Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A German Viewpoint

Sabine Schrunder talks about concept photography and her experiences in India

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo of Sabine by Ratheesh SundaramSabine Schrunder putting a colour on the shadow of a man

On a lazy August afternoon, German photographer Sabine Schrunder went to the Vypeen Islands. She began walking along a path besides the water. There was nobody around. An afternoon breeze was blowing. At some distance away, she saw an old man. He stared at Sabine. She thought he was a beggar.

But when she came close, he gestured that he could take Sabine on a boat ride. Sabine was not sure whether it was safe. Nevertheless, she asked how much. The man showed a forefinger. So Sabine paid him Rs 100 and then got onto the boat. Then she said, “I am Sabine.” Then the man gestured with his hands that he was deaf and dumb.

After a while, he rowed to another part of the island. Then he took Sabine to his house. “His wife confirmed to me that he was physically disabled,” says Sabine. “Then she shocked me by saying he is only 50 years old. He looked 70 to me. Maybe the difficulties of life had aged him. They showed me photographs of the family. And then the boatman took me back to the place where we started the journey.”

For Sabine, it was an unusual and moving experience. “I realised that I have a privileged life,” says the Berlin-based photographer. At present, Sabine is a resident artist at Pepper House, Fort Kochi, and has been taking a workshop for students at the RLV College of Music and Arts.

I told participants the concept of photography as story-telling,” says Sabine. “Most of the students are working on solitary images. They try to capture a nice moment. But that is a conventional style. I asked them to work on a theme and take several photos illustrating it.Photography's biggest strength is to tell something behind the picture. This is known as concept photography.”

Sabine was happy to note that the participants were open-minded. “They told me that it was a new world that they were seeing,” she says. “I want to give them a push in a different direction. Sadly, in India, you cannot study photography as a separate degree. It is one subject in applied arts. But I have spent six years learning only photography.”

And she is good at it. Sabine has won several awards, and honours, including the prestigious Haselblad Masters Awards Prize in 2008. Today, she is a teacher at the 150-year old Lette Foundation in Berlin. “I love teaching and talking with young people,” she says. “I feel I can inspire them.”

Asked about the qualities needed to be a good photographer, Sabine says, “You have to be curious, ask questions, and search for the deeper meaning of everything.”

This search for a deeper meaning has led German photographers to develop a sharp attitude towards everything. “So they try to focus on a topic that looks at society critically,” says Sabine. “I am doing a theme on the individual being bound by the structures of society. I am not searching for the beautiful photo. In Germany, we have gone past that stage.”

Sabine had come to India at the invitation of the Goethe Institut, which is a part of the Max Mueller Bhavan in Bangalore. “My initial days in Bangalore were mind-blowing,” she says. “The colours and smells were so different. For the first time I saw cows and goats moving around on the streets. But, soon, I began to enjoy it. It was inspiring. And then when I came to Kochi, it was so green. The people are friendly and warm-hearted. I felt so welcome, even in Fort Kochi, where there are so many tourists.”

And one day, she had an unexpected experience. A few members of the production crew of the Dulquer Salman starrer, 'Charlie', met her at Pepper House. They asked Sabine if she had five minutes to spare. A curious Sabine agreed. So, she was taken to the first floor of a house in Fort Kochi. It was a film set. “There were lights, cameras and people everywhere,” says Sabine. “The main actress, Parvathy, introduced me to everybody and then told me about my role. I had to look at a door, feel surprised, say something, and leave.”

Meanwhile, sometime earlier, she had also gone to Thiruvananthapuram to conduct a workshop. While there, Sabine saw an electric pole, during a hot afternoon, giving out a long shadow. So, she decided to colour the shadow with the powder that you use to make sindhoor. Soon, a man started watching Sabine work. So, she coloured his shadow. Other men and an old woman appeared. “One person told me to hurry up since the sun was moving away,” says Sabine, with a smile. “In the end I took photos. This is one example of concept photography. Everybody looked pleased with my efforts.”

But it is not all pleasing experiences for Sabine. “Seeing the garbage at the Fort Kochi beach is heart-breaking,” she says. “One day, while travellling on the ferry, I saw a woman throw a plastic bottle into the water. We would never do this in Germany. We usually use the dustbin.”

And she is taken aback by the lack of physical freedom for women. “In Germany, it is normal for men and women to be out late at night,” she says. “Sometimes, the women are alone. But here it is not so common. It is a different culture altogether.”

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

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