'I don't hunt for the picture'

Sebastian Cortes' photo essay about Puducherry is as much about the contemporary city as it is about the colonial past. He talks about his connection with the place.

Updated - July 11, 2016 06:57 pm IST

Published - May 19, 2012 04:57 pm IST

Sebastian Cortes: Comprehensive portrait. Photo: Special Arrangement

Sebastian Cortes: Comprehensive portrait. Photo: Special Arrangement

Sebastian Cortes and I are squatting on a marble step in the French ambassador's residence in New Delhi. Cortes has just finished launching his photo essay Pondicherry , published by Roli Books, in an adjoining room. The launch was preceded by a discussion where Cortes was joined by Aman Nath, a founder member of INTACH and co-Chairman of Neemrana Hotels. The theatre actor Oroon Das read out an essay by the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner, one of three in the book. The others are by the writer Akash Kapur and Amin Jaffer, the International Director of Asian Art at Christie's. Now, while the rest of the guests are having cocktails and snacks under a starlit sky in the back garden, Cortes and I have slipped away with our drinks for an interview.

Rocky beginning

Cortes is Italian on his mother's side and Peruvian on his father's. He is American by passport. Yet, since 2004, he has lived with his wife and two children in the township of Auroville, associated with the Sri Aurobindo Society, near Pondicherry. He counts India as his second soul country. The first one is Italy.

Even though he is now at home in India, it was a rocky beginning. “I hated it at first,” he says. “‘I didn't understand it. I got sick.” A typical Western reaction. Yet, unlike many Westerners who can't wait to catch the first plane home after having it, he went on to stay. The adjustment, though, took time, involving a complete change in outlook. “The West is numb to rules,” he says, “and I was a typical Westerner, as well as a control freak. And here I couldn't control anything. It took me a while to understand that was the root of the problem. I was not accepting, not opening my mind to a series of possibilities. Once I did that, everything changed.”

One can see some of that change in the book. Western perspectives on India tend to focus, rather loudly, on its most apparent characteristics: its poverty and chaos. Remember “Slumdog Millionaire”. Remember, more recently, Katherine Boo's poverty narrative Behind the Beautiful Forevers . Pondicherry, on the other hand, comes across as a meditation on the calm and order lying underneath the noise. Many of the pictures are of the interiors of buildings and people's homes. A lot of them do not even have people in them, simply walls and objects. Was the idea to exclude people deliberate? Cortes shakes his head. “No, if the people were there I included them,” he says. “I don't hunt for the picture. I wait for it to emerge. When I went into people's homes, I didn't go looking for the picture I wanted. I just shot what was there.”

Sense of calm

Even in the pictures where people appear, the sense of calm is maintained. They are often shown enjoying a day at home, performing everyday chores. There are no heaving crowds. Since so many of the spaces are private, I ask about access. How tough was it to get into people's homes? “It depended on whose home it was,” he says. “In the less elegant, poorer areas, it was a party. The people loved to be photographed and invited me in with open arms. The higher I went in the social hierarchy the more difficult it became. Then Muslim homes were very difficult. I found it almost impossible to gain access.”

Despite these difficulties, the book draws a comprehensive portrait of Pondicherry, revealing as much of the contemporary city as its colonial past. A similar diversity is reflected in the essayists chosen. The choice of Cortes' fellow Aurovillian Akash Kapur, I can understand. So, too, Amin Jaffer. But Pascal Bruckner piques my curiosity. In his controversial 1983 book The White Man's Tears , the title is a variation of Kipling's “White Man's Burden”, Bruckner criticised the pro-Third-World sentimentalism of some of the Left in the West. He is also known as an opponent of multiculturalism, something we swear by in India, and supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “He's a tough nut,” Cortes concedes. “I wanted the French side and I wanted it with vigour rather than a lot of nostalgia and romance.” There Bruckner delivers. Unlike the nostalgia that accompanies Kapur's and Jaffer's essays, Bruckner's tone is wry. It is only in the concluding paragraph that wistfulness creeps in, an apparent attempt to sign off on an emotional note.

Our conversation is almost over, and his next interview is waiting. For a final question, I ask him how photographing in India is different from the West. “In the West I thank people for appearing in my picture,” he says. “In India people thank me for taking their picture.” I am reminded of that anomaly, as we thank each other for the interview while saying goodbye.

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