Jason Scott Tilley interviewed by f50 Collective

We are delighted to share with you an interview with renowned photographer Jason Scott Tilley conducted especially for f50 Collective.

Jason is a Coventry-based press photographer, but he is more widely known for his striking photographs of India.  While many photographers undertake road trips as a way of compiling bodies of work, for Jason there is much more to his images of India than simply a photographic project. Jason is of Anglo-Indian descent.


His grandfather, Bert Scott, was a photographer for The Times of India (1936-40) before moving to the UK in 1947.  Bert had shared his memories and photographs of India with his grandson. Inevitably, Jason’s fascination with India would turn into a prolonged exploration (1999-2009) of his own as he sought to discover his roots and the country for himself.

The resulting images formed the centrepiece of the acclaimed exhibition ‘People of India’ at The Herbert in Coventry (UK) in 2014. You can read the f50 review here.

Questions

Welcome Jason, I am sure many of our readers are familiar with your work through the success of the People of India exhibit.  We have elected to base this interview on questions suggested by two of our members – Mahesh Balasubramanian and Peter Barton – as both have great experience of India themselves.

f50: We’d like to start with a question about your grandfather.  You have shared some of his historically important press images and more personal ones of Margerite Mumford.  Did Bert undertake personal work that might today be called ‘street photography’?

JST: Interestingly Grandpa did try to make a living for a short time taking photographs at sea-side resorts in the UK after he arrived from India but this didn’t really lead to much, Grandpa even applied for a press photographers job on the Coventry Evening Telegraph but sadly he wasn’t successful.  But street photography, no he never did any. Looking at his images I’m convinced that much like me he preferred interacting with the people he was photographing. I have memories of him looking downwards onto the screen of his Rollieflex whilst taking photographs of me when I was little.

f50: When and how did you decide you were going to compile a body of work about the people of India?  Was there a plan before visiting India for the first time and did you stick to it?

JST: First of all I never decided to compile a body of work entitled ‘The people of India’; the exhibition was named at a management level just before the exhibition.  Whilst I was making the project I called it ‘The Beautiful People’.  The exhibition title mimics ‘The People of India an ethnographic study of the greater Hindustan (1868-1875).

I did not have a defined plan the first time I visited India.  My only thought was that I might make a body of work that recorded our (mine and Grandpa’s) trip together on black and white film, so that at a later date I could print the images or our journey in a dark room.  If there was a plan it was to give me darkroom time, in 1999 digital was arriving.  I am a darkroom printer, that’s what I love to do.

During that journey with Grandpa I took two portraits that later on became important to me.  When I returned home and printed them they represented the massive contradictions I felt during my first trip.  One portrait I made was of a handsome young man who seemed full of life and vigour and the other portrait was of a man covered from head to toe in disfiguring tumours.

On my second trip to India in September 2002 I planned to photograph the ‘Beautiful People’ whilst also making sure I tried not to ignore the human tragedies that are evident on many city street corners.

Street child Platform 14 CST station Mumbai. Image copyright Jason Scott Tilley.
Street child Platform 14 CST station Mumbai. Image copyright Jason Scott Tilley.

f50: It is fascinating to see portraits form a large part of your work in India and the locations show you have travelled to almost all parts of India to take them.  What were your first experiences shooting portraits in India and did your approach change over the course of your travels?

JST: On my first trips I noticed how people often came up to me to have their portrait taken, I was using quite a large medium format camera; one cannot hide with it.  This was overt photography.

What I have since noticed is that my initial body of work was a much more informal style, it was less structured, and there were no rules from 1999 until 2006.  When, after 2006, the project began to take on more ‘shape’ my photography began to look more formal in style. My work at the beginning feels freer and I believe better for that. This is a lesson for me to remember in future.  In short, India is a more open culture to photograph in than in the UK.  Possibly the pressure of having project partners after 2006 lead me to worry too much about style in general, or it could be that after viewing ‘The People of India’ 1868-1875 that I began to respond to the very formal Victorian way of working.  I’ve not analysed this too much, it would probably drive me insane.

The diving man Monkey Temple Jaipur. Image copyright Jason Scott Tilley.
The diving man Monkey Temple Jaipur. Image copyright Jason Scott Tilley.

F50: What’s the story behind the wonderful portrait ‘Buffalo Lady’ on the Varanasi Ghats?  Did you photograph at the cremation Ghats in Varanasi or leave that subject out of respect?

JST: No I have never photographed at the cremation Ghats, although I did become quite friendly with the studio photographers in Varanasi whose job it is to take portraits of the ‘dead’ alongside their family members just before the act of immersion in the Ganga and cremation.  It wasn’t really out of respect that I have no portraits but thinking back I can’t remember a situation arising where it would have felt OK for me to do so. I did however make a portrait of the studio photographer close to the burning Ghats.  This, I felt, was very much his territory.

The young lady in the photograph often worked with her father taking the buffalo down to the Ganga.  Her father was a beast of a man. Massive in stature he had wonderful tanned dark brown skin almost the same in tone as his buffalo.  I was taking his portrait by the river whilst she was keeping some of the calves from wondering off down to the river to join the herd.  I simply asked her if I could take her portrait, she nodded and I took two frames and this portrait was the second.  There was no planning to the photograph.  In terms of the positioning of her stance and the animals it was pure luck. It feels very calm and serene.

Buffalo Lady Varanasi. Image copyright Jason Scott Tilley.
Buffalo Lady Varanasi. Image copyright Jason Scott Tilley.

f50: Many of your subjects seem like real characters – the trombone player and man from Puri (below) – are all your portraits chance encounters or do you seek out flamboyant characters?

JST: I don’t think I seek out flamboyant characters but I definitely don’t ignore them if they appear in front of me.  In fact the trombone man seemed to have quite a reserved personality; it was his band mates who really gave his portrait ‘life’ because they were directing him.

f50: The Herbert exhibition featured a number of images of people with disabilities.  Was this a conscious decision (perhaps to show their resilience) or just a reflection of people you happened to meet on your travels?

Wedding band man Delhipplowres
The wedding band trombone player Delhi. Image copyright Jason Scott Tilley.

JST: It was a conscious decision at the point of editing to make sure I did not allow this very obvious difference in Western and Indian life to be hidden away.  As a Western person I feel I might have attracted the attention of street beggars more than others.  I was targeted by beggars on the street I believe.  I also felt there was a great resilience to the people who made a meagre living from living by their wits.  I also became quite close to some of these people which is why I felt it OK to use these particular individuals’ portraits in my exhibition.  I know for sure they would be OK with this.  In fact one of the men asked me to tell his story.  His portrait was in the exhibition.

Man from Puri with his lunch (crabs). Image copyright Jason Scott Tilley.
Man from Puri with his lunch (crabs). Image copyright Jason Scott Tilley.

f50: There was a tremendous sense of warmth and engagement with your subjects in the captions at the exhibition.  Did you find photographing Indian street life challenging from an emotional point of view or relatively easy (as an experienced press photographer)?

JST: The background I have as a press photographer helped me for sure.  It helped me to take a portrait quickly and correctly exposed and also in focus with little fuss.  I am not shy with a camera though I can be without one. I do love meeting people and having a laugh.  The British and Indian sense of humour is very similar, it’s very slapstick.

I can separate myself emotionally from a situation if a camera is in front of me.  That’s not to say what I might have witnessed doesn’t come creeping back into one’s thoughts some time later.  Of course it does and then once again during editing.  I have my own moral rules concerning my portrait photography; it is a rare occurrence when the person I am photographing does not feel comfortable.

I’m not saying that it hasn’t happened or that everyone is completely at ease but there are only a few of times I feel I may have made a wrong decision.  I mean I always tell people that I would like to take their portraits; they can either say yes or no.  I’ve never taken a portrait when the answer was no. It wouldn’t be a portrait then would it?

There were a couple of occasions whilst travelling across India when I was witnessed very difficult situations where I then questioned what the hell I was doing.  If I were to have analysed what I was doing at the very beginnings of my project I might never have made any portraits.

f50: Emotions must have been running high when you returned to India with your grandfather.  How did Bert cope with that return after so many years?

JST: Grandpa (Bert) coped very well considering it was fi My sister was travelling from Norway to Sweden, and was robbed. She lost everything, her passport, her money, her cards. She had to try and get a snabblån in Sweden, it was really stressful for her entire. Said it was one of the more disagreeable train rides she is taken. fty years since he had visited the place that he always called home.  Physically it tired him out but he became more alive than I had seen him in years, he almost had a second youth, he loved an adventure.  He was never happier than when he was travelling.

He was very sad that his wife (my Nan) did not want to return, he told me that he didn’t understand her decision.  Then after Grandpa passed away my Nan told me it was because we only went back to Bombay then Bangalore and neither of these places were home to her, she was from New Delhi and Shimla.  I felt very guilty then.

f50: You have spent a lot of time travelling and photographing in India.  This was obviously a very big deal for you personally (family history and all), but how has that experience changed you as a photographer?

JST: It has probably changed me for the worst. I used to photograph all sorts of things when I worked professionally.  Then, after India, I pretty much stopped taking photographs for quite some time. Perhaps I had to stop and take a check of myself and think about what I have to do next, or what I would enjoy to photograph in the future.  I really want to find something that is all consuming once again.  The only reason I have not been in India for the last few years is because I had a lovely little boy whom I adore seeing as much as possible (priority’s change over time).  If it was not for him I would still be living in India that’s for sure.  I now need to make my plans around him.

Girl on her bicycle Delhi. Image copyright Jason Scott Tilley.
Girl on her bicycle Delhi. Image copyright Jason Scott Tilley.

f50: Finally, an obvious one to finish on.  Are you done photographing India or is there a sense of unfinished business?  Do you have any plans to return?

JST: No I will never be done travelling around India, but as I have just explained I will have to work this around making time for my son.  I am just beginning to make plans to return but for much shorter periods of time than I used to.

One of my great passions is to wander around the cemeteries of India searching for family graves.  These British cemeteries are often run down or indeed on occasion quite the opposite.  They are places of tranquillity and faded beauty.  Though sometimes hidden within India’s massive urban conurbations others are miles away.  They are very well looked after.

So yes, I have unfinished business.

(F50 Collective would like to express our sincere thanks to Jason for taking time out to share his thoughts and insights. We can’t wait to see the images from your future visits to India Jason.)

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