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‘London is a true immigrant city.’
Gems in this
Kolkata-born artist Poulomi Basu follows her creativity further than most, traveling to the most remote pockets of the world to capture the communities living there. But in between circling the globe, Poulomi is carving out a space of her own amid the thriving immigrant city of London.
It’s from her base in London that Poulomi plans her immersive installations that meld virtual reality, film, photography, performance and books and that help audiences stretch the boundaries of language. A foothold among the creative energy of Europe has also seen Poulomi’s powerful visual storytelling reach new heights and receive recognition from Sundance, Magnum and National Geographic, plus an armful of prestigious accolades from the Royal Photographic Society, The Photographer’s Gallery, and Rencontres d’Arles in France. While the majority of her work sees Poulomi frequent South Asia, her projects have also led her from Indonesia and Italy to Brussels, Vietnam and Little Diomede Island — sandwiched between Russia and Alaska. We spoke with Poulomi about the global language of photography, where creativity has taken her and her favorite Travel Gems for when she’s back in London.
On where you’re from
I grew up in Kolkata in the east of India. It's a very artistic, political city and that's where the foundation of my practice comes from. My mother's side of the family are mostly musicians, so I had very good exposure to the arts. Bengalis tend to learn some form of art when we’re young — how to sing, play an instrument or dance. I used to paint and I was trained in classical Indian forms of dancing.
On moving to London
I moved here in 2008. I was on a trip and ended up staying. I got a scholarship to study a Masters in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication. I felt that London was a true immigrant city. When you're walking or you’re sitting on a train, you have people of all languages speaking around you. It's a melting pot of diversity, culture and race — and I’d never seen that before. Once you live in the middle of that, you can’t go back. That thriving immigrant city life that you're a part of in London, it doesn't exist anywhere else. It's also so easy to travel to Europe. You just get on a train and can be around so much art. I didn't want to live anywhere else.
On building a global community
I did photography workshops in different parts of the world — from there I grew an international community. It just happened that a lot of photographers were in London, so when I moved here, I met even more people through them. Now I have a very rich, amazing community of curators, artists, producers, gallerists, and photographers. As a photographer, you have a couch in almost half the world.
On where photography has taken you
I’ve been to some incredible, crazy places. Like Little Diomede Island, which is on the Bering Sea and the Bering Strait. I was working with the Inuit communities there. It’s just 60 families. Little Diomede is the last outpost of American soil and it shares its border with the Big Diomede, which is Russia. In-between, you have the international dateline. So one side is 23 hours ahead of the other side and the Russian army is looming and watching you. It’s an incredible place. The Inuits have been abandoned by America, it's on the forefront of climate change, the ice curtain is coming down, and the families are divided. To reach it you have to fly to Alaska, then to Anchorage, then to Nome, then you have to take a helicopter for two-and-a-half hours to the island. It’s really the end of the world.
On how travel inspires your practice
My work comes from my own lived experiences of places, as well as music I listen to, movies I've watched, and books I've read. As I’m navigating my space around the world, evolving and growing, I’ll pick up things somewhere and it comes out in another way somewhere else. They're all connected.
'When you're walking in London or you’re sitting on a train, you have people of all languages speaking around you. It's a melting pot of diversity, culture and race.'
On Kolkata’s legacy of cinema
We have great filmmakers from Kolkata — Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. The Indian New Wave movement started there, which was inspired by the French New Wave. Jean Renoir came to Kolkata to shoot The River, so that was a big influence. Growing up, I watched a lot of Ray and Ghatak. I was eight or 10 years old when I was watching Jean-Luc Godard. Kolkata is where all the creative thinking happens. It's like the France of India — both obnoxious and pretentious, but also political and very artistic.
On advocating for women’s rights
As a brown South Asian woman, if you're not a feminist, what else can you be? If you don't fight for what you want, you'll never get it — especially as a woman of color. And so if you’ve achieved something, how do you then make that possible for other women who share the same history, struggles and background of resistance? Most of my work can often be a bit overwhelming, but I like it. It's good to provoke people, but it's also good to know that empathy is not a destination. Give your audience its own agency to know what to do next. That's why a lot of my projects are combined with campaigns — to have an outcome at a grassroots level. Provoking is not enough.
On the connectivity of language
I speak lots of languages and it's one of my strengths to blend in easily. It’s very respectful that we learn a few things in the languages of the communities and places we’re going to, to feel connected. Sometimes people like to share some of their language and I like to share some of mine — it creates a bond and a moment of laughter. So much of my work is getting to know someone and spending time with communities. It's really about developing human connection and relationships. Photography is often the last thing we do.
On returning again and again
The more time you give to something, the depth of the experience is better. Sometimes everything can become intense in short boxes of time and those experiences can be wonderful and valuable. But to let it sit and come back to it again and again — I think you find other layers and depths that are powerful. And I think an audience sees and feels that in your work. Something you make super fast comes through — let seasons pass over a place, let winter become summer and summer become autumn, and see the ideas and the depth of the work grow. It has more meaning on multiple levels: on a philosophical level, literally, visually; and on an emotional and spiritual level as well.
'The more time you give to something, the depth of the experience is better... Let seasons pass over a place, let winter become summer and summer become autumn, and see the ideas and the depth of the work grow.'
On the elasticity of photography
I find it fascinating how a medium can become the message. How different stories are told very powerfully through different mediums. Technology itself becomes a storytelling tool. So then how do you use that technology to tell a story or create a sensorial experience or a journey that's very powerful? I'm interested in installations and having different types of immersive, sensorial experiences. That's why I work at the intersection of mediums like photography, film and VR. I like to keep my practice loose.
On your latest project
Eruptions: A Decade of Creation has just opened at Side Gallery in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It’s my first major solo exhibition featuring photography, film, virtual reality, and photobooks from To Conquer Her Land (2009-12), Blood Speaks: A Ritual Of Exile (2013-18) and Centralia (2010-21). It engages with issues of gender, caste and class to expose both the marginalisation and the strength of women and Indigenous communities in South Asia. I also have a show at Autograph coming up from March 4 to May 28, 2022, on a new body of work called Fireflies. It’s a mix of photography, a two-channel film, and a soundscape.
On collaborative energies
Photography is a very lonely process, whereas everything else is slightly more collaborative. Film, VR — these are collaborative practices. You can’t make a film on your own. The new work, Fireflies, is also performance-based so I need somebody else to be holding the other shit, you know? You might be the creator, but there are very talented people who are working on a team with you. Artists don’t tend to say that. It's so nice to be able to do projects where you can invite other people to come and be a part of it. I think the outcome is slightly more special, because you can see all the different energies that go into it. It's very important to me that the people I collaborate with are on the same wavelength. They’re creative extensions.
On the little-known suburbia of London
I'm living in the suburbs, just outside of Upminster. It used to be very white, but now there are loads of South Asians here. I didn’t want to live in the center of the city because of my illness and my three rescue dogs. Whereas in the suburbia of London, we have so many amazing forests. I’m a 20-minute drive from the sea or I can be in Liverpool Street in 30 minutes. Here I have a little bit of country life and I'm not that far from my friends in Hackney.
'You can do a 10-kilometre walk between both of the Thorndon Parks and not meet anyone, except for some cows.'
On getting a nature fix in the city
I’m surrounded by forests here. You can do a 10-kilometre walk between both of the Thorndon Parks, which are beautiful. Epping Forest is nice but there are so many people from London there. Here you can walk your dogs and not meet anyone, except for some cows. I also love the cemetery in Abney Park, Stoke Newington. I used to spend a lot of time there. It’s such a beautiful place to read. You’re in the middle of hipster central, but it's so beautiful.
On authentic Indian food in London
I love food. I love eating at all the Sri Lankan and South Indian Tamil places in East Ham. It’s one of my favorite things. You can have a dosa or a coconut uthappam [pancake] or amazing South Indian foods for very cheap — it's exactly like being in a small town in India. It's excellent and super authentic. I like to find the hole-in-the-wall places that are really good. There's one Sri Lankan-South Indian place called Priya Express in East Ham, which I absolutely love. I'm always eating there.
On places for experiencing art
I love going to see shows at 180 Strand. I love the cutting-edge, contemporary work they show there and they have amazing installations. I would love to have a show there. Otherwise, I spend a lot of time at TJ Boulting with Hannah Watson, my gallerist. We have a lot of creative discussions there. For me, it’s more about talking and discussing ideas and being in a space where I can have those great conversations, and I do this a lot in my gallery. I also especially love Autograph. I feel like I have a very strong connection to that place and the people who I meet there and the community that comes to watch shows there. I feel very comfortable and at home at Autograph. It's such a great space.
On London in one word
Crazy diverse, and it's an immigrant city. It's every immigrant’s city.
On a window or an aisle seat
Window. I like my own corner, tucked away. To put my head down and get some sleep. I have anxiety, so it makes me feel protected. Being on a plane is like creating your own world, almost like finding your own cosy place.