Bharat Sikka – The Sapper

“I think in my case, my father was just – in the beginning – humouring me”, photographer Bharat Sikka tells me. “Later on he got more involved in it and then I think that he was extremely flattered because I got him to Unseen. He was thrilled and feeling special.” He is speaking via videolink from his spacious New Dehli studio. We are talking about his latest body of work, The Sapper, following his recent show at the annual photo fair, Unseen Amsterdam, with his New Dehli gallery Nature Morte. A book, currently only existing as a dummy, is also in the early stages of publication. 

In one landscape photograph from the show in Amsterdam, we can see a man in the centre-ground slumped over the side of a small rusting steel bridge, peering down to the murky stream below. His body, although calm, seems contorted into a bizarre abstract shape, not in contrast with the barren, snow-covered mountains in the background. In another image showing the same man, Sikka invites us in so we can see the deep indents on his calves; the flesh-memory of just-removed socks. A third portrait shows him dancing, frozen by the camera and framed by an alcove in the wall behind him. The man in the photographs is Sikka’s father, a former member of the Engineer Corps of the Indian Army. Also known as ‘Sappers’, the engineers were often posted far away from their families and for extended periods. This “distance and closeness”, as Sikka puts it, has helped father and son develop a “good friendship between two people” that has also extended into a collaborative project. 

The portraits are masterfully sequenced. In both the book dummy and the Unseen exhibition, still-lifes and collages recur throughout the project. In an unusual twist, the subject has also become the creator. His engineer-father makes the small structures that are photographed by Sikka. The collages, too, are sometimes made by Sikka, and sometimes his father. Stripped of colour, context and cliche, this is not the loud and busy India we are often presented with, but a quiet place with subtle tones. Sikka uses this backdrop to lure the viewer into a meticulously constructed world balancing in equilibrium between reality and fantasy. This is the paradox of The Sapper.

The title [The Sapper] comes from your dad being an engineer (Sapper) in the Indian Army. It would be good to start by talking a little about the relationship between you, your father and your photographs.

The project is actually about my father. I’ve always been interested in him, not so much when I was a child, but more as an adult. Growing up, he travelled a lot for work, so I didn’t get to spend that much time with him. 

When I was young I went to study photography in New York. I was straight from India, straight into New York. I had never really travelled anywhere else in my life and I could not understand it one bit; how the city functioned, how it worked, and I was very lonely. I was very… not stressed, but it was very hard for me to deal without my family and my parents, especially my mother. 

So this project began a long time ago when I came back from New York to India and I saw my father-in-law and got inspired, which also led to my first project, Indian Men. I was looking and thinking that there are so many things that happen in India because it’s still so exotic and it’s always very loud, but there’s nothing subtle that comes out. All of that is always there in my photographs.

For me, the project was more about the place where I belong; where I grew up, and that extended over the years while I kept doing the other projects. 

I’m interested in how you became aware of not wanting to make a documentary project and decided instead of making something performative. Perhaps you could elaborate on that?

Initially, when I first photographed him I was just using images from my mobile phone. Then I saw that I can do this in a way that it doesn’t become about my father, but of an Indian man. I never wanted to say that; I still don’t want to say it in that sense, but it’s so evident that it comes across. 

He’s a protagonist in this story, which for me is a man from a middle-class Indian family. Because I’ve been photographing this project over the last few years, it is also an experiment in the way that I explore and approach the medium. Even stylistically; for a lot of my projects I’ll say, maybe I’ll shoot this on a large format camera – or maybe I’ll shoot this on a digital camera, and this is the language I want to give this project. 

So there are all these decisions that I can take some time to work out. For this project I wanted there to be playfulness; I wanted him to have this stark quality; I didn’t want to art direct too much; I didn’t want to introduce those exotic elements about India. I think after two or three different settings where I saw the images, they started looking like portraits anyone would take of their father. A lot of people do indulge with photographing their family, their children, their wives or fathers. I had seen a few projects here and there and at some point I said, I have to go beyond that.

I wanted there to be playfulness; I wanted him to have this stark quality; I didn’t want to art direct too much; I didn’t want to introduce those exotic elements about India

I guess that leads to a question about the collages that appear alongside the traditional photos in your book dummy. I’m curious as to how they came about.

The collages are all mixed up and the process was different for some of them. While a lot of my father’s thought processes were based on the idea of construction, sculpture and drawing, he was also very intrigued and fascinated by collages. One image in a collage is his photograph, he had taken a photocopy of the printout and had scanned the photocopy and made a collage out of that. He would use the photocopy machine a lot, so I wanted to use that imagery throughout the project. I gave some things to my assistant to make photocopies, then work with that material by scanning and putting them forward for my father to use. To be honest, it’s been a combined effort between myself, my father and my assistant.

You often talk about your artistic influences, usually historical and contemporary paintings; are these something that’s been referenced throughout this project as well?

To be honest, when I go back to my early photography, my biggest influence has been Edward Hopper; the painterly quality and the solitude, the light, and the environment. He’s been the strongest influence I’ve had over the past few years. I broke that in the middle when I worked on a project called Matter. It was about the India I live in, and I didn’t want to go through the clichés; everything was polluted everything was grey, it was sucking the colour, it was chaotic, very dark, it’s like the journey from my house to my studio. That’s when I broke the connection of colour, and that’s where The Sapper comes from, which is a bit of a mix of that. 

I think that now, even with so much photography, it’s more about the feeling of what you’re going to say, not just a beautiful picture. I even struggled with that; you shoot for so many years and then when you start doing a certain amount of editorial work, your work gets a certain amount of polish, and I’m always trying to avoid that. I think, let me try and shoot some film otherwise this is going to look too perfect; you always have that fight.

But in this case, I shot it on film and digital, mostly it was a medium format digital camera. I wanted it to be a little bit starker, cleaner, more constructed, more lines with perspectives. Because all of these attributes are ones my father had when drawing, or teaching me perspective drawings, so all these things layered. 

I like the idea of losing control a little bit. It’s like when you don’t look into a camera and you just shoot, or if a mistake happens or something magic.

The only character within the project is your dad, but we do see two images of women; a photograph of an old painting and the other is a picture of a girl wearing a bikini, which has been placed in a glass. Why are the only other people we see are semi-naked women? 

When I was young, my father had this record by a band called La Bionda. He liked the photograph which was on the vinyl, and he gave it to an artist within the army to paint this cover for him. That painting was hanging in his house all his life, and I used to see it all the time. So, I have such a strong memory from this time that I had to photograph this painting myself. It was a photograph which became a painting, then I photographed it again and it’s become a photograph. I don’t know who the actual photographer is, I looked for the band, but I couldn’t find the same cover.

My dad was very liberal, he wasn’t shy or anything. Whilst I was growing up, he had two or three of those glasses; I remember the last time I photographed him, he still had a glass which is about 20 or 30 years old. As soon as you put ice in it the girl becomes naked. When I was young and wanted to see her naked, I’d fill it with ice and let the clothes disappear.

There’s something there about the ultra-masculinity of the army as well then?

Yeah, exactly, that comes with it. It has that sensibility within it. Also, being deprived of access to women in the army. It’s a very strong heterosexual world. For me, the glass was peculiar, this comes from before I was 10 so it’s 30 years old and it still exists; I had to photograph it. It talks of him, but it also plays on my ideas of when I was young and would use it.

Perhaps a good way to end this would be to talk a bit about the authorship of this project. Do you share it with him?

It has been really interesting because he has lived his life in the army; he’s not an artist, he doesn’t think like that. But, for me, I don’t think so. He just said, “tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” It was more about me directing him, but I knew that he would accidentally do something that I love, and that’s what I like.

Being behind the camera, from an artistic point of view, I like the idea of losing control a little bit. It’s like when you don’t look into a camera and you just shoot, or if a mistake happens or something magic. In the same way, I like the idea of giving something to my father to break the moment and change it into something else, then it’s my decision if I want to use or not. 

I think my father was just humouring me in the beginning. Later on, he got more involved in the project and then finally, he was extremely flattered because I got him to UNSEEN. He was thrilled and feeling really special. It was very emotional for me. When you’re 30 or 40, you don’t want to spend much time with your parents, you want to be on your own. Everything you say they disagree with. I’m very close to my mother, but I find my father more interesting.