Portraits of a city

July 21, 2012 12:00 am | Updated 04:55 am IST

Exhibition Shutter bug Pascal Bernard and poet Anupama Raju try to capture the essence of Pondicherry through photographs and poetry

French photographer Pascal Bernard enjoys taking portraits. So his project on Pondicherry clicked because it was all about people. “I think people make a city,” says Pascal in his heavily accented English. Helping him with the right word and, at times, acting as his interpreter, is freelance mediaperson, corporate trainer and poet Anupama Raju. As they talk and interact (with Pascal’s wife, Veronique, also chipping in with interesting insights about their project), it is easy to understand why their exhibition ‘Pondichery: Une Ville, Un Lieu, Une Personne,’ which begins today in the city is bound to be captivating for purveyors of the visual and the written word.

“The collection has 28 ‘tryptiques’ – sets of three photographs – that tell a small story of different people and their favourite places in Pondicherry. ‘Une Ville’, is one city, ‘Un Lieu’ is about one place and ‘Une Personne' is about the person,” explains Anupama.

Commissioned in 2011 by Alliance Française de Pondicherry and Le Centre Intermondes, La Rochelle, France, ‘Une Ville, UnLieu, Une Personne’ is the result of a joint residency in Pondicherry in August 2011 between Pascal and Anupama.

The persons featured in the exhibition include three French residents of Pondicherry. Pascal says some of the subjects for the portrait were selected by the Alliance Francaise in Pondicherry while he chose a few because they caught his attention with their arresting looks. “Philomene, a coconut seller, and Iyappan, a man who irons clothes for a living, were selected because of their visual appeal. Iyyappan has a strong frame and piercing eyes. Raj De Condappa, a friend of mine, also figures in the exhibition. He helped me select several people whose portraits I clicked for the project,” says Pascal.

The black and white photos were taken on film in the old fashioned way and processed manually by Pascal. “Digital photography is my profession but black and white photography is my passion. I use a film with 12 frames. I use four shots for the face, four for the place and four for the detail of the place. Moreover, while processing, I have used certain methods of exposure and washing to create different tones that range from sepia to mild green for the photographs. The last wash in gold is to preserve the photographs. For instance, the set on a coconut seller has tones of red, green and brown… the colour of the coconuts she sells,” he laughs, pleased with his verbal artistry.

Another set of photos of Kirti, an artist, depicts her at her house that is being constructed. Pascal has given it a reddish tinge to go with the colour of the bricks.

He observes that most people chose their home, place of work or a random public place as their favourite place in Pondicherry.

Each such set of snaps is accompanied by short poems in English (with translation of the poem in French). The poems also feature a word or phrase in Tamil. The attempt was to use the three languages of Pondicherry.

“The idea was to take a picture of the person, another of his favourite place in Pondicherry and a third one that showed the details of the place he chose as his favourite,” says Anupama.

Thus the portrait of Iyyappan has a close-up of his face, the second picture shows him at work and the third is a tight shot of the old-fashioned heavy iron. The verses in his honour are titled ‘Night of Revolt’, (Nuit de Re’volte) and Anupama’s brief but fluent verses succinctly capture his occupation and perhaps his aspirations. Similarly her playful but poignant words lent depth to a photograph of a young biker who poses proudly on his bike in front of the famous statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Pondicherry.

“I must say that the poems are not biographical in any way. The words were inspired by the photographs and it took me about eight months. It was hard work. Since it was exhibited in Pondicherry, our models were also there to see the exhibition and I was quite nervous about their reaction. But it was an excellent experience. Each poem had to stand on its own and yet be connected to the photograph as well,” says Anupama.

She adds that since she had accompanied Pascal when he went to meet some of the people featured in the photographs that might have been there at the back of her mind when she wrote the poems.

Pascal, an Indophile on his third trip to Kerala, says that he is fascinated by India and Indians. In 2011, his exhibition, ‘L’Inde nous regarde’ (India is watching us) was hosted by the Alliance Française de Pondicherry.

Anupama and Pascal are working on their second project. This time around, Anupama will write the poems inspired by her stay in La Rochelle and Pascal will then shoot photographs inspired by those poems of people and places in La Rochelle. “My theme is on ‘depths and surfaces’. The sea is a powerful presence in all the places I have lived, be it in Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram or La Rochelle. So that is certainly a powerful area of influence. But there is so much of history in La Rochelle – the second World War, the Renaissance, the French revolution…all have played a role in shaping the city and her people. So, I will also be exploring that,” says Anupama.

Saraswathy Nagarajan

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