A Letter to a Friend

Hi Shuchi,

I've been meaning to write to you for a long time now. I'm a procrastinator, but I hope February isn't too late to entreat you to visit Visa pour 'image in September this year. I say this now because I remember you had written to me asking whether it is worthwhile going there. I can't remember what I told you then, but I'm sure I didn't talk to you enough about it. The other day I was reading about Patrick Witty (he had kept me waiting for 2 hrs at Visa despite having an appointment) and realized that I was never part of the 'whispering network' Daniella Zalcman talked about (I'm sure you've read this ). Luckily, I never had to endure any sexual misconduct at the hands of any power brokers there. My Indian-female instincts have been good enough to keep a triple-arm distance from shady men. Also, I don't socialise with anybody, which of course, comes at a cost. But my point is that I was never a part of any sorority. At Visa, you are not just a woman photojournalist, you are also an INDIAN woman photographer. And that, is a problem. 

The first thing you need to grasp about Visa is that it is a press photography event organised by white men for white men (when in doubt at any part of this mail, refer back to this point). White women photojournalists (from what I read now) seemed to be treated like second-class citizens (don't know anything about this first-hand). We, the Indian woman photojournalist, however, do not exist. 

There is an exception to this rule though. That is, if you are able to whine (in an American/British accent) about how hard life is as an Indian woman and back that up with projects covering regressive practices (preferably about women) in third -world countries, you may find a few (or many) knights in shining armours who will scoop you up and show you off and your work for the world to see. After all, the first world does need very many assurances that life is shit in our part of the world. 

Few things happened to me during my first two visits to Perpignan (i was wayyy younger back then too). 1) I was overwhelmed 2) My compositions post-Perpignan evolved drastically 3) I discovered photojournalists(as much as editors) are quite often unkind, no matter what they claim to achieve through their work (expose injustice, bring equality to women, achieve world peace?). In the small town, I come from, most people are kind, helpful. But then, Perpignan is not Calicut. Visa pour l'image is the real deal. Oh ! and number 4) Where are all the black photographers? (Ref Point: this fest is for white men organized by white men. Black people can only exist on walls. To us brownies, same rules apply.)

No matter how shit went down that year, I made up my mind to go back once again after a break. This time I was armed with friends and we were better prepared. We charted out the editors we want to meet, took prior appointments with some of them, stood in long queues for long hours, (I) was mean to a fellow photojournalist for something as silly as jumping the queue, was scandalised with Souvid Datta's work (that year, everybody was rushing to sing praises about him and I remember wondering how nobody seems to question his methods), ...what can I say, it was an eventful visit. Most photo editors dismissed my work, some, (like the bearded and bespectacled photo editor of one of the most famous media outlets in the world) dismissed it in less than 2 minutes (he thought it was ok to give 3minutes off the 5minutes he had granted me, to a male colleague). Perhaps my work wasn't good enough, perhaps it had nothing to do with my color or gender. More importantly, I did not have stories that fit the western narrative of what the eastern skyline looked like. Ultimately, that's what counts the most.

There were exceptions though. And this is why you should go. The first photo editor who actually took time to look at my work was Tala Skari (who was working with the International NewYork Times back then). The first international photo editor to give me work is Marie Leviere, from Le Monde. The first person to bother to ask me whether I have managed to get an appointment with somebody from NYT was Daphne Angles (I must have looked particularly sad that day!). The first photo editor who asked me to think big was Monica Allende. The first editor to say sorry I missed you at Visa, but let's meet up in Paris was Elsa Guiol (Elle Magazine). The first agency/photo-editor to take me seriously, give me work, push me to do better and always (without exception) greet me with a tight hug, is Jocelyne Manfredi. This list isn't exhaustive. But you get the drift? 

I had nearly given up photojournalism post-Perpignan because I did not want to be part of a rat race. But I also realize that there is enough kindness to go around in this world and that more people like you, like me... people of all colors and gender should continue to do what we do and go to world events were they least expect us to show up. Because if we don't show up and share our good/bad/ugly stories, we will continue to not exist.

Sorry for the super long mail. I just thought it was irresponsible of me to not talk properly to somebody who had reached out. Anyhow, I hope this helps.


PS: I love your images. But your writing is even more beautiful than yourself. The world needs to see.