Brijesh Patel was born in India and grew up in London. Through self-initiated fine-art projects, Patel has begun to explore his “idea of India,” as he puts it. He uses the medium of photography to create strong and intimate connection with Indian Sub continent and hence understand the country of his birth in a very personal way. Traversing the blistering contemporary landscape of Gujarat, India, Patel’s recent project Salt / Land & People retraces the seminal Salt March by Gandhi that laid the path for Independence and searches for inheritors of Gandhi’s philosophy. His photographs find their way into hand made artist’s books. Each artist’s books have it’s own set of values and influences. The final photographic book-object allows him to create a singular experience and an intimate moment between the viewer and the work.
Patel’s work has been exhibited at the FotoGrafia, Rome; The Annenberg Space for Photography, LA; Halsnoy Kloster, Norway; Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, London as well as at private galleries in Paris and London. He has been awarded the Joan Wakelin Award from The Royal Photographic Society, a Winston Churchill Fellowship, The Guardian Social Entrepreneur Award, as well as a commission from The Photographers Gallery for the 2012 London Olympics.
Conversation between Mark Sealy of Autograph ABP and Brijesh Patel.
Something that is most striking about your work, and rare, is when someone brings you an object that is not a traditional portfolio and instead something quite made, and what is appealing to me is the immediate sense of intimacy that the book creates as a handmade object. And it is not just a book for me; it is a handmade object, and there is also a degree of preciousness about what is being presented.
So if we explore the very particular way in which you have chosen to present this work which is very unusual and creates a different relationship in the way the object is looked at and handled, and I find it compelling when someone does that because it limits it by creating a beginning, middle, and end with this object, and there is fragility about it and uniqueness of the object within that space. Therefore we should talk about why you use this very particular way of rendering your work?
I became fascinated by artist’s books that I came across, especially with the fact that in presenting a completed body of work the artist had an incredible amount of control in guiding the viewers’ interaction with it, allowing me to communicate and have control in the way the ideas of my project are presented. My love for craft, to make things, had a huge influence with creating artist’s books.
So there is a compelling nature within you to build something unique.
The level of engagement for example in Looking Inside, the tactile nature of it and the subtle nuances on how we look at things that are real and tangible and unique, is that a conscious decision in how you want the people to view the work?
I don’t want the viewer to have any additional respect for the book as a unique piece. An edition of one might need special care, but I do not want the individual to feel any pressure in the way they handle the book. In the West there is an added value given to this handmade idea, which gives it an additional burden, but I am consciously not choosing to make and present my books that need gloved hands. There is care because of the inherent value but not the overdriving point of it.
There is a sense of a cultural background in what you are doing and inquiry into both the personal and political (Salt is a political journey; Looking Inside is a journey into family and private space). So how does the photography work in both the political and the personal especially because your work is very intimate, and if we are not careful, the artist’s book can also close people out instead of engaging them?
I came into photography as a form of self-exploration at a late stage in my life, and I am not questioning my personal identity of being Indian, but what I am doing is to question what is India and what it is being an Indian, in almost an abstract form. It is not political but it is private and it is derived from a privileged position to look at and translate that adoration for India via photography. And this journey which engages photography also engages the medium of artist’s books, and hence it does not lock out the viewer who is truly interested.
You have to work very hard looking for the single image to find a punctum in your work and that you are waiting for things to change and the book format of waiting and turning pages encourages that. Books tend to be about the meditative moments.
Yes, especially blank pages and the role that they play, and in the past I was much more strict and restrictive with myself in the way I created the books, but this residency was about play and exploration and to walk away with learning.
There is a curiosity of collections, and there are very different visual concerns going on in each place. How does that fit into creating a cohesive body of work in the long run?
Being on the residency allowed me to experiment, and the books depict my journey into photography, and I went back to some of my earliest projects to create artist’s books. The real focus of my photographic practice is to make work about India, and that is what matters in the end.
Mark Sealy is the director of Autograph ABP. He is currently a PhD candidate at Durham University, and his research focuses on photography and cultural violence.
Brijesh Patel lives in London, UK, and completed his residency at Light Work in January, 2013.