In Cop Shiva’s photographs there is an overriding sense of the ‘other’ that permeates his compositions. As the viewer we are conscious of being on the outside, with the curious image of an invisible Cop Shiva lurking somewhere in the corner of the frame, photographing his subjects. As the photographer, we are conscious of Cop Shiva’s ‘other’ life as a policeman, always trying to bridge his twin identities in our minds in the light of the stunning visuals we see in front of our eyes and the inconspicuous presence of his day job quietly and irrevocably defining his work. Even a quick glimpse of his photographs will reveal the ‘other’ life of all his subjects — be it his now-famous Gandhi series, his MGR series, or the stories he manages to highlight in the ordinariness of life around us. Perhaps, it is this element of the ‘other’ that sets him apart, lending his work a touch of reality that goes beyond the obvious and a touch of the imagined that stays rooted within the aesthetics of Shiva’s vision.
A self-taught photographer who began his tryst with the camera as the coordinator of an alternative art collective, ‘1. Shanthi Road Studio/Gallery’ in Bengaluru, it was Shiva's interaction with local and international artists and photographers that enriched his latent talent, which, however, blossomed with his intuition of picking the right subject at the right time. 'I think of myself as a photographer with an eye of a cop; a 'photo-catcher' of our absurd and unequal reality,' he says. 'My biggest inspiration is the common man struggling to make a difference. With less resources and no support, there are many invisible heroes working to better our society.'
EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW
Your Gandhi series and MGR series have gone on to become synonymous with your photographic accomplishments. What is it about these two personalities that made you want to follow their lives?
I was fascinated by both these personalities who masquerade in reality and wanted to connect the two worlds that they live in. Bagadehalli Basavaraju, a teacher by profession, paints himself silver, wears a pair of spectacles and a dhoti, and sets out to inspire people in rural Karnataka. What is interesting here is that he characterises himself not just as Gandhi but imitates the Mahatma’s gestures as well. He uses performance as a medium to spread Gandhian ideas by using the power of the visual imagery to make an impact.
On the other side is Vidyasagar, who dwells in the neighbourhood of Shanthi Nagar and is a common sight to many. More than being recognised by his real self, he is often known through the image of M. G. Ramachandran, erstwhile film star and politician. Vidyasagar has removed the gap between himself and his fondness for his favourite personality by getting into the skin of the very image he has admired and adored for many years. The common element that connects both these people is the act of transforming themselves into an image of popular icons. I also find an affinity to my dual life as a cop and photographer. There is a dialogue between the subject and myself as a photographer. It starts with curiosity and leads to an obsession and passion.
Do you then feel your twin identities underline your own photographic quest of identities?
I believe that in every person there are several layers of personalities that are intertwined. Some of them are more public than others, while some layers are not visible to the persons themselves. My subjects are negotiating constantly between the two identities of the 'self' and the 'popular'. The act of masquerading is indeed a highly paradoxical process. The risky nature of such performances is also that in the process of creating a new alternate identity, the actor's own true identity is at stake.
Undoubtedly, I too have to deal with multiple personalities, with a very particular background and personal journey that reflects in my work, probably more at a subconscious level than a conscious one. But basically, when I am photographing, I leave my uniform at home.
How much of your experience as a cop defines your photographic journey?
Sometimes it is tough to manage so many tasks; it requires a lot of discipline, commitment, sacrifice and hard work. Being a cop has given me a privileged position to look at society from a different perspective and to understand many insights of human nature. My experience as a police constable has provided me with a special set of skills – a sharp eye and a strong power of observation. I use these skills in my photographic journey to discover the 'shadow corners' of reality. Drama unfolds constantly everywhere, yet most people seem anesthetised from seeing what is visible in front of their eyes. My aim is to make visible these unnoticed dramas of everyday life. I believe in blending the harsher side of my personality with the sensitivity to capture the fragility and tenacity of human life.
Do you think you are an amateur turned professional or a professional photographer emerging from the garb of an amateur?
I understand photography as a journey in which I am developing my own voice and imagery. I am not sure where this journey will take me or where I stand right now, but it is a fascinating one. The camera has become a part of my existence.
In this age of the digital, where anyone with a mobile phone is a photographer, what do you think sets you apart? As a self-taught photographer, do you think photography is more about the instinct and less about the craft?
We can state with certainty that most people nowadays have access to shoot with a camera – it could be a mobile phone or a more sophisticated piece of technology – but most of us have access to photography. There is now a democratisation of the photographic process, where shooting, editing and publishing have become common and affordable skills. When using the camera for something more transcendental, the technique shall be at the service of the subject, and it is with this that I face a project. There is a lot of work, research and time that I invest in a particular project. Instinct plays a role in focusing my interests in a certain direction, but it needs to be nurtured, trained and aligned with a larger purpose already defined in my mind.'
Do you feel that you suddenly look at life in frames?
Many times I find myself, at random, looking around and mentally evaluating the interest of certain situations. In fact, many of my projects are triggered by unexpected situations. I believe I am constantly alert, looking for interesting subjects and situations for my camera.
Do you find it creatively more satisfying to be able to take pictures spontaneously, as in the Gandhi series that is extensively shot outdoors while following the teacher around, or is it better to shoot in a controlled environment, where you can take your time for lighting and composition, as in the MGR series, shot extensively indoors?
The subject and the situation allow for spontaneity. I have to work consistently for long periods of time to get the right mood and gesture. Sometimes, there is a flash of the unexpected, like a flock of sheep crossing our path. I need to take advantage of this. It is more challenging outdoors as I cannot control the light or the action. One has to be patient and passionate and vibe with the subject.
What is it about the Gandhi series that fascinates you the most?
I believe that today, to occupy public space through performance is like taking a political stance. The space of a rural village is democratic where vernacular festivals and local panchayats have always been located in public spaces. When an individual decides to occupy this space, it brings to mind the inspiration of Gandhi and his successful public interventions, such as the Dandi March. To locate the self in public is to be vulnerable and to believe in the ethics of freedom with responsibility. This is the narrative of Bagadehalli Basavaraju. He has moved himself out of an anonymous space and transformed himself into this global icon of non-violent resistance. And he has been doing this for more than a decade now. Basavaraju’s act too is one of remembering and honouring Gandhi. He believes that this act can, in a small way, make a difference in this conflictridden fragile world. Basavaraju believes in Gandhi's words – ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’.
As a documentary photographer, are you conscious of being the outsider at all times or do you need to overcome that feeling to become one with the moment?
I invest a lot of time in producing a series of work; sometimes it takes me years. I may start as an outsider in the situation, but the relationship with the subject or the topic becomes closer to me with time. I build a relationship with the subjects and I lose my objectivity along the way. I am not alien to the situation I depict. I believe I am present in the photos I take – the bluntness of my point of view when taking a shot reflects how I am involved with the scenario.
How much of your subject’s life impacts your own? How did the Gandhi series, for instance, change your life?
Since my projects take a long time to mature, I build a very close relationship with the subjects. I come to know them very well, and I am familiar with their intimate wishes and struggles.
In the case of Bagadehalli Basavaraju, the dignity of his persona, the strength of his character, his endurance towards people mocking him and the determination to follow his goal, have had a huge impact on me. I have learnt to be more humble, truthful and kind to people around me.