Photographer Atul Bhalla’s images are like a clarion call for saving the environment. He began drawing attention to ecological issues – especially around water – through his work more than 20 years ago. Around 2017, Bhalla trained his camera on fishing communities, like those in Kasimedu, Tamil Nadu, where infrastructure development and cleansing drives threatened to uproot residents. One photograph depicts a small green house on the beach, with a group of four men in shirts and lungis sitting outside. Just behind them is a row of concrete blocks – a reminder of the kind of development that can upend lives and livelihoods. Beyond the blocks is a shabby stretch strewn with rocks and rope, and then a cracked wall with a larger-than-life butterfly graffiti in the distance.

“People who live off the sea – somehow Chennai doesn’t foreground them,” Bhalla said, over the phone. “You don’t even see the local catch on restaurant menus.”

Bhalla’s photographs are on show as part of a single installation at Senate House, one of 10 venues for the ongoing Chennai Photo Biennale, organised by the Chennai Photo Biennale Foundation and Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, Chennai. Now in its second edition, the biennale features works by 50 artists from 13 countries, including Angela Grauerholz from Canada, Jason Shulman and Anna Fox from the UK, Shadi Ghadirian from Iran and Manit Sriwanichpoom from Thailand. From India, there are works by celebrated artists such as Nalini Malani, Sheba Chhachhi, Dayanita Singh, Gauri Gill, Navjot Altaf, Atul Bhalla and Ram Rahman.

Installation by Atul Bhalla. Photo credit: Atul Bhalla.
Installation by Atul Bhalla. Photo credit: Atul Bhalla.

Artistic director Pushpamala N said she invited artists with requests for specific works that she wanted to show in the biennale. “There’s a mix of new work and older work,” she said. “Some artists I invited are people whom I’ve exhibited with in the past [like Grauerholz]. Some [like Lebanon-born Rabih Mroue], I saw their work online and contacted them.”

Pushpamala’s curation of the works was based on the biennale’s philosophy (“not theme”) – Fauna of Mirrors. Fauna of Mirrors is based on an ancient Chinese fable about mirror people, a species distinct from human beings. The story goes that the mirror people lived on the other side of mirrors. They were friendly with humans until an emperor enslaved them and tried to control their behaviour. The mirror people mutinied and have since been sworn enemies of the human race.

“Photography is all-pervasive,” said Pushpamala. “And like the creatures in the Chinese fable, these images can be friendly, or turn around and attack us at any time, in the form of fake news, doctored porn, trolling and hate WhatsApp groups.”

'Hidden Lily', 2017. Photo credit: 3rd Space Lab Collective and Chennai Photo Biennale.
'Hidden Lily', 2017. Photo credit: 3rd Space Lab Collective and Chennai Photo Biennale.

At the biennale, which also features workshops, talks and film screenings, there is a quiet emphasis on the processes behind the making of photographs. From book-scanning to expensive silver gelatine prints, and from pixellated mobile photographs to 150-year-old archival photos from a newspaper, the biennale looks at our relationship with image making and image consumption through a range of technologies.

Book-scanning features prominently in the work of Grauerholz, whose exhibit Privation is part of the biennale. In 2001, Grauerholz scanned books from her private collection that had been damaged in a house fire. The scans, printed on Arches paper using the Giclee printing process (in which fine art digital prints are made on inkjet printers), were then bound in book form as a kind of a catalogue. Though the artwork had its roots in personal tragedy, it soon became a comment on all the books that have been destroyed by authoritarian regimes – from Octavius Caesar, who razed the famous library at Alexandria, to Nuremberg in Nazi Germany and Kosovo in the 1990s.

“Scans are photos too,” said Pushpamala in a telephonic interview. A scan is a likeness created by a scanner using lights and lenses, just like a camera.

Grauerholz is also showing a work-in-progress titled Empty Shelves – both her exhibits are in a book form as a site-specific installation in the Madras Literary Society. It is one of India’s oldest lending libraries, with a legacy going back to 1812. “Chennai is an old colonial city, but it is also a modern industrial city,” said Pushpamala. “The country’s first university, first library, first government arts college – these are some of our sites. It’s fantastic.”

The city of Chennai is central to the biennale. Not only does it serve as the backdrop for the works, it also dictates their form and display. A fine example of this is the way Chennai’s love affair with movies is woven in. At Art Houz gallery in Nungambakkam are displayed works by Shulman, Cop Shiva, JH Thakker, D Ravinder Reddy, Desire Machine Collective, Amshu Chukki, Balaji Maheshwar and Karthik Subramanian under the sub-theme I Love Cinema.

Also featured here is a selection from Singh’s Masterji Series, which has choreographer Saroj Khan teaching dance sequences to the leading actors of the day – Madhuri Dixit, Sanjay Dutt and Rekha. There are also experimental works like Shulman’s Photographs of Films, in which he condenses the length of a film into a single frame.

'Horror in Pink #6', 2001. Photo credit: Manit Sriwanichpoom.
'Horror in Pink #6', 2001. Photo credit: Manit Sriwanichpoom.

The biennale oscillates between the fun and the serious. On the one hand, it offers insights into the making of pop culture (as with the behind-the-scenes glimpse at Khan’s dance sequences), and on the other, it calls attention to the pressing political issues of the day.

With Kashmir and Kashmiris in the news, the biennale revisits an old work by Chhachhi and writer Sonia Jabbar to echo the voices of women in the Valley. Titled When the Gun is Raised, Dialogue Stops…, the work comprises photographs and texts on prayer book stands, and presents an alternative narrative to the story of borders and militancy.

Another installation that makes a telling political statement is Mroue’s Pixelated Revolution. It features a series of photographs made from online videos, and captures the situation in Syria from September 2011 till December of that year. During that period, military vehicles and tanks started appearing on the streets in cities like Homs to quell anti-government protests. It was a time when the international media found it difficult to reach the ground, and there was fear that the state news was manufactured. As a result, these shaky home videos became the most reliable source to know what was happening in Syria as protests against President Bashar al-Assad heated up.

'When the gun is raised, dialogue stops...' by Sheba Chhachhi and Sonia Jabbar. Photo courtesy: Chennai Photo Biennale.
'When the gun is raised, dialogue stops...' by Sheba Chhachhi and Sonia Jabbar. Photo courtesy: Chennai Photo Biennale.

In a video call from Berlin, Mroue said that he became interested in these videos when a friend pointed out that the people of Syria were seemingly shooting their own deaths. “I thought: how can someone record the moment of their death?” Mroue said.

In one photograph from Pixelated Revolution, you can just about make out the silhouette of a soldier pointing a gun at the camera. It’s only when you see the accompanying video that you understand that the person recording the footage was an ordinary citizen, who was surprised to hear shots fired in his neighbourhood. The video ends when the citizen is shot by the soldier.

Rabih Mroue’s 'Pixelated Revolution'. Photo credit: Chennai Photo Biennale.
Rabih Mroue’s 'Pixelated Revolution'. Photo credit: Chennai Photo Biennale.

For over a decade, critics have been debating the role of the artist photographer in the age of camera phones, selfies and social media. In this context it seems fair to ask: what is the purpose of a such a biennale?

“Photography is such a banal fact that people are surprised there should be a big festival like a biennale for it,” said Pushpamala in an email. “Yet photographers and artists are using the photographic language in so many ways to address the world...Nations are defining their identities through photographic archives and movements, and people are documenting themselves. We are not even going into film here, which is also based on photography.”

'Cinema screen', Guiyu, China, 2005. Photo credit: Armin Linke.
'Cinema screen', Guiyu, China, 2005. Photo credit: Armin Linke.

Of course, the Chennai Photo Biennale is about more than just photos. It puts the focus on our evolving relationship with photography, and on re-examining the world we live in. We see shades of this in Mroue’s work, in which he asks difficult questions about civil war and human rights. Bhalla’s massive installation seems to bring the sea – and the people who live off it – from the promenade to inside the Senate House.

“I am particular about juxtapositions and resonances, where all together the works give a more complex meaning,” Pushpamala said. “I am looking at what can you do and say through photography. How can you use photography as a language to speak to the world.”

The Chennai Photo Biennale is on till March 24 at 10 venues, including Senate House, Madras Literary Society, Government College of Fine Arts, Egmore Museum and Cholamandala Artists’ Village.