For our second instalment of Caught on Film, let us take you to the vibrant beating heart of India: Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. Max Lieberman, an artist from Sydney, Australia, was first introduced to Jabalpur back in 2011 when he visited his partner’s family. Six years later, this place has become a home away from home and photography has become a means of documenting his time there, and as Max puts it, an “expression of fascination and wonder in the world.” These honest images of locals amongst pastel-coloured homes and street-side stalls offer an intimate perspective into Jabalpur everyday life.
How long were you living in Jabalpur for and what prompted the decision to move there?
I first went to Jabalpur in 2011 to visit my partner’s family. I dropped my son off at school in Dharamsala in March and decided to stay in India for the rest of the year. I rented a place in Jabalpur and used it as an art studio. I stayed for about seven months before picking my son up from school. I then spent the final months of the year volunteering at the school. Since then, I have been living between Sydney and Jabalpur, staying there for periods of three to nine months at a time. Surviving as an artist in Sydney is not an easy thing to do. Now my strategy is to work in Sydney—I’m a trained French polisher and furniture finisher—and then focus on more creative things while in India.
“Bollywood film songs blend with bhajans and calls to prayer—and they all combine with the sound of noisy vehicles.”
How would you describe Jabalpur to someone who hasn’t been there?
Jabalpur shares a lot of its characteristics with other Indian cities: street stalls sell chai and snacks, women dress in brightly coloured clothes (though students and younger women now wear jeans), street markets sell fruit and vegetables. It has a unique, and often quirky, architectural style. Buildings and structures are often ad-hoc, street signs and advertisements are hand painted, town planning seems non-existent. There are shops: mechanics, building supplies, bicycle repairs, corner stores, internet cafes, restaurants, electronics stores and so on.
Everything is covered in a coat of dust from the fine clay soil. Each year—during the monsoon months—everything gets a good wash down and roads become muddy. You need to watch for hazards: pools of water on the road as well as snakes that have been washed out of their homes. And for the soundtrack… Bollywood film songs blend with bhajans (religious songs usually sung out of tune) and calls to prayer—and they all combine with the sound of noisy vehicles. It’s a very festive place, as is most of India.
The city is famous for its granite boulders. A small Durgavati fort, named Madan Mahal, is perched precariously on top of a massive boulder. The fact that the city is built on stone makes it cold in winter and hot, up to forty-seven degrees, during summer. It’s also famous for numerous man-made taals, or ponds, that are scattered throughout the city.
What is the culture like? How is it different from other places you’ve been?
In Jabalpur, like all of India, numerous castes and creeds live together relatively peacefully. This diversity is one of the things that makes India special, with all its cultural expressions: festivals, food, mythologies, superstitions, arts, handiworks and so on. Contemporary culture is also thriving and the place is rapidly westernising; for better or for worse. There are a number of small museums around the city, some of which host regular photographic and art exhibitions along with their permanent exhibits.
“When I was about six, I was given a Hanimex 110 by my parents, followed by a Fujica MA1 a couple of years later. This was in the 80s.”
When did you first start taking photos? Do you remember why?
When I was about six, I was given a Hanimex 110 by my parents, followed by a Fujica MA1 a couple of years later. This was in the 80s. I documented family outings, country car trips and my pets. In high school, I learned how to develop and process black and white film. The dark room was often a hiding place where we could skip other classes and develop film instead. After secondary school, I went to art school and continued learning photography. In second year, painting and drawing became my major subjects and photography took a backseat for a few years. This was in the early 90s. I picked up photography again more seriously in 2009 when I began to make regular extended trips to India. These trips gave me the time, inspiration and conditions that enabled me to focus on creative projects in general and develop my photography.
“Last year in Jabalpur, I went from shop to shop and bought pretty much every film that was available... I got a lot of funny looks from the shop keepers when I asked them about buying or developing film. I think they felt sorry for me.”
What camera and film do you shoot with?
At the moment, I primarily use a Leica M4-2, mostly with a 50mm lens and sometimes a 35mm. I inherited the body from my father who was a keen amateur photographer. I’m also playing around with an assortment of old film point and shoot cameras.
And film… I’ve been using whatever I can get my hands on. I like using expired film because of the painterly qualities, as well as the element of surprise; you never know what you are going to get. I like the nostalgia that comes from film photographs—they seem to hold a lot of emotion. If money was no object, I’d probably use a bit more Kodak Portra.
Last year in Jabalpur, I went from shop to shop and bought pretty much every film that was available: mostly Kodak ColorPlus 200, but I got a few old Samsung films that are really nice—great reds. I got a lot of funny looks from the shop keepers when I asked them about buying or developing film. I think they felt sorry for me. They would often explain that everyone uses digital now and advised that I should buy a digital camera. A few shops did have the equipment to process colour film, but wouldn’t guarantee the results.
“I’ve observed that in each country there is a particular colour palette. Even within India, the colours change from city to city, state to state. I love to observe how colours change at different times of the day and in the different seasons.”
What were your favourite things to photograph in Jabalpur and why?
What may be banal for the people of Jabalpur, is a visual feast to my eyes. I am interested in how the people of Jabalpur blend in with their environment; in their quirky, and often, retro fashions. I’ve observed that in each country there is a particular colour palette. Even within India, the colours change from city to city, state to state. I love to observe how colours change at different times of the day and in the different seasons.
When I first started taking pictures in India, I documented street signs, typography, and a lot of it was research for my art. I often observe anthropomorphism; it’s a theme that seems to reoccur in my photographs. I like the idea that everything has spirit in this world; that everything inanimate or even man made is alive to some degree. I explored this idea in a selection of images that I exhibited a couple of years ago in an exhibition Animate Inanimate. Anthropomorphism in Indian culture can be seen in the painting of eyes on rocks—which are worshipped as “Earth Gods” on the streets—and the way a new car may be given a small ceremony of worship, offered food and flowers. This makes sense to me; it’s clearly an act of respect for the material object and a type of prayer for good luck and auspiciousness.
I’m dubious about the idea that the photographer is just an eye; a detached and objective observer and that the subject must always appear oblivious to the photographer. Often people request me to take their photo, and I have a rule to never say no. The idea that street photography or social documentary photography by definition cannot be posed or staged seems a bit narrow minded. Rather than my photographs being a critique or social commentary, they are taken with an artist’s eye, with visual and aesthetic intentions. It is with—dare I say—an innocent wonder of the world, that I peer through the viewfinder.
Why is photography important to you?
Unlike painting and drawing, which I generally do on my own in a studio, photography gets me outside interacting with people; and often out of my comfort zone. Taking photographs is natural for me and something I’m comfortable doing. I’m not a professional photographer and I have no intention to be. I like the way I am doing it. There are no expectations on me and I am free to explore whatever themes and subjects that interest me. Like my art and other creative endeavours, it’s a lifelong thing and I’m in no rush with it.
For me, photography is a way to be in the moment. It slows you down, you look carefully at your surroundings and appreciate all the little details you usually wouldn’t pay much attention to. It’s the ultimate way of “stopping and smelling the roses.” Photographs become an expression of fascination and wonder in the world around us; they are a type of communion, a type of prayer and an act of worship. Photography is a celebration of being alive.
“I like the street food best. In the evening, you get all sorts of street sellers with carts selling samosas, pani puri, tandoori chicken, masala dosas, and even Indian style pizza.”
Max’s Tour of Jabalpur:
Your favourite neighbourhood:
In between the main streets, you will find smaller streets with colourfully painted houses. I love to spend time by the holy Narmada, an ancient river documented in ancient scriptures. It’s said the river has the power to purify the soul and is one of the five main holy rivers in India. There are some incredible spots like the Marble Gorge and the big waterfall at Bhedaghat. Once a month, many come to see the full moon illuminating the marble rocks. There are also other magical spots near the river that are totally off the tourist trail. You can see crumbling ancient ruins of castles and temples. You get a sense of history, the rise and fall of empires, and the superiority of nature over all things made by man.
Your favourite place to eat:
I like the street food best. In the evening, you get all sorts of street sellers with carts selling samosas, pani puri, tandoori chicken, masala dosas, and even Indian style pizza. In the morning there are stands with breakfast: kachori, samosas and poha (a type of spicy fried flat rice), and of course, milky chai. There are also seasonal food stands selling sweet corn, coconuts, mango shakes, fresh sugar cane juice and so on.
Your favourite thing to do in your free time:
We spend a lot of time near the river. There are always things going on there, with religious festivals happening throughout the year. It’s a great spot to wander around and take pictures, or go for a swim during the warmer months. My favourite thing is probably to wander the streets at the right time of day, usually the mid-afternoon when the light is good, camera in hand. You never know what you will come across.
Your favourite place to shop:
There are so many great small shops selling all sorts of interesting things. I love going to textile shops. The shopkeepers are happy for you to sit down while they show you their wares: colourful saris, cotton sheets, rugs and whatnot. It’s a real treat. The weekly flea markets are also a fantastic place to pick up interesting old bits and pieces and they’re also one of the most photogenic spots in Jabalpur.