What happens when an archive is put in the hands of others? Over the phone from his apartment in New Delhi, photographer Srinivas Kuruganti gushes while describing the chaos, creativity and camaraderie that came together in his project this archive has no legs; a project realized within the framework of Five Million Incidents, 2019-2020, conceived by Goethe Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, in collaboration with Raqs Media Collective. The archive in question has its roots a couple of decades back. It was 1992 and he had just moved to the Lower East Village in New York City from the quieter town of Berkeley in California, leaving behind an engineering degree. “It was the 90s,” he declares, like it is self-explanatory, before launching into a flurry of lively descriptions that fill in the blanks. It was vibrant, packed with different communities of artists, mass public protests and concerts in the parks.
It turned out to be fecund ground for Srinivas, who had already started taking photographs of his friends and surroundings while studying in California. “Looking back, I can’t remember thinking that I was taking these photographs with the aim of doing something with them,” he admits. “We—my roommate Peter and I—had cameras, so we just began to take photos of our friends. We would experiment, make portraits and take nudes of this tight community we’d formed, sometimes at our apartments, during protests and parties, or at picnics in Central Park. The process of making these sets of photographs from my time in New York was almost collaborative,” he adds. His only regret: “I didn’t photograph enough of the street over those many years.”
These photographs might have remained tucked away among Srinivas’ three decades of archived material, that sit in ten metal waterproof trunks at a friend’s Bombay office, had it not been for the chance to house-sit for another friend in Goa while she was away. Using this solitude and space, the photographer began the daunting process of creating a system to catalogue his own sprawling body of work. Since his early days photographing his community of friends and their collective activities, he has turned his attention to building a documentary practice that focuses on environmental issues ranging from coal mining in Dhanbad, ship-breaking yards and industrial pollution.
In bringing order to his archive of photographs, Srinivas was left with the feeling that he “wanted to make a book of these photographs from this time with little notes”. But in arranging, rearranging and arranging the images again, he felt that he was too close to the work. He’d find himself looking at them and thinking: “Oh wow, we really did all those things!” In order to find an objective eye in relation to this body of work, he decided to invite other people into the picture; to sift, select and stitch together a narrative from these photographs. Instead of keeping this intervention at the level of friends and practitioners alone, he devised this archive has no legs: an open invitation to anyone and everyone.
The project took place at the Max Mueller Bhavan in New Delhi over five days earlier this year, opening its doors to the public to go through Srinivas’ archives—physical prints of the photographs from his New York Days—and tack them on a wall to create their own flow. At the end of each day, the images still left upon the ‘edit wall’ would be printed and hand-bound into a book. “I didn’t want the viewers to be passive with regards to this work. I wanted to see how they would come up with an edit, or put it into a story. How would it be shown if it was treated just as visual material? I wanted to see it from the outside,” he says of his idea.
The photographer was also present the whole time, open to interactions with those who had come into his space at the venue, but also to observe the choices made by those rifling through the photos and then putting their take up on the wall. While each collection changed, patterns soon emerged. “Every day the edits would change. And even though someone would remove or build upon the previous person’s work, something of the previous iterations was still up there. In that way, each person’s input always stayed behind,” he says.
There are other little things that Srinivas spied on regarding the choices that people made vis-a-vis the images, which have helped him gain more clarity on the directions he’d like to take with his photobook of the work. “It isn’t like any of the images on the ‘edit wall’ or ‘bound books’ were chronological but I liked to see separate, disparate images being brought together. It is a good starting point to think the way I’d go about it. At that time, I didn’t agree with too many of the decisions but now, I’ve come around. I can see some meaning in their methods,” he offers. In noticing the many reasons behind the placement and purpose of these choices, he has been freed into settling on his own logic in arranging them.
In terms of the visual material itself, Srinivas saw that people tended to lean towards the images that “aren’t quiet”. He found that viewers gravitated towards the “gritty”, both in terms of aesthetic—more contrasty black-and-whites, and content—more graphic, sexual images. For lack of a better word, Srinivas settles on “eye-candy” to describe these choices. Without passing judgment, he explains: “it is not wrong. It is just a different impulse.” Taking heed of these preferences has pushed him to think of the overall rhythm of the photobook, the many ways he can play with the different sections, punctuating the pace with the quiet and the dynamic images.
One of the interventions during the five days of this archive has no legs that has stood out in Srinivas’ mind is one he describes as “the one with hidden faces”. In this version, one of the viewers had arranged photos without prominently featuring any of his friends’ faces on the edit wall, instead focusing on shapes and shadows, tangents and textures, and other details. “At first, I was taken back by the choices because the people in photographs are so important to the work. This work is about my friends and the familiar places to us,” he says.
But even then, he didn’t get clouded by this reason and made a record of this edit. Looking at it now, he’s had a change of heart. “I’ve come to see that the work isn’t about my friends alone. It is also about my early experimentations as a photographer where looking back I can see that I was interested in these things—in building a frame. And while I might have taken these photos instinctively, from a distance I can see the other elements that went into making the photograph more clearly,” he adds.
The exercise of welcoming people to participate in his archive didn’t just allow for the viewers to peek into his past and place it in the contemporary; it also seems to have allowed Srinivas the distance and spark to put these photographs in a book. This gesture is by no means unfamiliar to the photographer: the impulse to ‘share’ his work seems to be a long-thread that runs through the three decades of his practice. Even in the early days, he would make double prints of each of his photographs: one for himself and the other one was for the person in the picture. “I’d like to think, this isn’t just me reliving those days. It is also them,” he says, hopefully. In opening up the relationship between photographer, poser and public, Srinivas allows each one of us to employ these images as touchstones to our memories of “those days” too.