Seven years ago, Pablo Bartholomew reached for a box on the top shelf of his cupboard and recoiled in horror. The film inside was damp. The box contained 30-year-old slides, or reversal film, from an assignment for National Geographic, for which Bartholomew had photographed nearly 15,000 Bangladeshi men building the country's largest dam. The effort had been intense – the men had closed the mouth of the Feni River to control its flooding and create a freshwater reservoir for irrigation. But Bartholomew’s labour, as it turned out, had become food for termites.
“When I saw the damage, there was disbelief and anger,” the photographer said. “It was just debris. I was unable to deal with it for a long time. The box just sat there. Some time later, however, I did go back to it.”
Reexamining the slides, Bartholomew’s innate sense of colour and composition began to seek new patterns.
“The colours had morphed into each other to form these fascinating patterns and geometrical designs,” he said. “Some images had remnants of the figures that had been photographed, and another set was abstract, they emerged as images in their own right.”
Memento Mori is Bartholomew’s attempt at resurrecting the corpses of those images. While the images cannot be saved, they have transformed. The photographs seem like abstract pieces of art, as if the army of termites that went to work on them was led by one with a particularly artistic vision.
"Some images that might not have seemed very interesting back when I took them, were becoming interesting now," said Bartholomew. "The aberrations, the circular blobs were throwing some things into focus, which might not have been my aim when I took the original picture.”
Looking at the photographs is a bit like cloud gazing – as the mind traces shapes with what the eye sees, recognisable shapes emerge. In one image, a woman stands with a cloud over her head in an otherwise cloudless sky. In another, two men are hard at work, encased in a bubble, the faint outline of a boy walks on the beach, his fishing net flying behind him like a cape.
Destruction is not a new theme in Bartholomew’s work. In a career spanning nearly four decades, his lens has captured the turn of time – the funeral of India’s first woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, cyclones in Bangladesh. The most unforgettable image from his significant body of work is the black and white photograph of a half-buried child – a victim of the world’s worst industrial disaster, the Bhopal gas tragedy. The image was awarded the World Press Photo Picture of the Year in 1985.
"Working in such situations is like being thrown in the deep end of the pool,” said Barholomew. “It all comes down to how good a swimmer you are, and how your past propels you to navigate through turbulent waters.”
"Every photographer has his own emotional, psychological and aesthetic background which pushes them to shoot in a certain way,” he said, hand-rolling cigarettes with practised ease (no filters, though – he hates filters).
His early training as a photojournalist impels Bartholomew to keep revisiting his work, to review and refresh his eye. His apartment, he says, has served as a makeshift archives of sorts for his father’s almost 17,000 slides along with his own work.
But limiting one’s craft to photojournalism, Bartholomew says, can cause any photographer to “lose their eye”.
“It is the same as when if one goes from writing poetry to writing a newspaper copy,” he said, “the requirement to work within set parameters…somewhere along the way, you lose the freedom that you had.”
Having shot extensively in both colour and black and white, Bartholomew believes the subject determines the medium of a photograph.
"Photographs depicting conflict tend to be more powerful when shot in black and white, as opposed to a story about land and people, in which colour tends to play a big role," he said.
The importance of colour is most visible in Bartholomew's work with the Naga people of North East India and Myanmar. The traditional attire, headdresses, jewellery and tattoos of the tribe are so vivid, they seem almost three-dimensional.
"Those were posed portraits," said Bartholomew, “but in the earlier days, when owning a camera was not de rigueur, people's response when a camera was pointed at them was much more natural, even if they were posing. These days everyone is so aware of the self that they behave in a certain practiced way when they look into a camera, it's not the same.”
Bartholomew also misses the rhythm of the analogue camera. Digital photography has turned photographers lazy.
"With film, you're working with a finite number of frames, so your thought process is tighter and your shots are careful and the concept sharper,” he said, “you can't rely on post production to fix a picture. Plus, you shoot in a certain specific manner – there’s a rhythm when you click and wind and click. It's the same as when you are writing long hand as opposed to on Microsoft Word."
Bartholomew has spent nearly his entire life around photography – he began making his own as a teenager, but even before that, he grew up watching his father, the photographer, poet and art critic Richard Bartholomew, hanging out in dark rooms, watching images come to life.
At sixty, the incident with the termites helped Pablo Bartholomew realise that all things must come to an end, but that there is beauty in devastation too.
Pablo Bartholomew's Memento Mori is on at Nature Morte, Neeti Bagh, Delhi, till September 24.