Photographic studies of India seem to fall into clichés from depictions of poverty to the vivid colors of Chennai, whose former name marks the colorful fabric that was its signature: Madras. With his book Something So Clear, forthcoming from Steidl in April, Bangalore photographer Kapil Das has issued a corrective to such travelogue stereotypes with a dryly humorous sequence of images that sometimes plays with clichés, but more often than not upends preconceptions about India.
Assembled from photos made over the course of a decade, Something So Clear developed out of a self-published entry that won him a spot in Steidl’s showcase of eight Asian photographers. The series includes such documentary projects as The Last Tattooed Women of Kalinga by Filipino lensman Jake Verzosa, but while that work looks at a dying tradition, Das takes in a living world.
In an interview with the blog Invisible Photographer Asia, Das comes off as an explorer and a deadpan joker (which was the name of his competition entry): “I’m a genetic mix between Mongolian…and that’s about it.” Those verbal beats come off on the page as well.
Take one sequence: an elderly man lays down on a patch of grass, a skin condition dotting the dark tones of his bald head with pink blotches. A few blank pages later, you see the head of an elephant, its head in a similar position and similarly afflicted. Such subjects are perhaps inseparable from our image of India, but Das treats them not as exotic symbols but juxtaposes the photos in a way that reveals a surprising visual relationship. Once you see the images in their slightly delayed sequence, the man and the elephant are forever connected, much as all life is connected.
This pair is followed by a stray dog, its head (but not its genitals) obscured as he tries to bite at a pest on his rear; then, a girl holding up a pair of dark slacks, offering it for sale. Again, these may be the kinds of images you might expect to see in a photo book about India, but the photographer’s wit, in composition and narrative, sets a curious tone that is set in motion by the enigmatic pencil sketches that adorn the cover.
There is an element of straight documentary here, with images of street urchins, or a statue of an elephant with its head destroyed, or a mountain landscape strewn with animal carcasses. But then, out of the blue, he gives you a man wearing a gorilla mask, or a bleached-blonde punk girl wearing a denim jacket with spikes jutting out of its shoulders.
Asked to give a one-line description of this book, Das says, “This is what I do with what others have done to me.” The deadpan aesthetic comes in part from that elder of color photography, William Eggleston, whom Das cites as an influence, and the sequencing at times recalls work by such heirs as Mike Slack and Jason Fulford. But Das has his own voice. Something So Clear is a misleading title; while some of its images are straightforward, others contribute to a narrative that is comic but also mysterious.