Oxford-based photographic artist and curator Sunil Shah discusses subjectivity of documentation and the blurry line between fact and fiction:
How to you define your photographic practice? What genre does it fit into and is this classification important for you?
I started off wanting to be a documentary photographer, but the more I learned about it, the more it started to throw up questions about the nature of representation. It got to the stage that the traditional idea of documentary for me started to collapse and I began thinking about it in much broader terms. This led to a kind of liberation in that now I feel like anything is possible in storytelling through photography. I now use photographs as one of a number of ways to deploy ideas. I’m not sure if that fits into a classification and not actively trying to fit into one.
Name some of your inspirations and influences from both photographic theory and practice?
At university a whole world of photography and photographers opened up to me, and I was and still am inspired by a lot of different things. A key moment was after I started to look seriously at postmodern and documentary criticism, especially that of Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler and Victor Burgin, it influenced me a lot and led me towards conceptual art and a lot of staged and constructed photography.
Who is your audience and what is the ultimate context for the presentation of your work?
I’d like to think that I make work that is accessible to everyone. However, I’m not sure it always is. The work has a consideration for the viewer, but it often relies on openness of reading and ambiguity. I prefer the work to have its own life and exist in many forms, although I appreciate that photo books and gallery presentation are considered the norm when we think of ‘ultimate context’.
How do your photographic and curatorial practices coexist? Are they completely separated areas of work or different manifestations of the same ideas?
I think they are closely related, but take on parallel paths. Both currently deal with re-presenting and re-contextualisation of material. However, where the personal work is characterised by pure subjectivity and expression as an art practice, curatorial work is a highly negotiated activity. There is careful use of archive material/artworks and much more of a consideration to meet the objectives of the commission and the expectations of the audience.
Tell me more about your project Uganda Stories? What inspired the idea and what was your working process?
Uganda Stories was inspired by my family’s experience in East Africa and being made refugees by Idi Amin from Uganda in 1972. Growing up in the UK, we were aware of this triple identity, as Indians, as British and as ex-Ugandan Asians. Working on Uganda Stories I wanted to understand this least known part our lives.
By the time I started this project, I knew I wanted to work with what I could find that we still had from Uganda, this included photos and some objects. I also wanted to talk to my family about what they remembered. I started to discover that we knew some things but much of the history was incomplete and fragmented. I wanted the work to reflect this as an attempt to understand the past and to address memory. I also wanted to show how this colonial past has now been stowed away and packed up. Publicly, it is something that had been relatively forgotten about until last year’s 40th year commemoration. This is reflected in the treatment of the materials I use and the presentation of the images and words you see. It is a work that makes use of metaphors and text which can be interpreted how the viewer wants. It’s not a complete story.
What were the biggest challenges of working on a personal project and collaborating with your family? How do they perceive the work?
Throughout the project, my family has been amazing and given me their complete support. I am so pleased to have done a body of work that represents us. I’m not sure they all get the work though, but that’s OK – we’ve had some great conversations talking about old times.
Were you trying to be objective in your representation of the issue or is this 100% your personal interpretation of the events?
I am completely of the thinking now that all representations are subjective. Allan Sekula recently said ‘all documentary tends towards subjectivity‘ and, as objective as we try to be in dealing with what we perceive as being ‘the facts’, it is always translated into a subjective edit or reading. This can be through the subjectivity or ideology of the individual, the group or the organisation. I think, if something is presented as ‘fact’, it almost becomes a dead end – the fact is accepted and you move on. If something is left open-ended, it lingers and begs the viewer to challenge their own knowledge. I think this is more faithful to the complexity and reality of life.
What was the experience of being a part of FreshFaced+WildEyed like? What are you planning to work on next?
FF+WE was a great experience and I enjoyed every minute of it! It was amazing to be in a group show with such talented photographers and artists. Through this I was also lucky to have been awarded a one-year mentorship with Renee Mussai of Autograph ABP – that’s been really exciting.
Right now, I am working on another curatorial mentorship with Brighton Photo Fringe 2013 and I have just finished curating a project run by the Council of Asian People, called The Exiles Project – Making Home. It was exhibited at the Royal Geographic Society in September and is currently on display in Wood Green.
It was based on oral histories taken from London based Ugandan Asians and was supported with archival material from the Royal Geographic Society, The National Archives and the London Metropolitan Archives. It also included photographs from private collections and artworks by Asian artists. Alongside more curating projects, I hope to concentrate on making new work in 2014.