American documentary photographer, Dorothea Lange once said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera.”
British documentary photographer Anna Fox breathes a different life into the photographs she takes based on a menagerie of subjects. In 1988, she burst forth onto the forefront of documentary photography with her study of London office life. ‘Work Stations: Office in London’, was published by the left-wing Camerawork.
Since then, Ms. Fox has worked on numerous projects and retold many stories from history, folklore and legends in her own characteristic way. Recently, Anna was in India to capture the colourful recreational folk art prevalent in the state of Kerala – Pulikali. Pulikali is mainly practiced in Thrissur, Kerala.
‘Puli’ is leopard or tiger, ‘Kali’ is play in Malayalam; performers painted like tigers and hunters in bright yellow, red and black dance to the rhythmic and gyrating beats of instruments like the Udukku and Thakil. It is typically performed during Onam, the annual harvest festival. We caught up with Anna Fox and queried her about her work and time in India.
“The subjects that interest me normally are either to do with ‘the everyday’ or hidden ideas and issues; and in both cases I hope to reveal aspects about life that we generally tend to overlook or not consider valid subject matter for a photography project,” says Anna. She prefers to let herself get involved in the subject entirely and go with the flow, rather than prepare a storyline to work with.
According to her “the story evolves throughout the shooting and editing process (selecting images to work within the narrative structure of the project), and continues to evolve even after the project is finished.” Thinking time is extremely vital to all her projects.
As we speak, Anna is penning down a fictional autobiography of a woman photographer. “I still have a lot of stories to tell and they build up through listening and watching the commonplace that happens in a particular society. Sometimes opportunity presents itself, and I can make a set of photographs that somehow narrates one of these stories,” she says.
Coming back to Pulikali, we asked Anna about her choice of subject. India is a country with varied culture, folklore and traditions that have been passed down from generations. So what made her choose Pulikali as a subject?
“I prefer to look at things that are not so well-known and so Pulikali was perfect. I found it interesting; the dancers when they dress up completely lose their personal identities, caste, class and religion – the carnival takes over – it’s like another world when it is carnival time and almost anything can happen. In one sense Pulikali is quite ‘everyday’ and yet very exotic,” she says.
The concept of transformation through ritual has always fascinated Ms. Fox, and she truly believes that the Pulikali series can become a part of a project that brings together many different forms of ritualistic transformations, across the globe. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this project was the unpredictability of Kerala weather.
“My stylistic approach for the Pulikali series was to play out as if I was an amateur anthropologist and to photograph each Puli straight on, full body in the frame. But then at the last minute before I shot them I asked them to take on a dance pose which then balanced the “straightness” of the photograph and suggested more of an action based performance as well. I mostly wanted their masks off, as with the human head exposed the contrast between reality and fiction was clearly exposed,” she adds.
So what advice does she have for budding photography enthusiasts and documentary photographers?
“Photography is drawing with light. Explore how to work with light, both real and artificial; do not limit yourself to a digital 35mm. Just take the photos, and the ideas will develop on their own. If you are curious, you will make a great photographer.”
Ms. Fox, who first came to India in 1984 as a student of photography, is also currently documenting many other things in India. She is presently focused on bringing the stagnant plight of women in India to light. Very recently, she photographed the Barupias in West Bengal; and is at present in the process of photographing Kalki (a transgender) and its group of friends.
Text By Priyanka S. Menon
Photographs Anna Fox Courtesy Tasveer