Vasantha Yogananthan: The Book of Love
"We are using their facts to tell our lies." Larry Sultan
IMA, Vol. 20, Summer 2017
An interview with Vasantha Yogananthan about his latest book, The Promise, the second instalment in the seven-part project, A Myth of Two Souls.
Vasantha Yogananthan first came to attention for his project Piémanson, a documentary portrait compiled over five summers of one of France’s last remaining wild beaches.
Despite the success of Piémanson, for his next project, Yogananthan decided to embark on a radically different adventure, both in terms of his chosen subject and his photographic approach. Yogananthan, who is half-French, half Sri-Lankan, wanted his next project to relate to India, but was struggling to decide on how best to approach its incredible complexity.
Over time, Yogananthan developed a hugely ambitious project entitled A Myth of Two Souls, based on the Ramayana, an epic prose poem written in Sanskrit around 300 BCE. The project will include a series of seven books published under the Chose Commune imprint (the independent publishing house he runs with his partner Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi), one for each of the kandas (books) of the original poem. The first of these books, Early Times, was published in May 2016 and now Yogananthan has followed it up with The Promise. As Yogananthan explains, “Each of the seven books has a very clear theme. The Promise is the book about love. It is an exploration of what it means to be husband and wife in India and the promises which they make to each other.”
Yogananthan first read an abridged version of the Ramayana in 2013. One of the foundational texts of Hindu mythology, the Ramayana follows Prince Rama's quest to rescue his beloved wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana over the course of a journey from North to South India. “I found the text very interesting in relation to a number of contemporary Indian social issues,” he told me. “I felt that this story would provide the thread around which to discuss the country in an open way.”
With the Ramayana as the basis of his project, Yogananthan began a series of trips to India to begin photographing. However, his first two visits led to frustration as he struggled to find images that would relate closely enough to this ancient story. “During the third trip, I realized that I wasn’t able to put together sequences of photographs that echoed the story of the Ramayana, and that is when I told myself that I needed to start staging images. That became the true beginning of the project: it enabled me to bridge the original text and contemporary Indian society.” Working with Indian assistants, Yogananthan would set out each morning and conduct a kind of street casting, looking for locals who could perform a specific passage of the Ramayana for his large format camera.
Rather than looking for people purely to execute his vision, Yogananthan is interested in a collaborative process. He explains, “I leave people a lot of freedom. We discuss a specific passage of the Ramayana and which characters they will performing, but how they want to do that I leave up to them. There is an element of street theatre to the process, which relies heavily on the imagination of the participants.”
The Ramayana’s continued relevance to modern Indian life is central to the success of the project. Through his research, Yogananthan discovered that the Ramayan is present at all levels of Indian life, from popular to high culture. Today, Indians come to the Ramayana in myriad different ways, from video games, comic books (as Yogananthan did as a child), paintings, a 1980s TV adaptation of the epic (India’s most watched television series to this day), or even Snapchat threads.
Yogananthan realised, “All these different versions showed that there was no single Ramayana. In fact, there is an Indian proverb that says, “There is not one Ramayana, but thousands of Ramayana.”
This multiplicity of the representations of the story, convinced him that he could not work alone on this project. As he told me, “I decided to create a dialogue with Indian artists for whom the Ramayana has been a major subject. From the beginning, I wanted this to be a story told through multiple voices in order to represent the diversity of these interpretations.”
In addition to the locals he finds to play characters from the Ramayana for his camera, The Promise also involves two other forms of collaboration. Shortly after deciding to stage his photographs, Yogananthan had the idea of working with a painter who was schooled in the tradition of hand-painting photographs which stretches back to the mid-nineteenth century. Having shot the staged images in black-and-white, he sends prints of these to the painter giving him total freedom to reinterpret them in colour. As Yogananthan explains, “Since these repainted images are very difficult to place in time, I felt that they would contribute to the feeling of time travel in the project.” The results, which he showed me, are stunning, imbuing his images with vivid, but often hyperrealistic colours that echo Yogananthan’s colour palette.
The Promise includes around 15 of these painted images alongside Yogananthan’s colour photographs, as well as some vernacular images he collected during his research. By interweaving these different visual elements, the book accentuates the sense of a multiplicity of voices.
In addition, Yogananthan wanted to add a further voice to this representation of the story. He contacted the author Arshia Sattar, asking her to contribute a text. He recalls, “I sent her a sequence of images for the book and that led to a conversation. We decided that the book would be told in the first person, but from the perspective of a woman, whereas in the original text the story is told from the male perspective.”
Although there is relatively little text in The Promise, the passages that do appear act as essential punctuation for the sequence of images, thereby adding a further layer of text to Yogananthan’s wonderfully complex text-image dialogue that spans across centuries and continents.
by Marc Feustel
"We are using their 'facts' to tell our lies."
— Larry Sultan
Over the past year, with Donald Trump’s rise to power and the wave of populism that has been sweeping across Europe, the popular lexicon has expanded with a number of new buzzwords which have come to characterize this particular moment in time: fake news, alternative facts, post-truth. In the face of Trump and his acolytes’ disdain for facts and their systematic use of lies, a number of articles have been written arguing that photography’s role is now more important than ever before. These pieces tell us that photography is the final barrier, the dam that stands in the way of the torrent of lies that threatens to engulf us from all sides. Since words and numbers can no longer be trusted, photography’s ability to show us the way things actually are make it the most important tool we have to separate fact from fiction.
In this context, Larry Sultan’s words may appear to be a soundbite overheard at a meeting of Trump’s inner circle. Of course, Larry Sultan is no spin doctor—at least not a political one—and these words were uttered over forty years ago. In the 1970s, Sultan formed an artistic duo with his fellow Californian Mike Mandel and together they published the photobook Evidence in 1977. The book contains photographs sourced over the course of three years from the files of corporations, government agencies, and educational institutions, and then and sequenced into a visual narrative without providing the reader with any further information than their provenance. Mandel and Sultan’s book, which has just been reissued by D.A.P., had a major impact on the course that photography has taken since. Evidence helped to unpick the threads which had attached photography so firmly to this notion of truth. Today, with so many artists having followed in their footsteps, that fabric has almost entirely unravelled.
Beyond celebrating a seminal piece of art, Evidence’s 40-year anniversary reissue is a reminder that while the mass media is being overtaken by fake news, photography was conscious of having entered the post-truth era several decades ago.
I have my doubts as to photography’s ability to help and extricate us from the mess in which we currently find ourselves. However, by turning the complexity of our relationship with the truth into visual poetry as Evidence does, it can help us to make it that much more bearable.
by Marc Feustel