by Steve Bisson

© Kalpesh Lathigra from the series 'Lost in the Wilderness' 

You were born in London. Tell us about the neighborhood in which you grew up and how you've seen it change over time.

Kalpesh Lathigra (KL): I was born on 19th July 1971 in Forest Gate, which is in east London , a mile from Stratford where the 2012 Olympics took place. Its an interesting place, one of constant transitional change. I grew up in a mixed community of African, Caribbean, Indians (mostly from east Africa), English, Pakistani. Its always been a tough blue collar area, we had of course racism growing up and ended up in fights but it made us stronger, I guess being from Forest Gate was a funny badge of honour in many ways. Today it is probably the most diverse part of London, with so many different communities from all over the World. As London as become more expensive to live in, people look to the next hip area, and now Forest Gate is in that loop. We now have a few coffee shops and a pizza place, house prices for either buying or renting are rising fast. Its a difficult situation, on the one hand of course its great that there are new things happening in an area thats been ignored for so long, but I fear for the future in terms of what will be left of the community.

You have been a photographer for quite a while now. What are your earliest memories of your career. What were your studies and how they have influenced your search?

KL: I always have the joke that I am an emerging photographer! My earliest memories of career are that I used to experiment in an evening class at Central St Martins art college, I didn’t carry any pretences or knowledge of the history of photography all I did know was that loved to make photographs. After that I went to a small local college for 1 year and then straight on to the London College of Printing to study a postgraduate diploma in Photojournalism. I was completely engrossed in Photojournalism up to the point that I became very narrow-minded in my views, I knew nothing of contemporary or fine art , I photographed mainly in black and white then, it was only after 2004 that I discovered the American Colour Photographers and other types of work.

© Kalpesh Lathigra from the series 'Lost in the Wilderness' 

Is there any contemporary artist, photographer or writer, even if young and emerging who influenced you in some way?

KL: Daniel Shea has made think about the way I make photographs and why. There are many other photographers that I love too many to name.! In terms of a writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s books have been a joy to read and she touches on the immigrant experience beautifully.

How in your opinion new digital developments and the Internet affect the medium of photography and your practice in general?

KL: Digital developments, the internet etc in one way we have never been exposed to so much photography as we are now and its great in that you meet and see new work, there are new opportunities yet at the same time I find it uncomfortable, it can seem like a relentless spiral of constantly updating your feed etc etc…….I ask myself if its a rose tinted view of life ….” look at me….look at this work….I don’t know to be honest how much longer I will continue to use the tools of social media……but thats just me I am struggling with it. But one cannot deny the massive impact of the digital revolution.

Let's talk about your 'Anglo-African War' series. Your work somehow distances from the traditional standard of war photographers. Not just a mirror of reality. In a highly risky environment you managed to create pauses in which the viewer feels unexpected silences. Time seems dilated in these images. And these young soldiers are reflected in all their fragility.

KL: I am not interested in making "traditional" photographs of war, I respect the news photographers who make this type of work and it fufils a specific purpose. But its not for me, even though I came from that tradition before. The photographs I took were about distance, the space between the two sides. How time seems to stop in the theatre of war… that sounds strange but thats how it felt to me, the soldiers are young men and I wanted to convey that to the viewer, I think we as men all know our own fragility, I wanted to explore that in a space that was unique and in many ways allows the fragile to expressed.

© Kalpesh Lathigra from the series 'An Anglo-Afghan War'

Some of your works are moving in the folds of history. They show us stories hidden, invisible, sometimes unwanted stories. As the series 'A Return to Elsewhere'. At a time when the debate on photography appear to coincide in its market implications and potentials, your stories seem to recall instead the significant role of photography. A way to give more space to humanity, in its spaces and lesser-known expressions. 

KL: I am a photographer / artist with a subjective point of view, I want to give space to lesser known expressions, the hidden, invisible because that is where I am from, my experiences shape me. Photography is a subjective medium, it is edited, it is the artist’s authorship. I am drawn to those hidden stories, sometimes I think it is too easy to go make work that is "expected" for me it is better to think long about my practice and how to conceive the work in these projects I work on. The Return to Elsewhere project was in South Africa working in collaboration with Thabiso Sekgala and Brighton Photo Biennale. I wanted to make work about the Indian immigrant community as it seemed to not be shown by many of South Africa's contemporary photographers. I wanted to question why? After all the Indian community has been there for over 200 years. Those folds of history are important. Otherwise we forget don't exist.

© Kalpesh Lathigra from the series 'A Return to Elsewhere'

Recently you has been invited to exhibit in Italy, at the Bitume PhotoFest, the project 'Lost in the Wilderness'. What do you think of the outdoor installation as a form of interaction with the city and its inhabitants? And what are your general impressions of this festival?

KL: The reason I agreed to the Bitume Photofest was specifically because their concept of an outdoor installation as a form of interaction with the city and its inhabitants. I am a firm believer in the power of the Arts and Culture in all their forms to be accessible to the public. Often we hear the arguments about the public not understanding the arts or being a waste of resources but these festivals bridge the gap allow for dialogue, learning and storytelling across the world. I loved Bitume Festival, the juxtaposition of the installations in a baroque environment was special, the team were fantastic. I felt that it added a much needed photography aspect to the Puglia region.

© Installation views 'Lost in the Wilderness' at Bitume Photofest

Speaking of the same project, we know that you have been stimulated by the book 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' by Dee Brown. How did you manage to put yourself in this native community? What kind of difficulties have you encountered? What were your choices, the criteria in telling this story?

KL: Yes the initial foundations of this project was 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee'. I made a series of visits to Pine Ridge, these visits allowed for a dialogue with the Oglala Sioux community where I could explain my thoughts on visual representation. I wanted to stay away from stereotypes and clichés.My idea was to use research and metaphors for the photographs. I didn’t have any real difficulties, I think there was an understanding relating to our shared backgrounds in respect of people who have been colonized and the subsequent weight we carry in regards to racism and discrimination we face. In terms of criterian of telling the story it was important for me not to be a photojournalist and carry some kind of hope that my photographs were / are going to change the world. As I have said metaphors were important in the process, for example the dead buffalo on the land, the house with the stars and stripes, a room with formica furniture and a ceromonial staff. These photographs are loaded and relate to the experiences both my own and theirs.

© Kalpesh Lathigra from the series 'Lost in the Wilderness' 

We understand the difficulty of illustrating a story of a native communities without falling into cliches of nostalgia or the grotesque. How did you find the right distance? 

KL: The right distance comes from personal experience of growing up with issues of race, nationality and identity. These are shared with people who have experienced the same. It is difficult to explain but it sits in ones very being. Those experiences denote the way I see and take a photograph.

Furthermore Kalpesh, I'm curious with respect to the political events which have affected the North Dakota and the protest movement for the construction of the pipeline. Your work seems almost prophetic, isn't it? How did you react to that situation?

KL: I wouldn’t say prophetic but the continued modus operandi when it comes to decisions regarding Indigenious communities and their human and civil rights, their claims to the land and treaty violations. My reaction to the situation is to raise awareness to the construction of the pipeline and the rights of the Native communities. I did this by using social media, of course it would have been great to have made photographs but it was not possible for me.

'Lost in Wilderness' is also a self published book since 2015. What prompted you to make this experience? And what lessons did you learned?

KL: I self published because I spoke to some other photographers like George Georgiou, Will Steacy who had done the same and it seemed the best way to go, I did have in my mind a couple of publishers I would have love to work with but in the end I just felt the self published model would work for me. The lessons I learned well that it’s a thing that shouldn’t be rushed, the design is crucial, working with the right printers, costing, print runs but most of all that the book is for you to present the work in its best possible way how you invisage the project. Not to compromise on your vision.

Images of the book 'Lost in the Wilderness' by Kalpesh Lathigra

Finally I know you have in Turkey to document the Syrian refugees crise. At what point you are with this research and what are your plans for the next future?

KL: I just came back from Turkey after photographing the Syrian Refugee community, I am in the midst of preparing the production of the work and the juxtaposition of the images I have taken. It’s a complicated project in many ways because it deals with a multitude of factors from Identity, Visual representation, Technology and Data yet at the same time the images are simple in their nature. My plans for the future are that I will continue the refugee project which may encompass a wider remit looking at different refugee community.


Kalpesh Lathigra 
urbanautica United Kingdom