Things Tip Over: Dhruv Malhotra’s ‘Sleepers’

In Issue #19 of OjodePez, and on Dhruv Malhotra’s website, his series ‘Sleepers’ is presented as a documentation of night time in Noida, the artist’s hometown in India which is ‘Full of people to the brink as it is’.  Malhotra continues, ‘things tip over.’  Throughout the last three years when the photographer has been unable to sleep, he has been photographing people who can, where they can, and this process has resulted in a bewitching piece of work which speaks of the landscape his subjects sleep in and on, in equal measure to its expression of his people.

I have been captivated by this work because of the various perspectives of solitude that it speaks of.  The first is that of Malhotra’s subjects who are presumably oblivious to their inclusion in his artwork.  Such obliviousness seems to act as a metaphor for the political and social state of the city, reinforced by the ongoing nature of this project and therefore an abundance of subjects.  We see a stark contrast here between the isolation of Malhotra’s subjects and the idea of the population of the city spilling over, and from this an interesting element of dichotomy within the work begins to emerge.

These concepts of dichotomy and solitude can be perceived when we consider the solitariness of the photographer himself.  In an image made at sunrise we see the shadow of Malhotra’s tripod, which stands tall with an unavoidable yet allegorical presence; a shadow that the darkness could never reveal.  It seems to be an imprint of himself, demonstrating that he is singularly conscious of a scene of which his subject is not.

I am interested in the idea that a photographer’s inability to do something, in this case sleep, can result in a piece of work which might otherwise not have been produced had the photographer found such inability a possibility.  (The opposite of this should also be considered of course, when contemplating the work that might have been produced if such inability never existed at all.)  This idea of obliviousness arises again, this time on my part as the viewer whereby I probably wouldn’t ever have perceived these scenes, particularly as they are presented by Malhotra, not only if his sleeping pattern was more conventional but also because I would have been asleep.

When considering this, my thoughts turned to Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s work entitled ‘The Day Nobody Died’.   In discussing the current situation in relation to war photography the photojournalist Michael Kamber has stated,

We can’t photograph wounded soldiers without their consent.  We can’t photograph dead soldiers…So pretty much everything that gives evidence that there’s a war going on is almost impossible to photograph.

It is in instances such as this in which the work referred to by Broomberg and Chanarin becomes interesting. When travelling with the British Army in Afghanistan the duo exposed photographic paper to the sun for twenty second intervals over a period of six days, producing five separate photographic documents.  Although the intention of the work was to ‘reject any semblance of conventional war photography’ Broomberg states that ‘We were as close as we could be to the event’, implying that the work was produced partially through restriction and inability.

I was also compelled to think about the work of Anna Brooks and Samantha Harvey in their series ‘Class Portraits’.  Here the artists have questioned our social and ethical perspectives in relation to photographing school children through reducing the ability to identify each child by turning their faces away from the camera, the only face we see being the teacher’s.    We see an intentional assertion or commentary, relating to a similar inability to that experienced by Broomberg and Chanarin, being made on a subject that is increasingly appearing in modern photographic discourse.

Although I recognise that in one instance I am discussing a physical inability and in the other two I am discussing an inability experienced through an inflicted exertion of power and censorship, I think my interest here stems from the broader concept of omission in photographic practice, not necessarily concerning what one won’t do, but what one can’t do. Despite this we see work of a perhaps more unconventional nature materialising through inability or restriction, and moreover, Malhotra’s work feels like a particularly organic derivative of this concept.

The final element of solitude that I’m interested in is that of the landscape, a feature of these images that has been cleverly handled and represented by the photographer. In an interview with Dan Holdsworth, Charlotte Cotton discusses the ‘layers of time or history that are embedded in a place’ particularly in relation to photographs made in dark conditions which inherently require a long exposure time.

Through Cotton’s quote I’d often thought that transience and permanence were significant facets of Holdsworth’s work through the history of the landscapes, and the ways in which we develop and move through them.  When applying these concepts to Malhotra’s photographs, however, I feel like it is sleep that is the predominant transient feature, transporting the individual from one period of time to the next through a separate period of time.  It’s interesting how night photography always seems to emphasise these points where it needs to; the colours in Holdsworth’s images make them look futuristic and highlight our disregard for our planet, whereas the same colours in Malhotra’s images imply a dreamlike and surreal tranquillity associated with sleep.

I was always fascinated by Cotton’s assertion when thinking about Holdsworth’s images, but have thought about it differently in relation to ‘Sleepers’.  This is because in many of Holdsworth’s pictures we view movement, and scenes alive at night through, for example, the traces of aeroplanes or cars that imply human and mechanic presence.  Although Malhotra’s exposure times are presumably far shorter than Holdsworth’s, we see the opposite end of the spectrum, nothing but a kind of tranquillity and calmness, and barely any movement in sight. Where Holdsworth’s images bring up ideas to me about man’s imprint on the land, Malhotra’s make me think about man’s vulnerability in the face of nature.  In the majority of the pictures in ‘Sleepers’, for example, the subjects are not always instantly noticeable and the land seems to envelope its people.

This is a sensitive and compelling growing body of work, which highlights an element of photographic practice that is rooted as much in inability as it is in ability. Malhotra has essentially and successfully visualised a social and political problem which, given its nocturnal and solitary nature, seems to have itself given the government and society a license to close their eyes and sleep peacefully through that which we have now been woken up to.