A Powerful Series Of Nude Self-Portraits Challenges An Age-Old Indian Taboo

A Powerful Series Of Nude Self-Portraits Challenges An Age-Old Indian Taboo
(Image source: Dinesh Sahoo)

“Each culture is different. Each country has it’s own way to define what is allowed, rules, things that are socially acceptable and values characteristic to a culture. Yet we are all the same, we share the same struggle, the same need to become close to ourselves,” says Indian photographer Dinesh Sahoo while talking about Naked Modesty a project him and Canadian art model and photographer Phylactère have collaborated on. Naked Modesty is a series of self-portraits featuring both Sahoo and Phylactère and is oriented towards fine art nude photography a relatively lesser-explored style of photography in India. “While I was getting to know Indian culture better, I realised that artistic photography was not a very developed field, and that fine-art models barely existed the way we know it in Europe or North America. Therefore, meeting with Danny (Sahoo), who had the sensibility for this kind of work, appeared as a beautiful opportunity to exchange and learn from each other,” explains Phylactère while talking about artistic photography in India and about how the collaboration came about.

The photographs included in the series are fiercely impactful, to say the least. They invoke strong emotions at the very first glance, you might not be sure of what you’re feeling or why, but the effect is palpable. The images, the setting and the depiction of the human form are all very raw, minimalistic, and almost confrontational. The 24-year-old budding photographer from Adipura in Orissa “It’s so tiny that you can’t locate it on Google maps,” says Sahoo and Canadian anthropologist turned model and photographer spoke to Homegrown about this unlikely partnership, their inspiration for this photo-series, their process as photographers and a lot more.

Photographed by Phylactère.

Homegrown: How did this unlikely collaboration come about?

Dinesh Sahoo: I was looking for a female model for my series ‘BARE’, that’s when I came across Phylactere’s work. I approached her and things just fell into place.

Phylactère: I was planning a trip to India, it was going to be my fifth time. In my previous voyages, I was mostly studying the culture and archaeology, keeping my artistic work for Europe and Canada. But this time I wanted to connect with artists. I knew it would be a challenge because artistic photography is not a very developed field in India, and fine-art models barely exist. Most models tend to do fashion or glamour, but only very few people have the understanding that the body can be something else than a pretty object. Danny [Sahoo] contacted me. I could see through his portfolio that he had the sensibility for this kind of work. His proposition to collaborate and do self-portraits together appeared as a beautiful opportunity to exchange and learn from each other.

Homegrown: What inspired you to do this particular photo-series?

Dinesh Sahoo: For me, this series was all about calling out and doing away with the restrictions that our [Indian] society and relatives put on us. It is a way to find my own identity as a nude-art photographer in India and eventually bring this awareness that there is another way to look at the body and connect with ourselves. It was also a way to make people realise how despite various differences, when stripped to the core, everyone is the same.

Phylactère: I have been taking photos for the last 4 years and working as a fine-art model for 12. Because I am also trained as an anthropologist, all those activities allow me to travel a lot. My studies about cultures and human beings taught me we are all different, and yet my life experiences showed me that deep inside we are actually all searching for the same things, we have the same struggles and questions when facing life. My photos are simply reflecting my life’s journey, in which I meet people, write and teach and get to learn from those situations. I think, in a way, that what’s at the heart of my pictures is how human beings deal with life. Sometimes my photography is more journalistic, sometimes more poetic. In that case, with the series “Naked Modesty” it was through fine art and poetry that Danny and I approach our theme.

Photographed by Dinesh Sahoo.

Homegrown: Why self-portraits in particular as opposed to other approaches?

Dinesh Sahoo: My introduction to photography was for very personal reasons. I was lonely and didn’t really have too many people to talk to. That’s when I found solace in photography and started taking self-portraits. This series is very close to me and it’s my raw emotions that I wanted to depict through the self-portraits.

Phylactère: The way I work and create requires people ready to let go of their ego and knowledge, and especially the idea that they have to stick to a role. I am not looking for perfection in my shots when I photograph, or in my poses when I model. I am looking for honesty. Sometimes it is not perfect, but this perfection creates a tension that (I hope) brings the viewer back to this discomfort everyone experiences in life. Human beings always try to fix and make things perfect, we always tend to avoid certain sensations. But life a constant search of balance, like a rope walker. The perfect balance doesn’t exist. This moment of creation, doing self-portraits, not knowing where we are going but still having the clear sensation that we are following an invisible way leading us somewhere, that is what I was after.

Homegrown: Considering the fact that you shot in India, what are your views on India’s approach towards nudity?

Dinesh Sahoo: I created a separate Instagram account just for this series. My colleagues, friends and relatives follow me. But a while back when I posted a nude self-portrait, it became uncomfortable for the people viewing it and me too. I was mocked. So, the new account is only for strangers. They expect nothing from you, there is no judgement. But this needs to change. Why is nudity a bad thing? Nudity is not just scandalous, it is beautiful. It’s sad that a nude photographer’s reputation in this country is extremely damaged.

Phylactère: I have done this self-portrait exercise a hundred times over the years, but it was the first time I was experiencing it in India. The theme was certainly different as I was aware of the cultural baggage and prejudices that my nude body was conveying. Although, Indian culture is very conservative about nudity even when it exists in an art space, what hit me during this trip was all the similarities with the West. Contrary to what India thinks, nudity is extremely misunderstood in the west, especially in North America. In many ways, it is not different at all. It took me many trips to India to become aware of all the misunderstandings lying between our two cultures.

Homegrown: What was the process that led up to the shoot like?

Dinesh Sahoo: It was all very spontaneous. It was just before evening time and the lighting was gorgeous. I asked Phylactere to just be herself, I wanted to photograph her body movements and expressions naked. We didn’t talk much during the shoot but it was so instinctive and intense and we just followed the course. Even the props used in the shoot weren’t pre-arranged. We just happened to find them at the studio and they worked perfectly with our vision. The glass panel became a transparent purda (veil) that reveals everything that is concealed and the tree was the common thread that connects all human kind.

Phylactère: The series that came to life was not set up in advance, we used what was available on set and started answering to the environment, creating a story with the props, bodies, movement, colours, textures and light. It was like a acting or dance improvisation. Because I have a bit more experience than Danny, I proposed some directions, how to use the elements in the frame and which mood and body gesture to bring into the pose, the intention to lead the exploration. Danny was extremely creative and ready to follow my instructions, as well as adding his own insight.

Photographed by Phylactère.

Homegrown: What impact were you looking to have with the series and have you had the desired response?

Dinesh Sahoo: I wanted more artists, both photographers and models to come together and explore artistic photography in India. Nudity should not be a taboo. Also, even though I created an anonymous account for the series initially, I’m okay with attaching my name to it because it has come to be so personal. I want all the people who I was hiding from to see this. When your work gets recognised, the people who criticise you are the first ones to give you appreciation.

Phylactère: In the photographs, nudity stands for a space where the person strips away from their social markers and image. It also stands for the vulnerability, the simplicity, the roughness of emotions, the sincerity of just being what I am when my masks fall down. I think the main goal of an artist is to challenge what is considered “normality” in a given society. The artist should keep things alive, questioning regularly to keep the minds aware. Today in our culture, people are scared about their body, this is something each of us should investigate, as the body is the root of our whole being, the door to the spiritual spheres. My photos are a call for simplicity, accessibility. Be alive, feel, don’t be scared of who you are. If I can get naked in front of you, with my clothes or emotions, it is an invitation for you to do the same. I create the way I do because I cannot do otherwise. But I am not looking for an impact or expecting any response. I am happy if people are touched, but if no ones care it’s the same to me, I do this work for myself. My work is like throwing a rock in the water, then you let the waves on the water appear and do their job.

All photographs are a part of Naked Modesty photographed and conceptualised by Dinesh Sahoo and Phylactère.

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