By Sukant Deepak
New Delhi, Dec 8 | Through Arko Datto’s viewfinder. He completed Master’s degrees in theoretical physics and mathematics, and was on his way to a doctorate in theoretical sciences before taking the ‘leap of faith’ into photography. The themes and narratives he picks up may be diverse — migration, surveillance in the digital panopticon, disappearing islands, nocturnal realms and psychosomatic stress of captive animals… but what remains constant in his work is not just a deep sense of inquiry but also awe that never leaves his prints.
And now, one of contemporary India’s best-known photographers, Arko Datto is all set to work on the final schedule of his film ‘Picnic’. “I have been shooting for the last ?ve years and it will be ready by next year. It is an experimental essay film, I wouldn’t call it a documentary but it is in the sort of performative documentary realm of things. I am quite excited,” he tells IANS.
Besides this, Datto, winner of the 2005 World Press Photo Award is working on an extensive project for National Geographic magazine for which he has been travelling around the country, looking at various aspects of renewable energies, sustainable futures and climate change.
“That is the kind of big engagement that has been a part of my life for the past few months and will go on for the future,” says the photographer, whose two monographs (‘PicNik’ and ‘Will My Mannequin Be Home When I Return’) were published in 2018.
For this Kolkata-based artist, photography is his way of understanding the world, of discovering it, and finally ruminating and bringing out his thoughts, insights and understanding regarding the situations that surround us.
“This art form is the means by which I engage with the wider world. When I was doing physics and mathematics, I was not able to do that much. I am somebody who loves being outside, somebody who engages with people, societies, cultures, politics,” says Datto who insists that his field of study is literature, film and Indian Classical music, sculptures and installation works — spaces that stay as a constellation in his mind, much beyond just the realm of photography.
He is also certain that he would not change his educational background even if he had a chance considering his practice and even curations draw from his understanding of physics and mathematics
One of the curators of the third edition of Chennai Photo Biennale, Datto feels that while in the recent past there was a mushrooming of many photography Festivals and Biennales in India and the subcontinent, somehow the euphoria has petered out — the enthusiasm, the sustainability when it comes to creating festivals year after year has died down.
“Precisely why I think a space like the Chennai Photo Biennale is important as despite the manifold difficulties they have encountered, they have been able to continue. It is an important space that allows practitioners to come together to discuss their understanding and meaning of what photography means in this contemporary and ever-shifting world, and more importantly, the engagement and the role of the art form in society, and also in relation to the other arts.”
This year’s theme is ‘Maps of Disquiet’, which will fundamentally aim at creating awareness about the mind churning social, environmental and technological exigencies of life.
Interestingly, the core premise of the artist’s practice for the longest time has always been to work on multiple themes simultaneously rather than a single one. “I work on these very long term projects and so each project is an engagement over space. I do not want to burn out working on one project for the longest time and prefer to move from one to the other to keep a sense of freshness in them. But, I work on different projects which have diverse timelines. For example, for ‘Rail Diwali’, I have been shooting every year for those five specific days during Kali Puja Diwali for that project. While working on climate change, would entail working primarily during the monsoon seasons. A project like ‘Picnic’ would usually take place during the months of winter – December or January.
I have kind of created my projects in a way that now that I am always working on something or the other and never having an idle moment. Of course, I have also formulated it in a way that during the hottest months I take a break. I am usually teaching or you would see me catching up on my reading, film, photography, education etc, that is kind of my downtime,” says the artist who has been associated with the Kochi Biennale and Obscura Photography Festival.
He does not particularly decide on one theme and is always in a constant process of engagement with the news, social media, technology, film, photography or the other arts. “I am always sort of trying to look for new ideas, processing a lot of information at the same time. Usually, there is a strong sense of curiosity, so I go and start on something that perhaps becomes a project. Of course, there have been many projects which have also failed. There have been some good projects that I have had to leave behind because they started lacking potential. But, I am also working in different ways on them. They start off as photography projects but eventually evolve into other things. For example, ‘Picnic’ started off as a photography project, now it is an experimental film project.”
He is also working on film sculptural installation work. His project on dinosaurs, which is a socio-political project titled ‘Dinos of Hindustan’, in addition to photography also involves a lot of creative writing as well as sculptural installations. “I was also working on a project titled “Pandemic Pooja Experience” which has a photography project component and there is also an experimental film using a thermal camera. So it’s always in a constant state of flux.”
For a very long time, Datto stayed away from Instagram as it happens to be a natural space for photographers wanting to promote their work. “Instagram as a means for promoting own work or a way of looking at photography does not work for me. But gradually I came into the platform in a different way. Right now I have five Instagram accounts out of which four are project pages. For me, it is a kind of an incubation lab wherein you can make the platform a creative component or a creative partner in the way through which you can see a project as opposed to just promoting your project or photography,” concludes Datto.