Bangalore-based photographer Shibu Arakkal’s photographs are not just memories sealed in time, they are extensions of his soul. They have a charm we can’t explain, more like a poem. Arakkal’s photos make you want to break conformity and take the road less travelled. In this edition, Arakkal gets candid about things like photography, iPhonography, his other passions, current projects and how he feels about being a father.

1. What have you been up to these days? Anything new that you are working on at the moment?

I started this year with an urgently-required paradigm shift that I needed to incorporate into my work practices. This included matters such as acutely controlling the supply end of my works as opposed to its easy availability online. Thus, risking falling prey to a genre of generic photographic art, which on even well-known portals, isn’t necessarily controlled in terms of creative quality or in the selection of artists, be it the ability that we speak of, or just experience and credentials.

Also, in further raising the standards of printing my work and using the best media for it and instilling within the print itself, value that is different from that of the creative content that is on it. By that I mean a very high level of artistic personalisation, such as printing all my works myself, which I have always done, and by also incorporating drawings, writing, etc. on the reverse side of the print. In some cases, incorporating such practices post printing, on the print surface, rendering the work to be closer to a digital/photographic mixed media.

As for projects, I have been working on two bodies of work for the past year or so and I begin another this December in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu. One or more of these series of works are meant for exhibition next year in India or abroad, details of which are still being worked out.

2. You are very secretive about things you do – not just photography, you are selective about things like the press and promotion too. Any particular reason why?

It isn’t so much that I am secretive about my work as the fact that I prefer to work within a bubble and get as far away as possible from the realities of the world that I inhabit. I seek and yearn for a purity of thought, technique and philosophy that is extremely elusive and needs an almost Zen-like meditative mental and emotional zone. In that respect, my work is relative to only itself and the path that it defines on its own.

So, as far as promoting myself is concerned, the very blatant nature of it that one apparently needs to adopt to get higher in today’s world conflicts directly with my need and want to be humble in my own way, and to also be true to myself and be diligent to my work. I have always been old-school in that regard and old-fashioned too, I guess.

That said, I am glad that the press in general has been kind to me in just letting me be me.

3. What is good art according to you? What is the face of art in 2014? Do people actually understand what artists do? Your comments. 

I had once heard someone ask this question as to what the difference was between good and bad art. And to that, the simplest answer I have is that something is either art or not. And the truth hinges on the audience’s subjective and, importantly, educated relation to the art itself.

I feel that 2014 saw a lot of self-reflection by artists and art in general globally, given the trying times that art has seen worldwide. Having said that, I have in general seen a trend from collectors to want to see more art that is truly real and meaningful rather than the kind of shallow plasticity that has been prevalent for the past few years. We have also seen a gradual departure from certain forms of minimalism to intricacy and detail-oriented execution of artistic philosophies. But the age old question of whether people, by which I suppose they mean the mass audience, understand what artists do, is and can only be answered by a certain indulgent, diligent and almost no-holds-barred approach to art education and exposure, whether that be done formally or otherwise. Or else, one’s bearings in a field such as art which is anyway fluid in its existence and one that demands much openness to new ideas, questions and an ability to understand out-of-the-box thinking, is shaky at best and absolutely non-conducive to deriving what art has to offer, as a whole.

4. Earlier you were talking to me about iPhonography – can you shed light on the phrase you have coined?

I call my photographic experimentations and artistic expressions executed using the iPhone as iPhonography and the resultant photographic works as iPhonographs. The extremely simplistic nature of the iPhone camera to someone who can use the most technologically sophisticated cameras with a certain mastery is challenging in the best way possible. To be able to prove the sheer strength of one’s artistic and technical abilities through something that is meant for snap shooting and a medium that is meant for more generic usage, which gives dramatic results, is a high that is hard to describe.

I go one step further and create photographic art using iPhonography, that can be produced adhering to the highest standards, which is technologically experimental at best, even internationally, but still on the cutting edge of photographic image creation and reproduction in relation to archival giclée printing techniques.

5. What is the definition of a good photographer, according to you?

I think a good photographer is not merely as good as his camera. He is one who has the ability to creatively pre-visualise an image and technically pulls that off faithfully through an indication of his artistic mind and of his experiential practice. A good photographer is one who can see what a camera cannot – it’s that one singular factor that has taken photography from a medium meant for documentation to an artistic tool in the last hundred-odd years.

6. You have worked on numerous projects. Which one is your favourite so far?

A question such as this one would be like asking to choose your favourite child. The birth and creation of every project adds stripes of experience and of growth to any artist’s career. So in being partial to all my work and prejudicial to none, I will say that every project I have dreamt up and lost myself doing has made this road less travelled that much more intoxicating.

7. What inspires you as an artist?

I find inspirations in many places and those inspirations are consciously injected as booster shots. So it could be my deep love for music and films or being able to travel out of my life’s context to a completely different one, to my life-long obsession with motorcycles and lastly and most importantly, my daughter and simply watching her grow up.

Also, a simple original thought and an uncompromising execution of that, regardless of constraints of money, of time, of technical challenges, etc., is something that is extremely inspiring to me, be that in the realm of creative fields or in popular and real world contexts.

8. A recent fad that you have developed?

I have, in being someone who truly believed in constantly pushing existing boundaries in my work, stumbled upon things that have become fashionable today, be that pursuing photography as an artistic medium or specific techniques that I discovered while indulging myself in my own work. Even so far as signature post-production techniques and visual styles go, and I can’t deny being inspired by other greats, but I have diligently and almost meditatively made them my own. Talking shop, I am yet to see in many a healthy mix of respect and irreverence for things done in the past and for masters of those things. But by nature someone is either a maverick or not and as we are witness to it, there will always be many a pretender, who are in fact really masked followers.

9. A book or a film that inspires you:

Talking of films, I tend to be inspired by ones that fall somewhere in between popular and artistic genres. Being a great fan of Peter O’Toole, one that has a really special place in my heart is Lawrence of Arabia.

10. What do you want to achieve through art?

As they say, its the journey rather than the destination that is important. What I do through my work is sincerely my purpose in life and it is my way of ‘fitting’ into this world, where I feel I otherwise don’t. So it is safe to say that I haven’t given much thought to what I might end up achieving through art inadvertently. But considering myself to be an eternal romantic, I think the work that I do would be a piece of my heart that I leave for my daughter.

11. What are the three most important things in life?

Having the courage to be and value yourself. To never cheat on your purpose in life and the ones you love. And to be humble enough to learn, learn and learn more.

12. Is there really chaos in art? Your views?

Art and anarchy are almost synonymous. It is one of the things that makes art beautiful. The business end of art is about wading through the riches of that chaos and picking out things to present to the world, with a worldly spin attached to it, of course. It is almost like asking, under what hashtag could I find a specific dream of mine. By nature, our dreams may be incoherent, vague, needing interpretation, disjointed or plain chaotic. But that is the beauty of them.

13. Describe yourself in three words. 

Rooted. Sensitive. Ballsy.

14. Tell us a bit about your little daughter. How is parenthood treating you?

Her spirit is light, touching and delightfully infectious. She is my north star, the wind in my sails and if it is possible, she has made me more fragile and strong at the same time. I don’t think that I would give up being a parent for anything in this world. It is something that gives a very real context to what I do, my life in general and enables me to actually live outside of myself.

15. You also have a huge passion for bikes. How and when did that start? A back story that you might remember? A prized collection in your arsenal. A bike that you would like to own someday?

I remember being intensely fond of bikes from as long as I can remember being able to walk or sit on one. My maternal granddad, who had one of the biggest influences on me, had a love for motorcycles too, and later on, for Vespa scooters. And my dad used to tell me of all the various motorcycles that he had owned. My dad himself has a love for motorcycles and I learned how to ride a proper one on his Yezdi Classic 250. So I suppose always being around motorcycles, a love for them somehow got injected into my blood.

One story that vividly comes to mind was how my dad didn’t allow me to get a Yamaha RD 350 that someone was selling off, because he thought that it was too dangerous a motorcycle. Six months later, my best friend got that same bike and I was deeply heartbroken. But that led me to my first bike, a Yezdi Roadking 250, and thereafter indulging in my love for Royal Enfields, owning every version of the 500 cc that they produced. Although at one point I owned two bikes with barely enough parking space for both, I couldn’t enjoy either. I hence decided then, that in future I would only own one at a time. My present love is my KTM 390, which will be with me for the next year or so, after which I will get the Triumph Thruxton, which has been a motorcycle I have been in love with for a very long time. A motorcycle I would like to own one day would have to be a vintage Vincent Black Shadow.

16. A word of advice that you would like to give to budding photographers?

Get deep, don’t be shallow, with technicality or creativity. Have the courage to experiment and push your own personal boundaries. And lastly, don’t care too much about what anyone else is doing.

17. Challenges you face and still face as a photographer and an artist in India?

Photography in India is a commercial medium as opposed to the strong identity that has been forged for it as an artistic one abroad. Therefore, in the last decade or so there has been a real push to get photographic art into museums and prized art collections, internationally. That and its popular acceptance by the artistic fraternity to be the new medium that’s here to stay cements its existence as something no one can ignore.

I believe that in the next decade or so, India will be the next big market for photographic art in the world, with a few tweaks to its art structures and market in general. The tweaks I talk of must come primarily from art collectors, serious ones, and potential investors, also from corporate firms and the primary government-centric art administration in this country. It puzzles me greatly as to why art collectors, even the seasoned and serious ones, are so centred on painting in this country. Certainly no disrespect to painting as a genre, but for any healthy art environment there must be a healthy mix of everything, I would think. Furthermore, with heads of the corporate firms I mentioned above travelling as much as they do, I would assume that they would have better exposure as to what new mediums in art are or even just a better exposure to mediums other than painting and sculpture. As I always say, change must come from the top. Appreciation of the truest kind, cultural and artistic, which I know our educational institutions are woefully inadequate in, must be something that we must strive to bring to the forefront of our daily existence. Else, we run a very real risk of becoming a future lot of people who are soulless, uninspired, uncreative and certainly unoriginal by definition.

18. Does commercialisation kill creativity? Your views.

Creativity dies at the hands of commercialisation, only when it is spearheaded by people who in general are in it for the quick buck and are foolish enough to want to slaughter the golden goose. I often hear about the lack of real and meaningful leadership in corporate India from friends that I have, who are generally rungs below in the food chain. It makes me think that everything has become merely about bottom lines as compared to pioneering concepts, doing dynamic, cutting-edge work or even just evolved ideas of building wealth to change the game itself. It seems to be a similar story when it comes to leadership in creative fields as well. The trickle-down effect and the idea of leading by example seems to have become rather obsolete. Either that, or the criteria for promoting potential leaders needs urgent and conscientious restructuring.

19. A word of advice that your father gave you – something you have never forgotten.

Anything you do, you must do well or not at all. I never forgot that and I try to instil that in my daughter too. It seems, however, that I have taken that concept to a whole new level. But as I say, why be good at something, if you can’t be the best at it?

20. What are your plans for the future?

There are certainly a few interesting things on the boil for me. A solo showing is imminent in the coming year, either here in India or abroad. Other than that, my new project starting this December in Tiruvannamalai excites me and I think in more ways than one, it will give new meaning to my work. There is one other project very close to my heart, unrelated to art or photography, that I want to start work on in January 2015, which I have been wanting to do for at least the last decade. And yes, I am being secretive about revealing anything more.

Avinash Kumai
Shibu ArakkaliPhonography – Reviews