whitechapel_280Trying to fit 150 years of photography from Bangladesh, Pakistan AND India into one exhibition is ambitious, to say the least. Where Three Dreams Cross, now on at the Whitechapel Gallery, attempts to do just that, cramming in the work of 82 practitioners from 1860 to the present day, and meets with mixed success. Instead of opting for the tried and tested chronological approach or even dividing it up by region, the work is separated into five themes: The Performance, The Portrait, The Family, The Body Politic and The Street. While an enticing choice of categories that could have produced some exciting results, from the onset it is evident that the curators are setting themselves up for criticism with such overlapping, arbitrary divisions.

Where Three Dreams Cross bills itself as a historical survey of culture and modernity through the eyes of photographers from the Indian subcontinent – photographers who were able to reclaim the power to photograph from their colonisers. While making the overt criteria to only include photographers from these regions, the curators (Sunil Gupta, Shahidul Alam, Hammad Nasar, Radhika Singh and Anthony Spira and Kirsty Ogg from Whitechapel Gallery) leave out much further reference to the vital link between photography used by colonisers and how this has shaped contemporary practice. A body of work, such as the People of India (recently featured in 8 Magazine – an almost scientific catalogue of various tribes and types of people in India) could have been a valid inclusion, for example, in demonstrating the problematic roots of photography in India.

The rich history of photographic portrait studios in India, with their elaborate backdrops and costumes, is a subject that deserved more presence in the exhibition. Granted, this could take up a whole show in itself (or possibly its own section). But perhaps more of an emphasis on the role studio photography has played through the years in shaping modern Indian photographic practice would have been a useful inclusion. Instead, The Portrait section becomes a quite general, unfocused collection of work.

What appeared to be the most popular work, evident through the gathering of the Saturday afternoon crowds, and included in both The Portrait and The Family sections of the show, are the intricate hand-painted portraits of the late 19th century, portraits of families and courtesans. Again, these have a particular history in Indian photography and are beautiful objects in themselves, ornately framed with their vibrant, unusual colourings. Yet mixed in among the less contextualised, and sometimes uninspired, work from the past 20 or so years (a series on “lady boys” comes to mind), their importance is diminished.

Munem Wasif, Illegal Immigrants from Myanmar 2007

The work constituting The Body Politic section was for me the most poignant, and the only section that even began to touch upon the political, and even then seemingly ignoring the influence, or even existence, of British colonialism. Here we see work by Pablo Bartholomew from the 1970s, an arresting story of heroin addiction; the inspiration it has had on subsequent work on addiction glaringly obvious. Munem Wasif’s work on the affects of global warming in Bangladesh was a necessary and welcome addition, and served as an excellent contemporary example of a dedicated Bangaldeshi photojournalist working today. It is really only through the work of Shahidul Alam (one of the exhibition’s curators and founder of Drik photo agency, which he set up for photographers from developing nations to gain an equal chance to represent their own country) that contextualisation is given priority. Here we have one of the only instances of captioning (albeit placed awkwardly within the frame) and a piece of writing to complement the work: a letter Alam sent to the prime minister in the 1990s regarding government control of the media. The exhibition here alludes to the weightiness it could have achieved – these additional elements of information, presented as almost footnotes to the photography, are invaluable inclusions.

Pablo Bartholomew, Time is the Mercy of Eternity, 1974

It is also in The Body Politic section, and in The Street, that a few key photography books displayed in glass cases, such as by Raghubir Singh and Raghu Rai. Again, this seems an afterthought but one that, with more examples could have validated the work as being part of a movement, and an integral part of the history of photography, and in these cases photojournalism, from the Indian subcontinent.

Raghubir Singh, A Way Into India, published by Phaidon, 2002

Admittedly, I am most interested in photography that tells me something; that’s the bias I bring to this show. But it is only in The Body Politic section, that there is an attempt at sustaining a “story” through the selection of images, and in the way they are displayed and laid out in small groupings. The more conceptual contemporary work is lacking in this respect. The reason for the inclusion of these, apart from the fact that they have all been taken by an Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi photographer, is impossible to discern without the much needed and often neglected context.

However, there are some bodies of work that stand out and by the quality of photography itself, can hold its own with little information. Photographers such as Dayanita Singh, whose colour work from 2008, included towards the end of the exhibition, deserve all the space given to them here, if not more. In a way, sort of concluding what had been shown throughout the other sections, his work beautifully remarks on the ever present conflict between the traditional and the modern in India.

The redeeming quality of Where Three Dreams Cross is in its bringing the work of a group of photographers to the London photography scene that would otherwise be difficult to access, no matter how much London asserts itself as an international hub. In addition, the curators are well-respected practitioners from the countries represented – which would seem like a given, but is a “technicality” often overlooked in many such shows based on so-called “developing” regions. While it is all too easy to criticise such an ambitious exhibition I feel that the endeavour is a valid one and one of which London audiences have, on the whole, been deprived. Yet, perhaps a more politically salient take on curating would have communicated more about the history of photography and its undeniable and troubled relationship to colonialism and the post-colonial experience.

Lauren Heinz

Where Three Dreams Cross is on at the Whitechapel Gallery in London until 11 April 2010.

(first image above: Courtesan, c.1890, The Alkazi Collection of Photography)