Last November, Delhi-based photographer Gauri Gill won The Grange Prize 2011, after her work earned more votes than three other shortlisted photographers from Canada and India, Elaine Stocki, Althea Thauberger and Nandini Valli. She received $50,000 and, along with the other shortlisted artists, a three-to-four-week international residency (Gill spent time in Toronto). Recently, we decided to check in with her to find out what she has been working on since then and to ask about her Grange Prize experience. Below is our Q&A, conducted via email in July/August 2012.
Meg Campbell, AGO: Was there one thing about people in Toronto that caught your eye and inspired you to pull out your camera?
Gauri Gill: No, I weirdly never photographed people that much…I got interested in shops, malls, big-box stores, the sad decaying ones from the ’70s, the newer idiosyncratic ones, Chinese malls, suburban malls — various sites of consumption and the way objects are ordered or “curated” to be made somehow desirable to people. In the west, larger cities often seem to have shops everywhere, unlike in India – or at least the India that I grew up in. It’s all changing now. It’s a work in progress, and I’m still trying to process all of it at some level and how it fits into the larger narrative of my work around cities — it always takes me a while.
MC Besides the financial reward, what other benefits were there to winning The Grange Prize? What has it allowed you to do?
GG It gave me the benefit of a pause. And, yes, I could stop worrying about money for a little bit. I’ve always had full-time jobs to pay for the photography I wanted to do personally, and it’s really only since 2009 that I’ve been living off the sales of the work. That’s always precarious, and so at least for a week or two after winning the Grange I could fantasize about all the things I could do with it. Then life went back to normal, as it does — and I was also back in the world of debts and obligations!
As to how I spent the year, I spent the first four months of this year in Delhi and Rajasthan finishing my book Balika Mela, which is coming out in September. Then the summer in Bombay making new work.
MC What are your current and upcoming projects?
GG Well, really at the moment the book is at the top of my mind. I am making prints as well because there will be a show to accompany it in September in Delhi. After that I hope to return to working on newer projects, including my series Rememory…I keep returning to it. I’m also working on another book from the Rajasthan series. That archive of photographs is quite large — more than 40,000 negatives — with very distinct narratives running through it. I showed an excerpt from it in 2010 as Notes from the Desert, but ultimately I hope to do a series of books, each one a “note” from the desert. Balika Mela is the first one.
It’s always such a fine and messy balance between making new things and processing the older ones and finding the practical means to make and share. Not to mention trying to have a little bit of a life.
MC What are the challenges and rewards of turning your work into books?
GG I think the best thing about a book is that you can put the whole series in it so that it can be seen in its entirety. I work on projects that go on for years, and there’s always too much to be contained in one odd exhibition. Images work in different ways — they can work well in isolation but be read quite differently when they are embedded within the context of the rest of the set. And then of course there is dissemination. A photo book can be accessed by a curious teenager, someone in a small town who may not be able to visit big-city exhibitions, a person who doesn’t speak English at all; it can arrive at a footpath or a coffee shop or in the dusty stacks of a dusty library waiting for someone to stumble upon it. My publisher just kindly offered to give one copy to each of the girls featured in it, so there will be all these books in homes in rural Rajasthan.
I can’t think of too many challenges apart from a lack of small, serious and experimental publishers with time to spare, because these things take a great deal of time, especially if you’re obsessive. I was lucky to find one such publisher. For the rest, it all seems contingent on pre-calculating a market and then catering to it, along pre-determined deadlines. There doesn’t seem to be much testing of the waters. Also, photography books are relatively expensive to produce. I suppose the catch for me is the wish to make something very well and sell it very cheap. But I guess expensive books are easier to steal than expensive art work — I had two friends in California who were very good at it.
MC Does photography get as much recognition as an art form in India as it does in Canada?
GG No, it’s only in the past few years that it’s starting to be recognized as an art form. You still cannot get a BFA in photography at any government-certified institution, and an MFA at only one design school. There is no real state support or grants apart from one. However, a few forward-thinking art galleries have started to program photography in — the market has stepped in, in a sense. And the one silver lining is that even with the current recession, photography is still much cheaper to collect than other art forms, so it might survive it. But what we need simultaneously is a critical culture and more conversations around photography. Camerawork Delhi was started as a way to address that, and there are now a few other publications too such as Pix and Punctum, which is great. And late last year Delhi hosted a big photo festival. Luckily, there are various independent and small initiatives that might appear like bubbles and then die out, but something else arrives to take their place. In the end, the scene needs to grow massively, which can only happen through affordable, accessible education; and to break down existing hierarchies and class barriers — that would then hopefully happen automatically.
MC As an artist, how does it feel to have your work judged by the public?
GG Initially I had some reservations, which I also voiced to the AGO. First, the competition aspect itself, which I found disturbing. Two of us thought we could do away with it if all four of us nominees agreed to share the award four ways if we won. But then two of the nominees didn’t agree. So we dropped that. Then, I was worried that people might not bother to look at the work closely and in depth, that they would vote based only on the edited version they saw in the gallery or on the website, and that the work might get dumbed down – or reduced to the greatest hits or the most striking images or something. Or even be focused more on our personalities than the actual work. But in the end the curator Michelle Jacques really tried to put a substantial amount of work out, and then the museum brought so many people in, to have that kind of footfall around photographs was unusual for me, and the kind of debate that was created around the work — perhaps even because of the voting or competition aspect — was fairly extensive. People started to write on blogs about why they liked this or that photographer’s work, argue for it, post links and so on. All kinds of people pitched in — for instance, a really articulate person working at the Toronto prison constructed a fine argument around my work. He really got it. It was good to hear those diverse voices. I realized I had to just throw the work out there and let it go.
Ballika Mela, published by Edition Patrick Frey will be released in Delhi in September 2012. With 72 black-and-white plates and 32 colour reproductions, essays by Gill herself and Manju Saran (in English and Hindi), the book is a document of Gill’s photo studio set up to take portraits of the predominantly female children and adolescents that attended the fair in remote and rural western Rajasthan. In 2003 and again in 2010, Gill collaborated with her subjects to produce these self-conscious portraits, on occasion also conducting workshops on photography and displaying some of the images taken in Lunkaransar previously.
Find out more about Gauri Gill and her work at her website.