American Photographer Christine Rogers says being in India changed the way she thinks about storytelling and touristy destinations

Christine Rogers, who recently completed a Fulbright project in India on “Photographing Imagined Landscapes: The Switzerland of India,” says she does not understand why Indians travel to Europe when they have such extreme natural beauty in their own backyard.

“I was in Switzerland working on another project looking at their idea of landscapes where I noticed a large number of Indian tourists who were visiting the same mountains that I was visiting and making the same comments that I was making. I would overhear people saying this was paradise on earth and it was interesting because there were groups of people coming from the South East, from a place which looks nothing like Switzerland and there were Indian tourists making the same comments,” recalls Christine, who is now a professor of photography at the Watkins College of Art and Design in Nashville.

“When I started to follow up on it in my later research to understand why such a large number of Indian tourists in Switzerland, I found there was a long history of Bollywood films being made in Switzerland. Air India’s relationship to middle class Indian honeymooners going there and as well as hill stations in India promoting themselves as Switzerland as a way of pulling in tourists then drew me to India.”

She then found an interesting conceptual framework, as she puts it, to a project about landscapes and the fantasies around it. “I wanted to explore how as a photographer you can image a place, and that while you are visiting you imagine another place .” She also then found this to be a way of describing and looking at the Indian domestic middle class tourist industry and how it functions at every level, involving hotels, honeymooners, families, taxi drivers as well as people who live there. These people and places then became her subjects.

“I ended up photographing the honeymooners who reinforced the films that revolved around the idea of romance and fantasy, hotels and how they position themselves, building and rebuilding constantly. I was interested in seeing what their lives are like, how much it is affected by the tourist industry. I also photographed weddings because there are lot of destination weddings happening here.”

Christine then exhibited her works at the 1, Shanthi Road Studio/Gallery post a three-month residency. She is interested in this subject because of her own background, growing up in the city of Nashville (Tennessee, U.S.A) which is known for tourism because of its heritage in country music.

Christine spent six months travelling in the mountains, starting from Dalhousie, moving to Dharamshala, Manali, Shimla, Almora, Nainital, Kausani, Corbett, Mount Abu and then Mumbai for a few days back to Manali in the winter and then Darjeeling and Sikkim.

“I’m interested in the people that live in a place that is so visited. I see them risking their lives to build roads on mountains, which is a challenging task. It’s also powerful because it allows people to access that places. But the mountains, in my work, took on the role of the chorus in a song.”

Through her travels, Christine realised how complex Indian culture is. “It’s interesting how five different people gave five different answers to a question no matter where I went. That’s when I realised how complex, intricate and interwoven Indian culture is. And I was just scratching the surface on how complicated some stories are. I realised that my work was not just about landscape which is what I thought it was going to be and I was excited to find out that it needed to be more complicated than that.”

She now feels that India is a great place for an artist to work in and her experiences here have changed the way she thinks about storytelling and about landscapes. “A landscape is a view or vista of the land. Artists go out and paint the landscape, it is looked upon as a beautiful space. As an artist I’m interested in cultural constructions of the world, and I look at a landscape as something beautiful or inspiring, something that represents something else. It’s different from the physical earth.”

At the same time, she says, landscapes have a history and a cultural surrounding; all land as an element of cultural construction and history. “There are very few places where nothing ever happened on a piece of land or the land means nothing to anybody. And I am looking at land the way it has been promoted to tourists. People go to look at landscape for beauty, want a photograph taken in front of it, and it becomes a backdrop.”