While photography itself has been growing as a profession, female artists are not visible in this journey

Gangtok: Artist Joan Semmel once said, “There are many great women artists. And we shouldn’t still be talking about why there are no great women artists. If there are no great, celebrated women artists, that’s because the powers that be have not been celebrating them, but not because they are not there.” To a certain extent, this powerful statement rings true even in the small Himalayan regions of Sikkim and Darjeeling. Through constant engagement with the creative community here, we realised that there are few practising women photographers. While photography itself has been growing as a profession, female artists are not visible in this journey?

It’s not like women here are not capturing images — they are, and are actively at that. But somehow a gap has emerged in the photographic practices in our region. Women photographers, and artists, receive far less attention and face far more discrimination in accessing spaces and opportunities that enable and provide exposure to their work to larger audiences. It was through this urge to encourage participation and to ‘celebrate’ local women artists that ‘Through Her Lens’ was conceived.

‘Through Her Lens’ is a photography exhibition to be held in Namchi, South Sikkim between February 9 and 16, 2020, showcasing works solely by women artists from Sikkim and Darjeeling Hills. The exhibition is being held in collaboration with Zubaan Publishers, supported by Sasakawa Peace Foundation and under the Fragrance of Peace Project. An open call has been announced seeking submissions where both aspiring and professional photographers of all ages are eligible to apply.

Submissions can be made on either of the two themes: ‘Memory’ and ‘Migration’. The interpretation of the themes is entirely up to the photographer. There is no limitation on genre and images in any category including, but not restricted to, portrait, self-portrait, landscape, conceptual, studio, street, etc, will be accepted by the jury.

The photography exhibition is one in a series of programmes to be held in Namchi in February in collaboration with Zubaan Publishers. Its inauguration will be followed by a discussion conducted by photographer Prashansa Gurung on February 9. A team of Zubaan research grantees from Sikkim and Darjeeling hills will also participate in the dialogue. The idea is to view the issue from diverse vantage points while incorporating multiple perspectives in the discourse about gender equity in the burgeoning art scene in these Himalayan towns.

Although we’ve had casual conversations on why there is a near absence of women photographers from our region, we’ve hardly ever had a formalised dialogue on this. ‘Through Her Lens’ compels us to admit that there is an under-representation of women in photography. It also allows us an opportunity to galvanise people for a common cause, to bring them together in sharing experiences, ideating, knowledge building, future collaborations, etc.

While the lack of visibility of women photographers in the region will be explored through various modes of discourse during the events, Mridu Rai, one of the curators of ‘Through Her Lens’ has pointed at an unmissable pattern starting to emerge as queries have started coming in regarding submissions for the photography exhibition. Both interest and aptitude exist, but what is most lacking is confidence. Rai mentioned that a lot of women have made contact and many among them have stated that perhaps their images aren’t good enough for submissions.

In 1971, Linda Nochlin wrote her groundbreaking essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, where she argued that while ‘great achievement is rare and difficult at best’, it is even harder when one wrestles with ‘inner demons of self-doubt and guilt and outer monsters of ridicule or patronising encouragement’ even when these have nothing to with the quality of artwork produced. Systemic socio-cultural impediments have traditionally led women to be more modest about their work and devalue their own abilities. Such perceptions might be changing, but women still experience pushbacks in the form of benevolent patriarchal modes of behaviour.

This is exactly why the photography exhibition encourages amateur women practitioners of all ages to participate and contribute to this learning and networking opportunity. Zubaan, who has been a constant participant and chronicler of the women’s movement in India and South Asia, is the perfect collaborator on this project.

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This confidence gap, however, is not merely a gender issue. It has also to do with the fact that visual arts like photography is only just making its way to regions like Sikkim and Darjeeling. In the past, photography has primarily been used to record family histories, from birthdays to weddings and other personal occasions — which in itself is a form of capturing lived realities. Landscape images, meant to showcase the ‘natural beauty’ of the Himalayan region in calendars and tourism brochures has been another common use of photography here. Photography as a medium of storytelling is still in its nascent stages. This could, perhaps, explain the hesitance in participating in an exhibition and even confusion in interpreting themes that seem abstract but have been a part of people’s experiences in many intertwining ways.

This is another reason why engaging with projects like ‘Through Her Lens’ is so important because there is a real need for supporting a creative culture in our region. The photography exhibition is not about competing with men on either technical or aesthetic grounds in artistic productions or creating a women-only space, it’s about encouraging participative efforts to build a collaborative culture that fosters creative and critical dialogues that is inclusive of different gender identities. The dominant developmental discourse in northeast Indian states like Sikkim as well as in Darjeeling Hills largely revolves around the rhetoric of economic development centering on expansion of buildings, roads and other infrastructures.

Prioritising economic-infrastructural expansion alone can prove to be inadequate and one-sided. Art and culture need to be incorporated within the existing developmental strategies and one way of doing this is to put focus back on communities, their experiences and practices. Projects like Through Her Lens can underscore the diversity of our lives and contribute towards the vision of inclusive development.

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