Mahesh Shantaram uses personal and subjective documentary photography to study complex systems, societies, and culture in contemporary India.
Everything is personal. My own wedding put me off weddings so much that I didn’t show up for my sister’s wedding. Years later, armed with a diploma in photography, it was a wedding assignment that brought me my first cheque and a new career. That was the beginning of a long journey into this deeply entrenched institution.
Everything that's great about India and everything that's wrong with it can be summarised in a single wedding. I used my reputation as a wedding photographer and the access that comes with it to construct Matrimania, a fictional photo series about Indian society seen through the prism of its wedding culture. Six years in the making, Matrimania is my personal take on 21st century India tearing at its seams.
The 2014 general elections in India were the most significant since 1951, '65, '71, '77, '84, '99, or '04, depending on whom you ask. With so much at stake, it became impossible to trust what was being said or shown in a highly compromised news media. Journalists and their employers were being flexible with the truth and in bed with political parties, overtly or covertly. I set off on a backpacking trip across the country to become a firsthand witness of the times. In my new stint as a political photographer from a fictitious magazine, I bluffed my way into election campaigns, brushed shoulders with those loveable bastards—our politicians—in their moments of vulnerability, and participated in the addictive theatre of politics. Those were the Last Days of Manmohan.
My latest obsession is an attempt to visualise the ghost of racism in India and give it the large audience that it deserves. It is a growing collection of portraits of Africans living in India along with stories that reflect on their lives and experiences. I feel passionately for this developing project because it carries such a relevant and urgent message—a country that aspires to be a superpower is at the cusp of coming to terms with good old fashioned racism. With The African Portraits, I transcend from the role of ‘photographer’ to ‘activist’ as my work becomes a platform on which Indians congregate to have (or reject) a conversation about racism.
I have cultivated a fascination for large and complex systems, societies, and institutions. By the sheer dint of staying power (a.k.a. the longterm project), I gain deeper understanding of social environments and discover hidden narratives within them. The photographic project is for me both a personal response to current affairs as well as method of research to embark on a study.
--- Mahesh Shantaram
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