Farrokh Chothia: In conversation with Anurag Banerjee

Photography legend, Farrokh Chothia talks to Anurag Banerjee about all things Jazz.

Article on Sensorium

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What is your first memory of jazz music?

FC: My first introduction to Jazz music was through Indian classical music. All these terms really have very broad definitions. I guess what I was responding to was the spontaneous aspect of it.
My introduction to Jazz as music was when somebody gave me an album by Miles Davis called Kind Of Blue, which is, as I found out later on, everyone’s introduction to Jazz. It is a great album in every way and it has introduced more people to [this genre] than any other single album.
I was already prepared for the “idea of Jazz” because I was listening to Indian classical [music]. So when I heard Kind Of Blue, the Indian classical aspect had already made me understand what was going on.

Has music always been an inspiration for the work that you do?

FC: Yes, yes! Music is central to everything. Music is the background, is the soundtrack to your life almost. If it’s not there in front of you, it is playing in your head, at least for me.  I grew up with a lot of musicians. Music was a very strong connecting factor to the scene in Bombay in the mid 70s, early 80s. My group was always very strongly connected by music.
The connection of music to photography is not direct but there is a parallel in the way that I do my work – very non-planned – I set up a few things, but then I just leap off, improvise, and make it up along the way. That is the same rhythm as Jazz.
For me it’s always about trying to interpret a certain feeling and it is a combination of music, cinema, life…everything. When it all comes together. To find that moment that everyone connects with, music plays an important part. It is difficult to find that today. It was easier earlier because there weren’t so many choices.
When I am working, to give me some kind of inspiration, I play music that I like and then when we are shooting I play music that helps tie everything together. Music, whatever the music may be, is the fastest way to get to somebody’s subconscious. Music cuts through many layers. It is hard to come across someone who has no musical inclination.
Musicians have at times been bigger inspirations than even photographers for me. Music is so personal. You can’t bullshit with music.

What is the approach you took while photographing Jazz musicians around the world?

FC: I began shooting these musicians in 1989 and through to 2005. Access to Jazz musicians was simpler than other musicians and also, I found them more interesting. Stage shots are something that anyone can do, but the challenge is to do something different – to make it look like you, make it look like something. About how to get away from the standard.
What happens on the stage is that the light is always changing but you realize that there is a rhythm to all of this, a pattern. Now the question is that when the pattern comes back, will your subject be standing where you’d want him to stand? So you need to be patient.
I noticed something very interesting. We used to be very close to the musicians. At times, closer than some of the band members. A lot of the photographers were news guys, they were just interested in that one shot for the next day’s paper and then they would get out. If one of the photographers would be there till the very end, the musicians would pick up on that. I have seen that happen. These musicians are artists, they are stars and they want to look good. They would perform for the [ones who stayed back and], give us their energy.

How do you think Sensorium is different from other festivals?

FC: To be honest, I have not been to many photo festivals or shown my work at too many places. I don’t know what to compare it with, but I like the idea of Sensorium. That it’s combined with music or literature or the arts.
I think it is great that all these people will be together. And I think whoever thought of the idea of combining music or the arts with photography is a genius. That’s a great way of pulling in whole groups of other worlds – it is just exponentially opening up to all kinds of other things. This gives me a context too about why I would be there. This gives a much broader sense to the whole idea of taking pictures. You are not just looking at photography but also looking at how it interacts with other aspects.