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Expressive photographs of Cop Shiva are his tools for creating social awareness

On the occasion of World Photography Day, Cop Shiva discusses his adventure with the medium, possibilities it offers and aspiration for the future.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Aug 14, 2020

A photographer friend once shared with me a statement which he heard from his professor – “A photograph is never taken by the camera, it is made by the photographer”. This has stayed with me over the years and I get reminded of it when I see a well-framed image. Just as a painter chooses the surface, the colour and thickness of paint, tool to apply it, desired texture, and of course the eventual imagery, a photographer actively and intentionally chooses the angles and lighting, what to retain in the frame and what to exclude, and the exact moment to capture. This becomes of greater significance in candid images where nothing is predictable and there are too many moving parts. Shivaraju BS has chosen the genre of portraiture to depict various facets of human emotions. His stint with the state police department gave him his affectionate name of Cop Shiva, which became his artist avatar.

STIR speaks to him on the occasion of World Photography Day (August 19) about his journey and the acclaimed series titled, Being Gandhi.  

Being Gandhi 1 | Cop Shiva| World Photography Day | STIRworld
Being Gandhi 1 Image: Cop Shiva

Rahul Kumar (RK): Why did you choose portraiture as the genre to focus on?

Cop Shiva (CS): My own journey as a farmer, migrant, policeman and photographer, and how I had to negotiate all these different aspects of my life has allowed me to construct a personal narrative. And this has been crucial in the way I approach my artistic practice – with a focus on human nature. I am fascinated with the idea of masquerade; the roles people play in public and private. My practice happens mainly on the streets and my portfolio includes intimate portraits of urban migrants, people of alternative sexuality, street performers and others living in the hinterland of urban and rural conflict. I capture the diversity of humans who live on the edge and represent the spirit of our times.

Before It All Goes 3| Cop Shiva| World Photography Day | STIRworld
Before It All Goes 3 Image: Cop Shiva

RK: Photography as a form to ‘document’ can be manipulative – you can choose to include components in your frame and exclude others to form an inaccurate narrative. What are your views on this?

CS: There is a degree of subjectivity in any form of communication, which is higher in an artistic medium like photography where the result of your work is a curated image for which the recipient may lack the context to decipher. The intention of my work is to create a situation in public space for visual debate, to open a little door to draw notice into realities that many a times go unnoticed, to capture the ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, and his conflict or dialogue with the surroundings.

Before It All Goes 1| Cop Shiva | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Before It All Goes 1 Image: Cop Shiva

RK: How important is it for the viewer to have the cultural context of what is depicted in images?

CS: I believe that there are many layers to my work. Street as studio  depicts migrants in Bangalore sitting in front of the murals commissioned by the municipality to beautify the streets and retain its ‘green city’ label amidst the rapid urbanisation. In Ecstasy, I document the age-old surviving festivals in the old Pethes of Bangalore, that still reclaim their relevance despite the rampant socio-political changes in the city. These works have been created in a local context, but they echo universal values like memory, belonging, and migration. The images will resonate to a viewer at different levels depending on their own personal experiences, cultural context, and degree of familiarity with my work. I hope my photographs move something for the audiences that make them turn an eye to these common struggles in everyday life. I hope my work will change their perspectives about ‘the other’ in a better way.

Being Gandhi 4| Cop Shiva | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Being Gandhi 4 Image: Cop Shiva

RK:In your series titled Being Gandhi, you capture the act of a school teacher impersonating as (Mahatma) Gandhi. How does your work move beyond capturing this act to support his purpose to spread Gandhism?

CS: I believe, especially in current times, to occupy public space through performance in the age of media is parallel to taking a political stance. When a contemporary individual decides to occupy this ‘space’ in context of Gandhi, they are inspired by Gandhi and his successful public interventions like the Dandi March. To locate the self in public is to be vulnerable and to believe in the ethics of freedom with responsibility.

Basavraj's act too is one of remembering and honouring Gandhi. He believes that this act can, in a small way, make a difference in this fragile world ridden with conflict by spreading Gandhian ideals to the youth by the power of his visual impact. My aim is to act as an amplifier of Basavaraj, to magnify his reach and take his act to a wider audience.

Ecstasy 2| Cop Shiva | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Ecstasy 2 Image: Cop Shiva

RK: In your recent work, you are yourself imitating and dressing up like mythological figures. What is the intent of this? Please share from your experience of this performative project you conducted in Switzerland.

CS: I was invited by Pro-Helvetia Swiss Arts Council to work in Rote Fabrik art space in Zurich. During my stay I completed my work Blind Gold, a photo-performance in which I dress as the Lord of Wealth Kubera and base it on Da Ra Bendre’s famous poem title Blind Gold (Kurudu Kaanchana in Kannada). The poem talks of the blind cruelty of wealth and denounces the worship of money, in the context of British colonial rule and exploitations policy in India. We live in no better society now. If the poem explains of the then prevalent exploitation, it is relevant today as well, where the rich suck the blood of the poor and lead a lofty lifestyle.

Before It All Goes 2| Cop Shiva | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Before It All Goes 2 Image: Cop Shiva

RK: You have worked in the state police department. Were there areas of conflict or influence on your life as an artist?

CS: I was born in a village in the beautiful Ramnagaram district of Karnataka in a family dedicated to farming. I grew up in mango orchards, in this small idyllic town famous for the location where the movie Sholay was filmed. In the rural areas, where life is hard and unpredictable, the most sought-after job is government employment. My family suggested applying for one and I got selected for a police constable.

Being in touch with people, in any aspect of life, has made me more empathic to the everyday struggles of the common man. In my art practice I am interested in photographing the part of reality that goes unnoticed. My experience as a police constable gave me a vantage view point to witness many of the hardships of common man in rapidly developing metros such as Bangalore. All that experience has been of great help in order to approach subject matters for my photographic projects.

Ecstasy 4| Cop Shiva | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Ecstasy 4 Image: Cop Shiva

RK: In this time and day anyone with a smartphone is a photographer. What is the role and significance of this medium as an art form?

CS: Art in general is something created with imagination to express important ideas or feelings, and indeed photography is the most adequate medium I find for my creative expression. I understand the struggle to compare photography with painting or sculpting, and I see why people can be dismissive of photography as an art form when everyone is carrying a camera in their hands and can share an image immediately online.

Yet I believe, that given the circumstances, some photography is art. It requires not only technical skills but also an artistic ability to ‘create’ an image that sparks a reaction in viewers… equal to any other art form.

Being Gandhi 2| Cop Shiva | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Being Gandhi 2 Image: Cop Shiva

RK: In continuation, access to images through social media and websites is now at the click of a tab. What is the future of photographs as works of art being acquired (purchased), beyond museum collections?

CS: There is an increasing attention to photography by the art world. There are dedicated galleries, museums, art fairs, publishers and websites, which increase the visibility of photographers and offer context and insight on our practice to viewers.

Photography is actually one of the more accessible formats of work to add to an art collection. I refuse to believe in a world where you can only find IKEA designs at people’s homes, and my experience is that more and more people are interested in owning original artworks to bring some character and sophistication into their lives.

Cop Shiva| World Photography Day | STIRworld
Cop Shiva Image: Courtesy of Cop Shiva
Click here to read more on the celebration of World Photography Day.

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