The following is an email conversation between photographer Meera Margaret Singh and editor Ashok Mathur conducted over the months of October and November, 2010. The photographs presented here are part of the Farmland series, created as a commission for the Beyond Imaginings exhibition
AM: Meera, can you begin by describing how this portrait project came into being? I know your professional history includes a good deal of creating photographic portraits, shot on film and transferred to digital, so perhaps you can give us a bit of this background as a lead–in to this particular project.
MMS: I recently relocated to Toronto and was asked by Harbourfront Centre’s Head of Visual Arts, Patrick Macaulay, to put together a proposal for a photographic project that he was curating in conjunction with the Greenbelt Foundation. The exhibition, entitled Beyond Imaginings, was meant to highlight the diversity in Ontario’s Greenbelt: 1.8 million acres of permanently protected green space, farmland, wetlands, and communities. I was thrilled to explore this area of land in order to gain a better understanding of my new surroundings.
Having worked predominantly with portraiture, I was interested in photographing people who worked the land in the Greenbelt. Most of my recent work has addressed my interest in how cultural, physical, geographical, and emotional ideas of displacement and suspension can be explored photographically.
For the Greenbelt exhibition, I continued working with these concepts, focusing upon migrant workers, immigrant farmers, and women farmers in the Greenbelt. I wanted to explore some of the complexities inherent in the relationships between the workers and this area of land. I proceeded to create a series of photographic portraits that addressed both connections and disconnections between individuals and their surrounding landscape. After meeting numerous individuals and learning of their relationships to the Greenbelt as well as their relationships to their various homelands, I was able to create what I consider to be “based on true events” narratives, as opposed to 100% documentary work.
AM: I’m intrigued by this concept of “based on true events” as it seems critical to your work in this instance. Can you elaborate on this vis–à–vis what you term purely documentary work?
MMS: After pursuing a degree in Anthropology and then entering into the visual arts, I was fascinated by the concept of ‘documentary’ work. It was, in fact, this genre of photography that drew me to the medium in the first place. At the time, I had spent three years living and travelling in Asia. I photographed incessantly during that time, particularly when I was in India, as I was researching/searching into my own cultural heritage along with my family’s religious ideologies and practices. I wanted to absorb everything, to forget nothing. I thought the camera could help me document all of this.
When I returned to Canada and began my Bachelor’s of Fine Art degree, my work invariably began to shift. I was no longer as interested in describing the world “as I saw it.” Instead, I wanted to explore the world as I imagined it. I think this is where the traditional practice of social documentary photography, in the vein of Lewis Hine or Henri Cartier–Bresson1 moves from being a platform to describe and assist the dispossessed or the marginalized and can suddenly shift in postmodern times, to becoming a source of contention. Artistic and journalistic intentions aside, the position of the documentary photographer has historically been that of a privileged interloper looking into a world that is “other.” This is not to discredit the outcome of such works. Documentary photographs such as Nick Ut’s photograph of the girl running through the streets of My Lai in Vietnam as her flesh burned from the effects of napalm, became the iconic image of the Vietnam War.2 Images such as this had their place in making change. I believe that documentary work is necessary, while it is also necessary for it to be analyzed. Perhaps some of the problematics here stem from photography’s position as a ‘truth–telling’ medium, offering up a direct view into reality. But whose reality? These questions have always drawn me into the complexities of documentary work. They have also made me extremely hesitant to ascribe my working methods as such.
My camera and my imagination are inextricably linked, so much so that I can only label my work as “based–on–true–events.” The recipe is there for social documentary work: an interest in humanity, in difference, in the marginalized. However, my intention is not to reduce an individual, in this instance, to ‘a migrant worker,’ or to ‘an immigrant farmer.’ I am not looking to get deep into the individual to dissect an issue such as migrant labour in Canada and look at it from all angles photographically. Clearly, I am interested in each individual I photograph, interested in how their faces will speak to their history, without that ever really being confirmed. To clarify, if I were to bring light to my process by equating it to writing, I would say that I work with a fact, a social issue, and then decide to write a short story about a character I’ve created that would speak to the layered issue at hand.
In this instance, I have an immense interest in migration, in displacement (culturally, socially, geographically) in one’s relationship to the earth/soil, and our relationship to food and food production. Once I started researching this, I discovered the complexities of how the land in Canada was used for food production, how much sacrifice was made from the migrant workers who worked this land
I am drawn to this “reality.” I have an idea of how I feel about this issue and yet, with each individual I actually meet and converse with, I see a further angle to the story. This is where things shift for me and I begin to move away from traditional definitions of documentary work. I begin to move away from trying to describe an overarching statement about a situation. I then briefly speak with each participant and decide that I want to describe a feeling more than a truth. In a way, I’m opting for semiotic ambivalence, a multiple read.
I am reminded of Martha Rosler’s essay In, Around, and Afterthoughts,3 where she articulates that documentary photographers should strive to find a balance in one’s observation of the realities of another and one’s own personal point of view and that this can only be done by using an analytic framework that proposes solutions to the difficulties inherent in photographic representations of “other.”
So where does this balance lie? For me, it lies in this grey zone between documentary and fiction, where there is room for contemplation and wonder.
AM: In an earlier incarnation, we were titling this book, The Land We Are, a recognition that those of us who immigrate, or whose families have immigrated, to this country, inhabit the physical landscape in a number of ways. There are, of course, vast differences between rural and urban, just to mention one of the many expressions of different migratory experiences. Can you tell us what you felt was particularly significant for your photographic subjects who are, to generalize, working very closely with and upon the land?
MMS: Being a first–generation Canadian, I have witnessed the effects, intricacies, and sacrifices of immigration firsthand. I believe this was what drew me to create work around this theme. I cannot speak for the subjects I worked with. However, I did hear time and again how spending eight months of the year in Canada and four months in one’s homeland created an extreme duality in terms of notions of “homeland,” “home,” and “family.” What happens when most of your life is spent with your co–workers in a foreign land as opposed to your spouse and children? What I heard often were the terms “second home,” “second family.” What I also heard from numerous men was that they chose to sacrifice their relationships with their children for their child’s education. Not a single worker I encountered was in Canada because they felt connected to the land. Their connection to the land is an economic one. Were they not making enough to support their families, they would not choose to be here. I feel, in this instance, that the utopian view of one’s relationship to the land begins to crumble in the face of migration and market economies.
Again, I cannot speak for each participant. In all honesty, I feel I would need more time with them and would also need to provide quotations. The overall sense of home/family/sacrifice seemed synonymous with a sense of disconnect. A disconnection from one’s homeland, from a sense of “home,” from family, from one’s family history, and from one’s roots. This seems like it would move beyond one’s landscape and right into one’s core and psyche. When I was photographing, I often had a vision of Frida Kahlo’s painting The Two Fridas4 in my head. It was as though there was a splitting of self that occurred with each participant when we were interacting. There was this nostalgia for home, a longing for family. There was often a stoicism as well, a conviction that this was the ‘right’ thing to do for a greater good (economically). It was the only thing to do in the face of a tenuous economy. From a personal and photographic point of view, I was interested in seeing if this sense of displacement and dislocation could be created or witnessed on film. I am fascinated in how the body retains experience and how gesture or expression can reveal the effects of one’s personal history. When someone discusses the idea of having a ‘second home,’ I think of this sense of duality, this ‘neither here–nor–there’ (or perhaps ‘both here and there’) existence, and I wonder if I can even begin to describe that in images. I suppose this is a challenge I’m still working through.
AM: I know from experience that the camera can create a distance between the photographer and subject, the apparatus itself acting as a type of screen or veil to separate the two. But it can also act as a conduit, a medium of sorts, that rather than inhibiting intimacy, enhances it. Can you describe how your experience as a photographer might develop that sense of greater connection with your subject—in essence, how do you feel the act of photography helps you communicate with your subjects and, further, how does the end result help you communicate with the world? An addendum to this: through the farmland project, what have you learned vis–à–vis the question of community, communion, and reconciliation?
MMS: My work on Farmland has really allowed me to explore that grey zone that exists between the realms of documentary and fine art photography. While there is always a desire to connect and convey in my work, this project was not solely personal and definitely possessed many social, economic, and cultural layers inherent in it. Despite the conceptual framework being quite specific, the project did not begin nor end with the actual image. The image became almost secondary to hearing about these lived experiences.
The camera gives me licence to access communities and individuals I might not otherwise have the opportunity to meet. It can definitely create distance, as you suggest, but my experience has always been otherwise. I think this has to do with my emphasis on process as opposed to final product. I am completely immersed in the shooting process and this is really where I find most of the joy in photography. The camera often acts as a backstage pass into someone’s world. It tends to house a sort of legitimacy. People often place trust in the photographer if they are working in an intimate context. What I mean is that when a photographer and a subject are one–on–one, there is a complex exchange that revolves around a significant amount of trust. The subject cannot see what I see, and therefore surrenders some control in how they are being represented. This seems minute but I find it magnanimous. Each time someone works with me, I have immense gratitude, as I know that it is more than a moment that is being exchanged, but that unarticulated trust.
To be frank, I was surprised at how so many workers, without hesitation, agreed to be a part of my project. Diane Arbus once said, “A lot of people, they want to be paid that much attention and that’s a reasonable kind of attention to be paid.”5 I had a strong sense that most people enjoyed being focused upon, for even a brief period of time. I feel the camera allows for this. It’s one thing when someone looks at you, it’s another thing when they ask if they can look at you through a lens. There’s a sense of magnification there: a magnified moment, a magnified attention that is being placed upon an individual. Unlike a video camera rolling, the still camera clicks and describes that mere fraction of a second. This is what is most compelling to me as a photographer and what ties together notions of communion, intimacy, and reconciliation in concept and form: a pause in history and a stilling of time that asks for pause, reflection, celebration or apology, contemplation and for wonder.
Meera Margaret Singh was born in the Canadian prairies to an East Indian father and an Irish/German mother. As a mixed-race child, she had a strong desire from an early age to explore not only her own cultural background, but customs, ideologies and religions in a more global context. This led to her first degree from the University of Manitoba in Anthropology (1997). Upon completion of this degree, she spent two and a half years living, working and travelling throughout Asia. With a camera in hand, she quickly realized that her interest in displacement (cultural, geographical,psychological) could all be explored creatively. She returned to Canada and completed a BFA in Photography (2004) from the University of Manitoba and then an MFA (2008) from Concordia University, Montréal, Québec. Meera has been the recipient of several residencies and awards, including a Toronto Arts Council Visual Arts Grant (2010) and a Canada Council for the Arts production/creation grant (2009). She has been selected to participate in a residency at the Banff Centre; as the McCain Artist-in-Residence at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto; as the summer resident at the Centre for Innovation in Culture and the Arts in Canada in Kamloops, British Columbia; as a scholarship winner participating in the Magnum Workshop with international photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti; as a selected artist in an international residency with renowned contemporary German photographer Thomas Struth at the Atlantic Centre for the Arts in Florida. Meera’s work has been included in numerous exhibitions and festivals in Canada and the United States. She is currently an instructor in the Photography department at the Ontario College of Art and Design. ↩
- Lewis Wickes Hine (1874–1940) and Henri Cartier–Bresson (1908–2004) are considered to be among the greatest portraitists. ↩
- Nick Ut took his famous My Lai photograph in June 1972, which earned him a Pulitzer prize. ↩
- Rosler, M. (2006). In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography). In Martha Rosler, 3 Works. Halifax, NS: Martha Rosler and The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design: 61–93. ↩
- Kahlo, Frida. The Two Fridas (Las dos Fridas) (painting). C.1939. Collection Museo de Arte Moderno, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes–Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Mexico City. ↩
- Cited in the Museum of Contemporary Photography website. Diane Arbus (American, 1923–1971). Retrieved 27 November 2010 from: http://www.mocp.org/collections/permanent/arbus_diane.php ↩