Undoing the Spell

An interview between Justin Coombes and Emilia Terracciano about Coombes’s project, ‘Reversed Curses’

Emilia: Your photographs appear to inhabit the space between fact and fiction. Would you describe your form of storytelling as photographic fiction? 

Justin: Storytelling is central to my practice, but in this project, I’m not telling a story per se. Reversed Curses is a series of reflections; an extended photo-poem in which we are shown snatches of Aarav’s outer world through photographs of what any train passenger would see when looking out of the window.  Through the written word, his meandering thought processes and reflections on these sights caught over the course of a single day are recorded.

I like the term ‘photographic fiction’, although I seem to be increasingly concerned with authoring my own words rather than my own photographs. For instance, in addition to my own shots, I am using archival photographs as a structuring device in Reversed Curses. Another is the Bhagavad Gita: I like the idea of reframing Arjuna, the mythical prince on his way to the battle with his own brother, as Aarav, the train conductor who has no such ethical dilemma, but who is, like Arjuna, troubled by questions about the nature of existence and God. Working life is, for many of us, the closest we ever get to war. 

Are you first a poet or a photographer?

I am an artist. I create artworks primarily out of ideas, and use whatever media best suits the development of those ideas. But the more involved you are with a medium, the more you realise that its technical aspects can allow you to think and express yourself with greater depth, in ways that would not otherwise be possible. For instance, my understanding of depth of field and focal plane influences how I construct my photographs. My knowledge of metre and rhyme affects how I think through, and write, poetry. Over the last seven or eight years, my work has mostly been a combination of photography and poetry (and seems to be leading increasingly towards film), so you could only rarely call it poetry or photography in any straightforward way. I’m more comfortable with the umbrella term, ‘artist’.

What was it like to work with Aarav? 

I’m still working with him. I have almost completed the first edit of my photographs, and have some of Aarav’s inner monologue written. Once the picture sequence is complete, I will complete the monologue. 

Aarav’s is in part an autobiographical voice, but also an amalgam of many people I’ve met, in India and in other places across the world, who do ‘subaltern’ work. In the early 2000s, I worked during the weekends as a visitor services assistant at Tate Britain, one of the United Kingdom’s largest museums. The job was not very well paid and our main responsibilities were to walk from room to room, answering visitor’s questions and stopping them from touching the paintings. Some of my colleagues had been doing this work for decades, and were among the most thoughtful people I had ever met. I reflected at the time that perhaps forms of employment that don’t require constant concentration often produce philosophical thinking that better paid work cannot.

Aarav is a Hindu man who despite his intelligence and seriousness has never, until now, questioned his Hindu faith. His flirtation with agnosticism and atheism mirrors my own intellectual flirtation with faith. As a Western, white, straight, educated, middle-class man, I’m conscious of political problems in ventriloquizing a character such as Aarav. And that’s compounded by the fact that I’m a British person creating a fictional Indian character. But that creates an appealing tight rope: if the project is done badly, I’ll fall off and Aarav will be unconvincing. One of the ways in which I’m making it a little easier for myself is that Aarav is his own man: I’m not trying to make him representative of anything wider than himself. 

To produce Reversed Curses you undertook long cross-country travels by train and shot from inside the moving carriage. One could say that the Victorian experience of travel offered by the train is denied by the airplane – Europeans no longer view the modern world through the image of the train – yet they continue to live in the world that the train and the railway shaped. But in the case of India, the train is still the most affordable, and popular means of travelling long distances. What made you choose the train as a means to tell your tale? 

Again, I’d like to emphasise that Reversed Curses isn’t really a story: it’s a series of reflections. And it wasn’t a case of my choosing the train, so much as the train choosing or creating the project. My work as a visiting tutor and occasional commercial photographer requires me to travel a lot, mostly on trains: the first ideas for the project grew out of wanting to reclaim what feels like the ‘dead time’ of commuting. And this in turn got me thinking that there are forms of thought that come to us, and that we create, when we travel, that are very, very different to what we might experience sitting at home or in an office. 

I had started to shoot Reversed Curses in the UK but shelved it, finding myself insufficiently stimulated by the over-familiar British landscape.  My initial trips to India in 2015 made me realise that this project would work for me if I transplanted it there. It meant I was able to mirror and express my own world-weariness whilst deriving creative satisfaction from making a new project. And of course, India is a colourful, visually stimulating country, especially for outsiders. The fact that Aarav finds himself underwhelmed by it underlines how jaded he is. Although of course all familiar environments, no matter how dramatic they are, can be uninspiring to indigenes.

Raghubir Singh used the Ambassador car in his project A Way to India (2002) to travel across India over thirty years. Singh singled out the Ambassador car to stand for the past fifty years of India and its closed economy. The car functions as a camera obscura but is also a framing device of sorts: doors, mirrors, and windshields, activate the space around him. The Ambassador replaces the symbols of plough, bullock, and bicycle, to give us a sense of scale of the land. It becomes a measuring-rod for the 20th-century India slowly inching into the new millennium. John Baldessari compared Singh’s use of the car to the work of Orson Welles, who folded near and far elements in his cinematography and to Mondrian for his extreme fragmentation of space and time. But what interests me about this project is the way he uses the idea of time. Are you familiar with this project?

I was familiar with several shots that make up A Way to India but was not aware of the project itself so thank you for introducing it to me! I love Singh’s work: I think his photographs from his books The Ganges and Rajasthan were among the earliest views I had of India. And Baldessari’s observations seem accurate to me. The Ambassador and the Indian Railways are both icons of this country. However, I’d point out a big difference between the car and the train in the way they function respectively in our projects. Unless you are the driver, you cannot easily stop a train. For me, train travel dramatises how our living experience of time cannot be stopped: one of the themes of Reversed Curses.

Something both forms of travel have in common though, is that they are considerably faster than walking, they make the mind struggle to take in so much visual information. Baldessari is right about how Singh’s pictures collapse the near and far, and of course film and time-based media can collapse things which are near and far in time as well as space. I love Hollis Frampton’s structuralist work (nostalgia) from 1971, a film which is in part, about memory and how the mind struggles to process lived experience. I’d known for some years that I wanted to make a project with some of (nostalgia)’s qualities. So, realising that the visual overburdening of the viewer in (nostalgia) relates to what happens to us during train travel was an exciting moment for me. I realised that this could be a real, rewarding project. A Way to India seems much more to be about taking things at your own speed; taking your time.

What kind of time and space are at work in Reversed Curses

There are Aarav’s present moments. These are for the most part what we see in the photographs in Reversed Curses. Then there is the recent past: thirty to forty years of working life. These are scenes that are mostly recollected in text. There are the recent centuries which precede Aarav’s own life-span and which he muses on at some points: the construction of the railways, for instance, which is alluded to in some of the archival photographs. Then there is the mythic time of the Hindu faith that both consoles and troubles him.

In terms of space, we see a mixture of Aarav’s own small private working space on the train, and the private/public space where he interacts with customers, but mostly just the space of the Indian countryside outside of the train. What interests me here are the qualities of a view seen from a moving, rather than a fixed point. The view disappears very quickly, often before you can even take it in. I see this as a nice metaphor for life. 

Reversed Curses is also engaged in a creative process of translation. The etymology of the word ‘translation’ gives us a clue with regard to the task awaiting any translator: it derives from the Latin tradūcere, meaning ‘to carry from one place to another’, which is in turn derived from trans (on the other side) and dūcere (to lead). This carrying from one place to another can be seen as a productive process; perhaps a form of alchemy. Do you see yourself as a translator? 

Yes. I suppose Reversed Curses is in part an attempt to ‘translate’ an Indian person’s experience, first for myself, then for a Western audience. To pick up on the etymological reading: a project is successful for me when I ‘carry’ or ‘lead’ my original interest and excitement about an experience into art for my audience. In the case of this project, I suppose I’m following my gut feeling that nothing is as interesting as real life. That is not to undermine the importance of fiction, but the forms of fiction I find most interesting tend to make me more aware of the world around me. 

For Umberto Eco, translation can also be interpreted as a playful form of mimicry, an act of travesty, similar to wearing a denture or a wig, or using artificial prosthetic limbs, which replace a missing body part. Translation is according to this latter reading, a form of creative betrayal. Would you agree?

Yes and no. There are forms of translation that remain as faithful as is possible to the original, where the translator’s role is as close as one  can expect to an ‘objective’ reading. And there are forms where the translator is more irreverent, which I think is what Eco is referring to. A good example of the former might be James Holman’s translations of Yasunari Kawabata’s stories; instances of the latter might be Jim McBride’s remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless (A Bout de Souffle) or those late Picasso re-workings of the Spanish and French Masters. However, I suppose most forms of translation sit somewhere between those extremes. 

Walter Benjamin in his essay, The Task of the Translator (1921) seeks to understand translation as a form of art; his primary concern is to consider what happens when one language passes into another (i.e., is ‘othered’). The founding premise of this essay is ‘translation is a form’, by which he means that translation is a genuine form of writing alongside poetry, rather than merely secondary or derivative of literary art. How do you use translation in your own work? How do you use different forms of art-making, poetry, photography, writing, but also how do you relate to other languages, in this case, Hindi? It is a language which – unlike rail travel – does not endure for the sake of the poor and the elites to share as the same platform. Hindi – while recognised as the official national language – can hardly be described as hegemonic in India. 

I am at the very early stages of learning Hindi myself and for that reason it has a unique place in this project. I’m perhaps able to experience it more visually, to relate to it and use it at the moment, in ways that will be inaccessible to me when (as I hope will be the case) I eventually become almost fluent. 

As a bilingual speaker, Aarav relates his everyday life in English, but ‘lapses’ into Hindi when, for instance, he is swearing. I make sparing use of the Devanagari script in Reversed Curses. In part, I am trying to recreate for my audience, of whom I assume a good knowledge of English but none of Hindi, some of my very first experiences of seeing Devanagari as it is used in everyday Indian life. I want to capture some of the mixture of confusion and excitement that a foreign language can create. Devanagari has a very visual role here: I am playing on the fact that it hangs underneath the baseline and is in that sense the ‘reverse’ of English and European languages, which sit on top of it. 

I suppose I work with translation in one form or another all the time: mostly words into images and vice versa. I made an artwork (a photograph combined with a poem) a few years ago, in my series Halcyon Song, called ‘Where the Heart Opens’. I drew the title from this wonderful quote from Camus, “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” To counter complexity, I try to always keep in mind that you must connect with your audience on certain simple, almost primal levels. This idea relates strongly to translation for me because it is about retaining essence: something that will go deeper than words, shades, forms, or colours. 

Originally published in ‘Third Eye – Photography and Ways of Seeing’, India Habitat Centre Visual Arts Gallery annual publication, ed. Alka Pande