by Laura Hutson
Photographer Christine Rogers keeps a blog to document her nine-month tour of India. She updates it often, but the background wallpaper is always the same: On the left, Julie Andrews is dwarfed against the Swiss Alps in a classic scene from The Sound of Music, and on the right, a Bollywood actress dances in front of a similar landscape. The two iconic images create an endless reel of reference for Rogers' project — she's documenting the many villages that call themselves "The Switzerland of India," and exploring the ways the Indian tourist industry has defined its landscapes through other landscapes.
Rogers, a native Nashvillian, Fulbright scholar and former Country Life artist, tells it much more succinctly. I caught up with her recently in a series of emails, and she told me about what she's learning and what her plans are for the project when she returns.
Tell me about your project.
For my research project I will visit the northern hill stations of India: from Darjeeling to Dalhousie and others in between, all of which lay claim to the landscape of “the Switzerland of India.” As a photographer and video artist, I am interested in the cultural and pictorial significance of visiting one place for the vista while imagining another far away landscape. What has happened in this particular region of India is fascinating because through tourism, marketing, and, in particular, Bollywood filmmaking, another landscape (the Swiss Alps) has been imagined throughout the northern Indian landscape. In its place an imitation of an imitation has been constructed. I will be photographing the cultural confluence of this region at the dawn of the Indian middle class tourist industry.
You've made zines before, but this is your first time blogging. Any similarities? Does it seem like you have more creative freedom when you're working with the Internet — clearer images, more immediate gratification, less mess — or do you prefer the lo-fi urgency that zines communicate?
I really like blogging, even though I had reservations about it at first. It's nice to be able to share the work that I'm doing here with family, friends, professional colleagues, hotel owners, taxi drivers, people I meet along my way and then anonymous Internet strangers who stumble across my blog for whatever reason. I guess a lot of photographers get nervous about putting their images on the Web, but in all honesty I am more excited to share what I'm doing and maybe even have what I'm working on be a little more bare than I used to. I used to keep things hidden away until they were "ready," and for the first time I'm showing all work in progress in real time. I am sure the final edits of my work here and the way it exists as a "finished product" will be very different, but it's new and exciting to have it all be so out in the open. I try and challenge myself to edit and just put a few photos for each post and choose my words carefully. I love zines but I actually think they're a very different thing. To me they seem a lot more precious, obscure and rare. Because of this I think they have a different function in the world.
What kind of camera do you use?
I am using a Canon 5dmarkii — a digital SLR. It's my first time using a digital camera. I normally use a Pentax 67, but for the sake of being able to make videos and also not lug around/figure out how to process film, i decided to use a digital camera. I miss film in some ways, but it's really nice to be able to reflect on what I've done as I'm doing it, so i can make changes as needed.
Do you have plans for the series once you return to Nashville?
I hope to show it! I will have a show in Bangalore later in the year and plan on making a book as well. I haven't found a venue because right now I am just focused and relishing in the joy of making things. But I am excited enough about my work here that I will want to share it in Nashville and beyond upon the completion of my Fulbright.
Describe a typical day in India.
I photograph during the daylight hours. Usually from 10 or 11 until 6 p.m. Sometimes if it's a longer day which will involve driving a long distance to the top of a mountain or a longer hike this will start at 5 or 6 a.m. and finish at 10 p.m. In the evening I watch TV, read and look at the pictures I took that day and try and edit two or three of them, post on my blog, catch up on emails, plan the next day, exercise and then try to go to sleep at a decent hour. At night there are wild animals out like leopards, monkeys, etc., that are really dangerous, which really limits any kind of a nightlife. I try to be in by 8 p.m. at the latest.
Do you scout locations? What's that process like?
I do a number of things. I've asked locals where they'd go after telling them what I'm doing. I do research on the Internet. I'll talk to taxi drivers, strangers on the street, people affiliated with the Fulbright. I follow things I've read in books. It just depends. I will normally just show up and work all day, and occasionally if a place is feels like there is a lot of potential I will return a few times. I spend about 2-3 weeks in each hill station.
What's the strangest thing you've seen?
I've said this to many friends, and I've thought it to myself on a daily basis: In many ways I have no reference point for anything here. Everything seems upside-down and inside-out in India, which, creatively and personally, is extremely liberating and thrilling to me daily. So it would be hard to say. Every day I see things that I thought I'd never see: monkeys on motorcycles, camels walking down a busy street, temporary villages, bodies being cremated in valleys and by rivers, miles and miles of neon lights, amazingly bright stars, palm trees growing on a snowy mountainside, streets filled with shops that sell just electronics ... the list goes on. The little things. I'm getting more and more used to some things, and still every day brings another new thing that is totally new and different.
How have your images evolved since you've acclimated to India? Does your identity as a tourist affect your perspective as a photographer?
I think I'm noticing different things now that I've been here longer, but I am also moving around a lot and every place I go to feels very different from the last, so I stay on my toes. I am sort of occupying a double role here: I am here as an artist, a researcher and a photographer ... who is studying tourism, the tourism of landscapes and the function of landscapes in India, so I am also participating as a tourist. In many of the places I go there are professional photographers who take photos of tourists in front of the landscapes. We talk to each other about cameras, about our photographs, we share photos. The other tourists and I also talk about photographs, the landscape, where I am from, where they are from, etc. It's a big wash. I like trying to understand it from all angles.
Any misunderstandings that you've come across while you've been there? Any misconceptions that you had about the culture or landscape that you've had to reexamine?
I have learned that India is tons of countries in one. The landscape serves a million different functions, and I could probably spend years here and feel like I'm only scratching the surface. I am listening and looking and trying to learn as much as I can while I'm here.