We spoke to documentary photographer, Amrita Chandradas on her intent and approach to her various photography projects
Hey Amrita, let's start at the beginning. How did you get into photography?
I’ve always had the camera in my face. My father - he was obsessed in documenting everything around him. But the real catalyst begun when I worked in a film-making & production firm. I came across a black and white photograph hung in the office, It was taken by my former boss, the image was of a mother clutching her son’s hand tightly. It made me wonder who they could be, what were their lives like. I was entranced by the image and I guess in that seeking & searching of what the meaning of this image was, that obsession was what led me to slowly starting to pick up the camera to photograph, document.
What about photography speaks to you?
Haha why not right? I guess the whole concept of time intrigues me, that it’s not linear. Photography in that aspect fascinating, it plays with time - the ability to capture a moment & bring one back to a specific time and place through a glance. I feel it is a very powerful tool in the sense that it horns the ability to bring awareness to others, the ability to change policies sometimes or not - it could educate, inform or dare one to dream or imagine . I think either-way it is a magical medium, fleeting as well.
"If you were to look at my personal works, I think the style is very dreamy. It evokes a sense of nostalgia, it’s a bit softer. And it reflects how I feel at the moment. Because when I started photography, I felt it was really intense and I was angry with the world haha so I think the colours were a lot more saturated, the images were a lot more moodier."
You recently worked on a project under Meantime Zine, can you share with us a little about that?
Meantime zine is an independent magazine documenting Singapore stories lost to time. It is published annually, each issue of theirs as quoted by the editor Pang - uncovers our past through personal stories. It’s latest issue is on ghost stories, delving into metaphorical “ghosts” including the fear, mystery, and loss that lingers around us. I was asked to photograph a variety of profiles that were featured in Meantime magazine no 2. It was exhilarating to meet Sister Gerard ( a nun who helped to counsel death row convicts over 40 years ), senior photographer Mr Lui who captured Singapore in the past, talented radio Dj KC who hosts a podcast revolving around ghost stories and Jonathan Lim ( Connected to the revered Sea Goddess Mazu )
Image credit to @meantimezine
How did All Is Not Lost started?
The work was produced under a year long mentorship with two mentors Jörg Brüggemann and Tobias Kruse from Ostkreuz agency ( Germany) & Obscura festival together with 11 other SE asian photographers. We were to shoot a topic related to youth within our countries. I decided to shoot All is not lost within Singapore over the year.I largely wanted to work on this as through my conversations with Chan See Ting, we realised how many other women, men or children remain in hiding due to the fear of public stigma related to their alopecia condition particularly in Asia. We did not want another to feel isolated and just wanted to create more awareness. So what better time if not now then when? The work has been exhibited all over SE Asia and Germany as the book & exhibition was also sponsored by Goethe Institute.
"I approached Chan See Ting personally to speak to her as she announces publicly about her alopecia, I wanted to speak to her because my own friend suffers from the same condition."
For two months in 2015, along with a fixer and a humble motorbike, Amrita Chandradas roamed the villages of Sri Lanka documenting the many families whose members have disappeared during the long running conflict of 26 years between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE (Tamil Separatist fighters).
How did this project came to be?
I grew up largely unaware about the conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Army. My father worked as an infographic journalist for The Straits Times before. He used to draw maps detailing where the conflicts were taking place, and he used to explain to me. That’s how I knew a little.
It was not until I moved to London ( I lived there for 5 years) when I discovered the large diaspora of Tamils that had sought asylum in the U.K. My uncle was interpreting for them, and the stories he brought back etched a deep mark in my mind. I started to photograph public demonstrations and protests by the Tamils seeking answers on the disappearances of their loved ones and their plea for justice in war crime atrocities that were committed by the Sri Lankan Army — particularly during the last weeks of the conflict in May 2009.
Also watching the documentary “ Killing fields” on channel 4 changed my perspective on the war completely. The documentary was made out of footage taken from the mobile phones during the last days of the war at North-east Sri Lanka. I cried, and I cried. It did not stop. I then wanted to go down and find out more. I realised visually not much stories were getting out of Sri Lanka.
Vanishing Hope is a story that has impacted thousands of Tamil, when you were there you obviously had to interact with the family members of the missing citizens. In such a sensitive and intimate story, how do you as a photographer stay objective to the subject matter?
It is very difficult to stay neutral when you are on the ground listening to the stories first hand by the families or loved ones re-narrating their experiences but you have to remember and find the balance. I went to Sri Lanka largely because I was horrified and saddened to discover that most of the war crime atrocities went largely un-accounted for. I try my best to put all my judgments aside and make sure I first listen to the Tamil families who are lost in this predicament. I make sure I am armed with my facts and research but on ground it gets more real as you sit down to converse, interact and make connections with the families upfront. It was not just mere reporting to me, it was integral for me to get to know them as much as possible even before trying to convey their story to the public masses.
Home Away From Home
is actually still a working title, haha I am still deciding on the right title for this.
The project dives into themes questioning race and identity, superstitions, patriarchy, migration and so on while growing up in Singapore.
It’s a pretty introspective piece of work?
A: The project is so wide as it touches on different themes . So I generally shoot everything and anything related to my memories, perspectives and past experiences, I largely go with my feelings and intuition. I also regularly write down my thoughts and draw up a mind map which changes along the way to help shape the project.
"This portrait was actually taken a floor above my house. And it is my bestfriend of 29 years. I’ve known her since I was 4 years old. Just like me, she is another minority in this country. So we’ve spoken a lot about my project and what it is like growing up as a women, as a minority in Singapore. Why the banana leaf? I think the banana leaf is a very strong symbol in my life and its a very big part of my Tamil heritage as well."
Each of your personal projects seems to have made a big impression on yourself, what is your intent with photography in itself?
My intent with why I choose to shoot certain topics for my personal works, I guess are topics where I’m moved by, topics which I think are not put out there or maybe there are issues which people are very unaware of. They are sometimes also very deeply personal to me as well. And I thrive on those factors because you need to be obsess with what you are shooting otherwise the interest slowly fades away and you can actually see that in your images. It is a whole entire process when you are photographing. So if you are just photographing a certain topic because for example it is sexy or in trend, it will show in your images at some point. Because you are constantly looking and editing and putting a story together. So for me what the driving factors are I have to be passionate about it.
Who are your biggest influences?
Too many to note down but going with a few My father of course
( I think he is my no.1 influence), Sim Chiyin,Shirin Neshat, Third Avvaiyar ( Tamil female poet of Aathi Soodi), M.I.A and so on.
What are you up to these days?
I am currently working on a few collaborations with other artists and photographers on mini-projects to sort of keep sane during this pandemic of ours, I am in the process of
editing and re-looking at the entire picture of my Home away from home project. It has been tricky so far because it is hard to condense the project into a tight edit with what I have internalised for over 30 years? I am attempting that at the moment and trying to get feedback or critic from others in the industry. Also delving into other research, writing and reading a lot more than usual.