Nishtha Jain

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over eleven months

In an attempt to go beyond mere historical and technical developments made in the realm of photography in India, Ms Nishtha Jain envisions a film that will explore the human and social dimensions that inform photographs and the experience of being photographed. The inspiration for this project stems from a childhood fascination with street photographers, fantasy cut-outs, and the familiar experience of going to a local studio to have a photograph taken. A filmmaker of some note, Ms Jain has already received a grant from the Jan Vrijman Fund for the preparatory phase of research and the subsequent writing of a film script. Titled ‘City of Photographs’, it brings together people from different places, times and social classes. The one element that binds them all together is their fascination with the experience of being photographed in a studio. These people, from all walks of life, allow the photographer to create, through his photos, an idealised world for them to momentarily inhabit. In her script, Ms Jain also talks about the ‘art’ of creating a perfect photograph.

Ms Jain seeks to examine portraiture, which is the backbone of the project, across different contexts: both contemporary and historical studio portraits in family albums and in the archives of neighbourhood photo studios, as well as amateur portraits taken outside the studio. The street photographer will also be part of the proposed film. Since her script is already in place, Ms Jain will use this grant to undertake some additional research on themes like portrait photography in rural settings, and subsequently begin work on the film. The grant will fund the film’s production, while monies for post-production will be raised from elsewhere.

Through further interviews and experiences in photo studios, Ms Jain intends to bring to the forefront two key aspects of the photographic experience: the way studio photography in the country reflects popular culture, and the pivotal role that photographs play in evoking memories and telling stories of times gone by. Having realised that the simple photo portrait has become a routine part of our lives, Ms Jain feels the need to offer innovative insights and expound new ways of looking at the familiar photograph. This film springs from the fact that there has been little writing and even less filmmaking on photography in India so far. Ms Jain plans to look at portrait photography from different perspectives. There is, first, the perspective of the person being photographed. Though it is commonly assumed that a photograph can tell us a lot about a person, the fact is that photos are not mere representations of ‘reality’. Secondly, she wishes to look at the subject through the lens of the photographer, to enable us to participate in the interaction between photographer and client. In her script, Ms Jain has considered portraiture in Kolkata and Ahmedabad. She proposes to include Delhi in the final film. Kolkata was her first choice, primarily because photography in India started there. Moreover, there is an assortment of old and new studios, which would be conducive to a comparative study. However, in Ahmedabad she found that a more personal relationship existed between the clients and the photographer, and that in many studios, photographers seemed to be tuned in to the thoughts and fantasies of their clients.

Ms Jain’s challenge in making this film will be to go beyond the merely nostalgic and subliminal aspects of studio photographs to achieve “a critical description of portraiture in Indian history.” The photos gathered and interviews conducted in the course of her research, the additional filmed material and final film itself will constitute, a constructive resource base for other filmmakers and students of this subject. She trusts that the project will also help to bring a number of photos of historical interest that are presently in private collections, into public view.