by these visuals. Matter was the first time I took a leap into not caring about whether or not people liked the images, so instead of shooting everything on 4x5, I started shooting in digital. I wanted to move forward rather than make it look classic.
I took this a step further in Where the Flowers Still Grow, making installations that incorporated objects I collected, using my scanner as a camera to document things. This feeling of incorporating ‘stuff’ now follows me throughout every project I tackle—I always think my work requires another dimension. I like layering different materials and images, and I’m still experimenting with those concepts.
CL: Often when artists try to put a bunch of different materials into a single project, it’s too fragmented and staccato, but yours always seems to flow. Is that something you’ve had to work on?
BS: I think it’s because I spend so much time on these projects—at least three or four years—and I am insistent on changing my mind about how things should be represented if they don’t feel right. The medium, film stock and tools you use need to correlate to the message you’re hoping to unearth. If I want to slow things down, I’ll work with a process that’s slower. For example, in The Marlboro Theatre, even though I was comfortably using digital by that point, I felt like I needed to slow things down and be more contemplative, so I went back to my 4x5 discipline. As another example, my father, the subject of The Sapper, was a structural engineer. He was always playing with paper, collage and drawings, and that’s what opened me up to incorporating those materials into that body of work.
CL: That explains the technique in The Sapper. What was the process of making your relationship with your father, which is something ephemeral, into something tangible? There are so many layers in this work. How did you discover which elements should be layered as effective metaphors?
BS: The Sapper evolved out of the idea of manhood, which of course trickles through all of my work. I knew it was personal, but I soon realized that there are so many projects where people photograph their families and loved ones, and I didn’t want it to be another one of those series. But I still wanted to bring in elements that reminded me of my childhood, when my father was in the army, and layer them in. I found some things in his closet that were extremely nostalgic, so I incorporated those into the work.
The more we worked together, the more I uncovered small memories, like how he used to teach me to make things with paper—airplanes and other objects—or architectural drawings. I was always interested in cutting up images and making collages, so I wanted to build those elements into the work. Then, I started giving my father the materials, asking him to make things as well, so he was able to be involved in some collages and other pieces. For example, he used to photocopy a lot of his work, so I photocopied a photograph of him and placed it with another image in a collage. There are all sorts of gestures like this layered into the project.
CL: There’s an assumption that the act of photographing—of putting a mechanical object between you and your subject—creates a distance between the two people participating in that exchange. But it seems like this series actually brought you and your father closer together.
BS: My father doesn’t live with us, and he was not around a lot when I was a child. Yes, he is my father, but he also represents the psyche of the Indian man, and this factor is important. Since we started the project, we definitely speak more openly about the past and present, and we spend a lot of time discussing, agreeing and disagreeing, which wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t pursue the work. When I started making this series, it wasn’t about following him around his house and documenting his life. Instead, it was about asking him questions: Do you remember when you did this for me? Can you pose in this way? All of these small moments piled up, and made me feel closer to him.
CL: While The Sapper is incredibly personal, you’re showing it to an audience, and it is made to be experienced by others. How do you want your viewers to be impacted by your images and objects?
BS: Every person reads these images in their own way. Some react positively, and some feel the need to ask a lot of questions, but after some point, I didn’t want this project to just be about my father. For me, it was about a man who lives in India—this is his world, this is the politics of his country, this is the life that he leads. And while all of these things are important to me, and the protagonist is my father, my main goal is to challenge how India is represented—especially in the West.