JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Éditions Bessard (here). Hardcover (with burlap outer fabric), 152 pages, with 126 black and white and color photographs. There are no essays or texts. In a first edition of 500. (Spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Earlier this summer I wrote an essay (here) about the urgent need to rediscover ferocity in contemporary photography, so when I came across Tiane Doan na Champassak’s excellent new photobook, I had a feeling of eerie synchronicity – this was exactly the kind of unsettling, feral work that was an impassioned answer the questions I had been raising. His sweaty portrait of Kolkata street life was in equal measures repulsive and entrancing, full of chaotic extremes and ugly realities, and I was hooked almost immediately.
Unlike Fazal Sheikh’s quietly tranquil and elegant views of the nighttime streets of Varanasi, Doan na Champassak’s pictures erupt with frenzied, uncontrolled energy, their flash lit intrusions pushing into the claustrophobia of the darkness. What he finds in the corners and backrooms is a litany of unsightly horrors and everyday tragedies: stray dogs, muddy streets, overworked porters, decaying buildings, ominous flocks of birds, naked prostitutes, and piles of bloody carcasses (with seething teeth and organs). Countless homeless men, draped in dirty tattered rags, sleep on the bare ground, nursing festering injuries or peering out from the enveloping blackness. A flower seller takes a hit from a syringe, a bearded guru drones on from the TV, and a dead rat lies on the sidewalk, its head roughly torn from its body. Old cars, old TVs, old telephones, and old men give the place a timeless, stuck in the past feel, as if the modern world has yet to intrude into this corner of shadowy, unruly wildness. The photographs capture a visceral sense of creeping, crawling dirt, and poverty, and cacophonous noise, a tugging, beseeching overload of stimuli.
Doan na Champassak’s book is particularly effective because he has carefully mixed his processes, and then meticulously sequenced the images into dichotomies and contrasts. His color photographs often turn on the intrusion of a bright color into an otherwise dark and grubby palette – a pink monkey’s face, a red piece of cloth, or a yellow car door seems to leap out from the shadows; another set of color images have been washed out to a misty green like faded memories of an earlier age. His black and white works run the gamut from high contrast blasts, to black bordered artifacts, to blurred stolen moments that could have come from decades ago or just yesterday, each one punctuated by a gesture, a look, or an incongruous truth. The works are then paired and ordered with an eye for inversion and unrest – the shiny black shirt of a rich man set with the shiny black plastic bag of a homeless man, a shirtless mustached man with his doppelganger in the form of a torn poster, a man sleeping on an overpass set near the black silhouette of a bird against a white sky, like a vulture circling a corpse. His Kolkata is always in simmering conflict, its raw beauty never quite gaining the upper hand against the heavy weight of its ugliness.
If all of these images were seen with unwavering precision and perfection, there’s a good chance we would find a sense of sensationalism or exploitation in this project. But I think Doan na Champassak’s conscious artistic imperfections turn these images into something more personal and expressionistic. Skewed camera angles, slashing blurs, ephemeral fogs, the deliberate collapsing of past and present, each one twists his collective portrait into something more open ended and uncomfortable. His approach isn’t a linear narrative so much as a disorienting stream of consciousness – we bounce from shock to shock, never quite ready for the next set of searching eyes or the next slab of meat. His parade of brash photographs is likely someone’s version of a tour of hell, with phantoms lurking at each turn of the page.
What I like best about Doan na Champassak’s book is that is emotionally exhausting. It takes us on a roller coaster ride of sadness and disgust, pity and empathy, sensuality and fear, wonder and aversion, rolling them up into a stew of feelings that are constantly being pulled in contradictory directions. His portrait of Kolkata is the welcome opposite of the deadpan and the conceptually clever, pulling us down into the gutter to experience the thrashing, throbbing life of the city first hand.
Collector’s POV: Tiane Doan na Champassak is represented by Polka Galerie in Paris (here), Kahmann Gallery in Amsterdam (here), and East Wing in Dubai (here). His work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.