Interview – Kalpesh Lathigra

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Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa: It’s been a long road for you getting this book and this work, Lost in the Wilderness, out into the world and it’s your first book, so why did you choose Pine Ridge, South Dakota, as a place in which to make it?

Kalpesh Lathigra: The process of getting to this point has been a long evolution in my work. I started a long term project looking at the plight of widows in India in 2004, and during this I started to question my practice and how I was making the photographs, and I began to confront the fact that there was no way of making objective documentary work, and came to the realisation that the work was flawed. The photographs I made were the result of trying to understand the nature of faith and how to translate this visually.

I was pretty much burnt out by the work I was making, and only by chance was in Liverpool on a fashion commission, where I saw Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi at the Open Eye Gallery. It was a revelation in terms of the colour and narratives. It led me to discover the American Color Movement, in photographers like Eggleston, Shore, Sternfeld and Epstein. That sounds crazy, but if you can put yourself in my shoes, I was the original black and white photographer praying at the altar of Salgado, Natchwey etc. and knew nothing of this other world.

I wanted to make work in America partly because of the new work I was discovering, and more importantly I wanted it to be related to me personally, rather than follow the idea of parachuting into a story and leaving. I left for America, and specifically New York, where a friend gave me Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. The book is a classic, and tells the story of the American West from the Native American perspective.

Wounded Knee was the location of the last major confrontation between the US Army and Native Americans, on December 29th 1890, where more than 200 men, women, and children of the Lakota had been killed and 51 were wounded (4 men and 47 women and children, some of whom died later). Some estimates placed the number of dead at 300. This led me to read contemporary literature like Ian Frazier’s On the Rez and Sherman Alexie’s poems.

I have spoken before about the feeling of belonging after arriving in Pine Ridge. It’s something that’s not tangible….just there. It is related to my upbringing in Forest Gate in London, being a person of colour, and also to the impact of colonisation, and how it remains there in the background.

I grew up in Forest Gate during the 1980s, and my teen years were filled with cricket, rock music alongside a mix of literature, which I love. My father had immigrated from Nairobi, Kenya, the son of goldsmiths, and the only one sent to school. My father was the man who brought home a newspaper and introduced me to Great Expectations, Julius Caesar and Gandhi, and we sat together as a family to watch Roots… Yet he was a man who suffered racial abuse as a bus conductor in his job and daily life, yet somehow continued to make life better for his family.

My friends were almost all from the West Indies. The books that we read outside of school were The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin to name a few. This was the curriculum of the playground: those books shaped us. Imagine having stones thrown at you on the way to a sports day and kids shouting the N word and P word, because you were deemed to be in the wrong area.

And of course we all watched westerns at some point… didn’t we all play Cowboys and Indians? Only for me I was forever the Indian. The Hollywood films had sold us this tale of the Cowboy and the Wild West, the Indians, savages, heathens, the white man as the saviour……. Its not a million miles away from what happened in India, Africa…

Pine Ridge allowed for that space to explore these feelings, to say something about my own experiences as the child of immigrants seen through the experiences of others that I can relate to.

So you opted for an autobiographical approach to documentary practice in this work, given its close ties to your experience as a child of the Afro-Indian diaspora? It’s interesting to think about a parallel between the distance that comes with being a member of a diaspora and the sense of distance at work in these images. The influence of Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi is also clear in the structure of the book’s design, with the classic photograph on the right-hand side and caption on the left, beginning after the Garvard Goodplume excerpt with a landscape of a house painted in the colours of the American flag. Are you insisting that this an essentially American story, in the photographic tradition of American Prospects and The Americans and American Photographs by working in this way?

Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi played heavily on me of course, because it was my introduction to the American Photographic tradition. I’ve certainly taken an autobiographical approach to documentary practice, which for me really is the way my work is evolving. I think it’s important for me to draw from my personal experience and my subconscious, and to let that embed itself into the photographs and then seep out to the viewer.

The title Lost in the Wilderness is certainly a reference to the parallels you have mentioned, yet it first came from a poem I had started to write about the space I inhabit between three countries and three cultures. The landscape photograph you describe is titled Fort Robinson, Nebraksa. It’s an important photograph, because it lays down a path for the viewer, my lineage to American Prospects, The Americans etc.. I didn’t want to escape those influences.

Its vital to remember though, that it’s also a reference to the ideas of Manifest Destiny. The legendary Oglala Sioux warrior Crazy Horse was killed here, and it was also home to the first African American Cavalry regiment referred to by the Sioux as the Buffalo Soldiers, and that is a part of the American story. I feel the work needs to presented in book form within this tradition, as for me it perfectly shows the photograph as it’s meant to be seen, while invoking this lineage of American photographic history.

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Photography offers itself up as a useful means to tell this sort of story, but I think it’s a double-edged sword of sorts. An integral factor in the pillage and slaughter in the West is the catastrophic inability of immigrant Americans to see the virtue of interdependence with the land. Photography helped to abet this devastation, and it’s in your photographs of photographs, or those you make of groups of tourists that I sense the harsh reality of the limits of vision, both in terms of what was once there, and now in terms of our contemporary awareness of what remains…

Certainly when we look at images of colonisation and its effects, they for me fall into two main categories: the exotic noble savage, or the celebration of devastation held up as conquest. The photographs taken shortly after the Massacre at Wounded Knee show the Oglala Sioux dead, frozen in the snow, they show mass burials rendered as a heroic event. We can see the same pattern in India or in many countries in Africa. Photography used as propaganda is nothing new. Think of the photographs taken in “theaters of war”—the description in itself is problematic.

I found those limits of vision both in Afghanistan and on Pine Ridge. My reaction was to try and make the ordinary significant. Our contemporary awareness is tainted by the continued depiction of stereotypes. The photographs of tourists visiting these sites are an antithesis to that. In the photograph that shows a Christian group visiting the site of Wounded Knee, where the only real memorial is a dilapidated sign marking the Massacre, my thoughts were to step back and show that this landscape was a significant point in the history of Native Americans, and in respect of what came after: the end of the “Indian Wars”, the indigenous population pushed onto reservations leading up ultimately to where we are today.

In Lost in the Wilderness, there’s a photograph of the memorial at Little Big Horn with the cowboy (the other people in the photograph are Oglala Sioux). The memorial is there because it marks the Battle of Little Big Horn, it is here that the Oglala Sioux had their significant victory over Custer and the 7th Cavalry. It is a much visited tourist site…the differences between the two sites are laid bare. The much flaunted legend of Custer reigned supreme after his death. “History is written by the victors.” Visually, I wanted to strip away that history of the victors right down to the basics, not give the photograph any sense of victorious celebration, in the hope that doing so might give the viewer some clarity. Our contemporary awareness is tainted by the continued depiction of stereotypes, and so the photographs of tourists visiting these sites are a counterpoint to that.

Does showing the reservation in your photographs represent an attempt to draw together experiences and histories that have been systematically separated from each other? While you were in Pine Ridge, did you encounter a desire in people for greater integration, or for continued separation, or for something else entirely?

Thats a very interesting question……for me experiences and histories cannot exist without each other, but of course they have been separated inasmuch as who is the storyteller of history, how are these experiences and histories shaped, etc etc… The series allows for the separated experiences and histories to come together, but they come to this place loaded with my authorship, ideas, experiences. It was an evolution of practice on my behalf. In regards to the second question, there is no continued separation, some people go into the local town, some go out of state…..some just stay on Pine Ridge. Some want the land they live on to be a nation in itself recognised at the UN, others want help and for the government to honour the treaties that were signed in good faith. As for the something else…well that’s the same as people everywhere in the world, I wouldn’t expect anything different. I experienced all that you have described, but I wouldn’t have expected anything different. People are people.

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All images and spreads © Kalpesh Lathigra 2015

Interview by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa / Published 18 May 2016