Penn Photography Students in Mumbai: Learning "There"
May 21, 2011
The paint was barely dry on the walls of Addams Gallery, but at 4 p.m. on May 20 a much-anticipated photography exhibition officially opened here at Penn: "Populous Flows," the culmination of 14 student photographers, 18 days in Mumbai, thousands of images, and two Penn alumni -- Howard A. Silverstein, W'69, and his wife, Patricia Belznak Silverstein, C'81 -- whose generous gift made it possible.
Every two years, thanks to the Howard A. Silverstein and Patricia Belznak Silverstein Studios Abroad, Fine Arts graduates and undergraduates at PennDesign receive an invaluable research opportunity: to fully immerse themselves in a new environment outside of their experiences as urban college students. The aim is for young student photographers to encounter new situations, respond to discoveries, experience the mindset of a present-day photographer, and solidify their photographic interests -- in short, to test theory with practice in a learning environment outside the classroom. This year it was in Mumbai, the largest and richest city in India, home to Bollywood and home to Dharavi, Asia's second largest slum with close to one million people.
> see previous Silverstein Studio Abroad in Beijing, 2009
To prepare the students for the trip, instructor Gabriel Martinez held weekly workshops, with visits by photographers Michael Bryant of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Ellen Marks, C'62. For the students, it was a fast-paced eight weeks: intensive Hindi, art history,
work-in-progress critiques, and seminars on camera technique, health
concerns, Indian politics and economics. Finally, after a crash course in
cultural etiquette, a briefing on India's weather, and a night of
Bollywood flicks, they were on their way.
"Arriving with a concept about a photo project and then having to respond to the reality of the situation was a huge exercise in adaptability as well as the art-making process," says instructor Karen Rodenwald. "Students were confronted with some very big questions. What were we doing there and what value did the experience bring to them, their subjects and later audience?"
Armed with a fleet of DSLRs, solid-state HD cameras, and 6x6 medium-format film cameras, the Silverstein Studio Abroad students attempted to answer these questions and more. For the next 18 days they produced torrents of "dailies" (200 photos per day) while pursuing their own conceptually-driven personal projects.
Students explored their complex, paradoxical Mumbai world -- from contemporary galleries to iconic landmarks to labyrinthine slums -- with the help of welcoming interpreters, drivers, and local families who provided them with a network of contacts and access to homes and places specific to their projects.
"Many of our preconceptions were blasted," says Martinez. "Beyond the Slumdog hype, we discovered a thriving and bustling community. We saw a people working hard, at times under deplorable conditions, yet part of a system that was efficient and profitable, adding to India's explosive economic expansion."
As the students came to terms with their own place in India (and had mehndi designs applied to their arms, legs, and hands), the process of photographing presented new opportunities -- and unexpected challenges. "Everywhere you turned was another compelling image to make," says Martinez. "Early on in the trip concerns arose about when and what not to take." The students learned spontaneously, on the fly. Making very large numbers of images while navigating the congested, often chaotic urban environment (and at one point, drawing a large crowd who expected them to perform when they attempted to take a group photo), they quickly honed their skills in camera handling, along with the subtle art of negotiating relationships with their subjects. It was an exhilarating two and a half weeks.
The result: thousands and thousands of photos. The best of these were brilliantly on view at the exhibit's opening, where each of the student artists wore handmade Indian garb and greeted the crowds of students, faculty, alumni, and neighbors who arrived -- including the Silversteins.
A quick look at some of the students and the journeys they took:
Chloe Isadora Reison toured Dharavi, a slum in central Mumbai where 80 percent of the city's plastic waste is recycled into colored plastic pellets. Reison's deliberate focus on the machines and materials rather than the people at work -- initially an aesthetic and moral decision -- became for her the central, urgently pivotal subject: the cruel irony that while men and women work so hard at recycling plastic, subjecting themselves to toxins and early mortality, plastics can die and be reborn, suggesting that plastic has greater value than human life.
Shumita Basu took on the identity of an apprentice at Dhobi Ghat, an outdoor laundry center, to experience firsthand what it is like to be a laundry worker. Her photos depict the up-close experience of earning not only a living, but an acceptance.
Alex Remnick, a College junior and Daily Pennsylvanian photographer, spent time at the Fellowship of the Physically Handicapped Center, founded in 1966 to provide food, care, and job training to physically handicapped people. His unflinching, life-sized black and white portraits of the inmates have a haunting presence, conveying a grandeur of the human spirit that transcends the physical.
Clare Din's photo mural -- a huge digital mosaic of thousands of postage-stamp sized photos of opened hands -- is an exploration of the power of 'blessing' in India and an aesthetic tour de force that draws on her computer science background.
Micheal Marfione wanted to use the language of cinema to explore colonialization and exoticism and to make a statement about being a Westerner in a foreign place. The video he created -- a kind of mash-up of Bollywood and Italian New Wave -- is an Indian version of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2.
Niger Laila Bey, who was born and raised in West Philadelphia,
engaged with local workers in Dharavi's factories and workshops as an
"insider." Her photos clearly show how comfortable she and her subjects
were with each other. "It was my first time out of the States," said
Niger. "I learned that even though their work is largely anonymous --
how many products do you know that say "Made in India"? -- they are
enormously proud of the work they do, supplying the world with goods.
This experience has made me want to travel again and again and tell
> more at their daily blog
"Populous Flows" runs till July 12.
The Howard A. Silverstein and Patricia Bleznak Silverstein Photography Program is the first of its kind for Penn photography students, and it is intended to not only support Penn's photography program, which has grown exponentially in popularity and strength, but to affirm PennDesign's place as a leader in fine arts education and training.
For Penn's photography students -- and for their photography -- the impact of the Silverstein Studio Abroad experience will certainly leave its mark -- long after the last traces of their mehndi have faded.
"The course is about getting lost and figuring out how to deal," says Julie Schneider, director of the Undergraduate Fine Arts Program. "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."
Silverstein Studio Abroad Participants, 2011: Christine Alix, Shumita
Basu, Niger Laila Bey, Sandy Boyer, Sarah Cohen, Sarah Dekker, Clare
Din, Caitlin Lennon, Michael Marfione, Katie Motyka, Chloe Isadora
Reison, Alex Remnick, Tamara Suber, Elise Wrabetz
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