US based photographer Julia Cumes whose multimedia project ‘India’s Devadasi System‘ was recently published on Aksgar talks about the project in more detail and the power of multimedia in enhancing visual storytelling.
Anil Cherukupalli: Where do you come from? Tell us a little bit about yourself?
Julia Cumes: I was born and raised in South Africa. Apartheid was at its height when I was growing up and we didn’t think anything would ever change so my family left South Africa and moved to the United States when I was around 15. Little did we know when we left that Nelson Mandela would be released a few years later and that South Africa would go through this profound political transformation.
AC: What made you take up photography? What is it about the medium that you find exciting?
JC: My parents gave me a little pentax spotmatic for my 13th birthday and I immediately just fell in love with photography. A year later, I even built a little darkroom with my father and started developing and printing my own black and white work. Since then, my passion for photography has only grown. I love the medium for so many reasons but one of the things that draws me to the medium is its capacity to tell stories through a moment frozen in time. I also enjoy how, as a photographer, one is able to engage in the world in such a varied and rich way. I come into contact with such an extraordinary range of people, places and cultures and as a result, I’m constantly learning new things and am amazed by the range of human experience.
AC: You have done an MA in Creative Writing as well. Does that influence your photography?
JC: Yes, I think it does. At their heart, both mediums are centered on story-telling and the aesthetics of communication so they feel quite connected. Also, I think my writing background helps when I’m working on a more in-depth project in terms of creating a narrative structure and, of course it helps with writing an accompanying written piece. Lastly, I believe good captions are such an important part of photojournalism and so having a writing background really helps with that.
AC: Your multimedia project on India’s Devadasi system was very powerful! How did you stumble upon the story? Why did you decide to use a multimedia approach? What difficulties did you face while shooting and putting the story together? How did you gain the trust of the women featured in the story?
JC: I was going to be in India doing a project in Assam on a program that rescues and rehabilitates baby elephants and baby rhinos that were separated from their mothers during a flood. I knew I wanted to work on my own personal project in India while I was there. I’ve long been interested in women’s issues so I started researching this online while still in the United States. I ran into this really small article about the Devadasi system and was just amazed this was still happening in modern-day India. I tried to find more information about it but there was so little coverage and I knew I had to investigate this further. Once in India, I connected with some of the social organizations involved in trying to dismantle the Devadasi system and started to learn more and more about it.
I used multi media for this story partly because I thought it was important to give voice to the women themselves and also I knew it would make for a much richer story since there was so much wonderful ambient sound that would help tell the story. I gained the trust of the women involved mostly because I was working with a truly extraordinary social worker who also acted as my translator. She knew a lot of the women and so, by association, they knew my intentions were good. Also, one thing that struck me was that by photographing and interviewing the women, they felt very validated. Most people in their lives want something from them and I think they were excited to talk to someone who just wanted to hear about their experience. The thing I struggled with most was accessing the lives of women in the red light districts. Understandably, they didn’t want me to photograph or talk to their clients and really restricted my movements.
AC: What are your views on the convergence of video and the still image? Will this make photography more powerful or will it extend the dominance of the moving image over the still image?
JC: I personally love the combination of the still image and audio. I think adding video too can be a really powerful additional story-telling tool. I am, however, a still photographer at heart and love how a still image distills a moment in a way video doesn’t so I just see them as very different. I think the moving image will continue to dominate but there will always be a place for the still image.
AC: Do you study the work done by other photographers? Whose work do you follow regularly?
JC: I do look at a great variety of work by other photographers such as Steve McCurry, Michael Williamson, Scott Strazzante, Lynne Johnson etc. I also look at the work of some of my friends who are wonderful photographers. There is so much amazing work being done and a lot of it doesn’t necessarily get a lot of attention but it’s nonetheless very inspiring.
AC: Are you pursuing any other long term projects? If yes, what are they on?
JC: Since the Devadasi story, I have worked on other long term projects like a multi media piece called “The Last of the Hawaiian Cowboys” about the very rich and insular cowboy culture that exists in Hawaii that few know about and another piece about a program in Zanzibar that teaches women to cultivate shellfish as a sustainable form of protein for them and their families. I will also be teaching a self-portrait workshop to kids in Rwanda in February and am then heading back to South Africa to work on a personal project afterwards. I also have a blog called “Apertures and Anecdotes” that I see as an ongoing personal project in which I post images about a wide variety of subjects and write about the stories behind them.
AC: Multimedia work is still at a nascent stage in India. What would your advice be for photographers wanting to explore this medium?
JC: I think the best approach is to start by adding audio. Audio is such a wonderful and rich story-telling tool and is a great way to start expanding one’s thinking about how to tell a story. Also, I’d suggest learning an editing program like Final Cut X and perhaps finding a fellow photographer who is already working with multi media to learn from. One of the wonderful aspects of multi media is that is forces the photographer to really explore a story in a much deeper way and really give voice to one’s subjects. Once a photographer goes down that road of discovery, I think it’s hard to turn back!
The ‘In Conversation’ feature is an attempt to know more about the motivations and thought processes of photographers featured on Aksgar as well as other photographers undertaking narrative photography projects. Interview by Anil Cherukupalli.