Archiving and editing are perhaps the two least glamorous activities in the life cycle of a photographer’s work. And yet without these two (and much of the time we havebeen without these on the subcontinent) works are lost to us much earlier than is necessary. They often also lose their power; without a great edit, a set of images can remain just that, static in a waiting room, paused with no purpose.
The people who take on these roles – often not the photographers themselves – have the painstaking job of seeing (ideally) every image in a body of work, and deciding just as painstakingly whether or not an image must be seen; if it must then how must it be seen in the flow of the narrative, and if not, then how it can be wrested from the photographer’s grasp (one that is often tight), or memory’s grasp, or the grasp that content often extends over form.
At the Delhi Photo Festival in 2015, one had the rare chance of seeing the archivist and the editor of an extraordinary photobook together on stage in discussion about the process of editing – a subject rarely discussed in public forums – an important piece of history, the last ten years of Mahatma Gandhi’s life as photographed by his grand nephew Kanu Gandhi. The book, which was launched that day following their short discussion, is aptly titled Kanu’s Gandhi and will be showing as an exhibition at Chobi Mela IX.
The archivist, or the project curator, who had done the work of finding Kanu’s family, scanning the collection, and gathering the means for its production was Prashant Panjiar, Founder of Delhi Photo Festival and the Nazar Foundation. The editor was a photographer who has edited numerous photobooks, Sanjeev Saith.
Here is the conversation that took place between them that day:
Prashant Panjiar (PP): I’d like to call the real hero of the book, Sanjeev Saith, who put this book together, up on stage. How did you think of process of the edit?
Sanjeev Saith (SS): The first thing I’d like to tell the audience is that I’m digitally challenged. I don’t work with technology. I don’t have a computer. I don’t do email. So when I immerse myself in the work, my whole house is full of prints, on the sofas, on the tables, and lots of photographers have seen this happen. Now, living with the Mahatma all around you for several months is a tricky business. I discovered this on the first evening when I couldn’t have a drink.
(Audience bursts out in laughter)
I actually was looking at him staring back at me with my scotch in my hand and I put it away. So he actually helped me structure my day because after that I said: this edit will happen in the daytime, I will live my life in the evening. But at the same time, I also was reassured that he would actually approve of my life because I clean my mother’s potty bucket all the time, cleaning loos is a second habit for me.
Nevertheless, this thing arrived about four years ago and there were thousands of prints. He says I’m the real hero, that’s the way Prashant is, but he made the prints, he did the research, I just had to do a visual edit. But the visual edit has to happen and after a long time of looking at the prints it became pretty evident that this gentleman, Kanu Gandhi – who was 17 years old, had just decided to start photography and was gifted a camera by one of the benefactors of the freedom movement – was another teenager, like when I was a teenager, he was beginning photography with his first camera with film, and what a subject he had. He was working with his granduncle, who happened to be the Mahatma.
So I had content and I had form and you think of form versus content all the time when you’re editing. In this case, the content was overwhelming because the Mahatma is overwhelming and you can love him or hate him – nowadays people love to hate him – but you can’t ignore him. He is so powerful in a photograph that he takes over every time he’s there. So looking at the content but trying to find the form, and it was moving form because this was a photographer who was learning from his first pictures and over ten years he became quite finessed.
One told oneself that look, history you can’t tamper with, so the narrative will find its own pace, or its sequence rather. All that I had to do was to spend time and punctuate the visual historical narrative by looking at the form of the photographer. I punctuated it depending upon how his form moved over ten years, and there it was.
It’s come back now after four years. And it’s done. I still haven’t seen the book. We’ll see it just now.
PP: The first time that you showed me the edit, I was quite surprised. I had seen all the pictures in a certain different way. But the first time that Sanjeev showed me the edit, it all made sense. I had a chronology in mind which I had fooled around with while playing around with the pictures, and Sanjeev followed the chronology but he broke it up, in a slightly different way. I wanted you to talk about the first section –the Sevagram years – the way you put that together, because that for me is the one of the most beautiful parts of the book.
SS: Actually, the first part of the book, which is 1937 and ’38, the first two years of Kanu’s photography, is lyrical. The lyrical aspect is because of the pastoral nature of the way they lived and the simplicity of that Ashram and the way the Mahatma lived. And for me, two things were very apparent. One was that, this was a personal feeling, I always saw Ba – Kasturba – as somebody who was right there all the time. In fact, when you see the book, I was very happy to be able to place her very strongly, even if she’s in the margins, whether she is in the center or if she’s the background, many times she is just blurred in the background but she’s there all the way through the book just being the support, the pillar behind this gentleman. That was the first thing that struck me.
And the second thing that struck me was the arrival of the Mahatma in the frame because I remember these sorts of images when I was growing up as a kid, when my brother was making his first stamp collection and some of these were in the stamps. So his arrival in the frame was something that was important to me. I made him arrive after a few photographs, after Ba is actually there and you’re seeing the ashram first, the cottage, then Ba and then his feet and then the Mahatma. It put together a lifestyle, with cows and other workers and open areas, and the casualness of it all, that here was a community, which was very calm, very peaceful. And just after this segment is when the undercurrent, the tension of what was actually happening to the country, begins. We all know that, but Kanu didn’t know that, when he was going out and shooting the Mahatma it hadn’t happened. So that was the first part.
PP: Did you find something in the way that Kanu photographed the Mahatma that was very different from contemporary photographers of that time?
SS: There are lots of pictures that he shot which are almost ditto, just carbon copies of what other people have shot because, as it is with journalists now, you had a vantage point, there was an event happening, and four or five or six people were there and you got almost the same picture. I guess one reason for that also is that the Mahatma was also very particular about being photographed. He had told Kanu Gandhi: I’ll let you take pictures but don’t bother me, don’t ask me to pose, don’t use a flash, I don’t want to hear anything, don’t disturb anything, just disappear, if you want to take pictures, do it, but I don’t want to know that you’re taking pictures. So I guess when he would be doing a public event, he would probably have done this with everyone else because almost everyone has similar pictures.
What Kanu Gandhi has is personal access, so when there was a Nehru visiting or Sardar Patel visiting and they’re all sitting in a corner in the room confabulating about something, the picture is taken from outside the door with one door shut so that probably they can’t see him. So you have this geometrical progression of layers of proximity but at the same time distance. Because he’s there and he manages to sneak into these people’s lives and show just by a tilt of the head, or by a gesture of the fingers, or the way the faces are moving against each other, the tension say between Mr. Patel or Mr. Nehru or the proximity between Mr. Nehru and Mr. Gandhi. And this kind of thing can only come if you’ve been along with these people for a very long time. And he was there all the time with Gandhiji. So this odd contiguity of distance and proximity which he managed to bring to the photography, I thought that was fascinating.
PP: What I saw, as my own observation as a photographer, almost all the pictures are framed with the foreground being very important, and whether it was done intuitively or instinctively, that led to a way of framing the images which was not current at that time. In fact, if you look at the book, you’ll find knees and feet going diagonally across, off centre images, all kinds of things which make you say ‘wow’ right now but at that time I don’t think he was thinking about that, for him, he was in awe of that man. At the same time, very respectful. And because of that he devised his own way of looking at how things are happening.
(The book was then released by Gita Mehta, the daughter of Kanu and Abha Gandhi.)