Portraits of India
Students of “Photography Studio Abroad” spent 18 days in the cities and slums of India
March 29, 2011, 3:07 am·
While most students were heading back to school at the end of spring break, some Penn photography students were scouring India for new perspectives.
Traveling with single-reflex lens cameras, students of the Fine Arts class “Photography Studio Abroad” took thousands of images of India over the course of 18 days, returning to Penn on March 22.
“It was nothing I could’ve expected,” College sophomore Christine Alix said, her hands still covered in henna tattoos from India’s Festival of Color.
In Dharavi, a slum of Mumbai that is also the largest in Asia, Alix spent two days shooting a “self-sustaining city within a city” with close to a million inhabitants who make leather products for K-Mart, launder for families or paint and create pottery.
“You can’t go into Dharavi yourself — otherwise you won’t find your way out,” Alix said. “Some parts were three stories high with only an inch of sunlight” on top of the buildings.
Between visits to contemporary galleries and lectures from top curators in India, 14 Penn photographers immersed themselves to capture east-west, old-new divides within the post-colonial city.
The students brought back dozens of daily journals focused on everyday life, as well as individual conceptual projects which ranged from photographs of Dharavi to a disabled center called the Fellowship for the Physically Handicapped.
For Alex Remnick, a College junior and Daily Pennsylvanian photographer, the trip culminated after two years of planning. From now until summer, he will pare his 3,200 photos down to a mere 40 for his project on the handicapped.
“I knew I wanted to be a photographer since I was 16. Traveling to India is a photographer’s paradise and photographer’s nightmare. There’s so much beauty and color,” he said.
According to program director Julie Schneider, preparation for Mumbai included six weeks of intensive Hindi, art history training, a briefing on India’s weather and historical sites and a crash course in cultural etiquette so students could be “polite in the host country language.”
Instructor Gabriel Martinez taught weekly workshops at Penn in preparation for the trip with visits from Philadelphia Inquirer photographer Michael Bryant and 1962 College graduate Mary Ellen Marks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer.
For Fine Arts graduate student Michael Marfione, the India trip offered a chance “to make a statement [about] being a Westerner in a foreign place.”
Creating a version of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, Marfione filmed a movie centered on a female Indian protagonist — “the first time I ever did a production on that scale.”
For Marfione, who is “used to his personal space and time,” the experience of “having a whole family open their home to me for three days is a lesson in humility,” he said.
Martinez said the course is designed for photographers to respond to discoveries along the way and to experience the mindset of a present-day photographer.
“The course is about getting lost and figuring out how to deal,” Schneider said. “It’s about ordering the wrong food, and not knowing what you got. It’s about expanding the basis on which you make decisions for your life.”
Prior to the trip, one student had never been on an airplane, while two others had never left the United States.
“It’s absolutely not a vacation — we’re exhausted,” Martinez said. “It was a ton of work but the results, as we will see with the photos, are spectacular.”
The Photography Department sponsors the Abroad Studio course every other spring, with Beijing as the previous destination in 2009. Photos from the India trip will be featured from May 20 to June 24 in Addams Gallery.