Here is the second in our series on the artists in the upcoming New Roots exhibition, which opens on July 28.
To hear him tell it, Varun Baker owes his photographic talent to a genetic twist of fate that had him wearing glasses since the third grade. He claims that “the semi-blind learn to better appreciate what they see.” And he has seen plenty. The son of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, he was born in Brazil and since then has lived in Jamaica, the USA, Italy, Bermuda and Canada. He got his first camera at nine, a pink, plastic point and shoot. Since then, he has been using photography as a way to immerse himself in each new place, engaging the cultures and people that occupy them. His first group exhibition at the Bolivar Gallery in November 2011 was well received. Though he has submitted work to the JCDC Festival exhibition, this will be his first time showing a cohesive body of work at the National Gallery of Jamaica.
My work explores the relationship between multiculturalism and subcultures. With influences as diverse as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Albert Camus, new variations are generated from exploring both new and familiar cultures. Ever since I was a teenager I have been fascinated by humans’ fleeting permanence. Impressions of light and shadow allow moments and meaning to be captured in a photograph. In University, I jumped at the opportunity to learn the process of developing black and white film and making prints in a darkroom. Today I work with a digital SLR camera. The Jamaican society, in which I have spent most of my life, is vibrant and full of rich contrasts. I explore this with a strong use of color and by manipulating heavy or light tones in black and white photographs. When I travel outside of Jamaica, the camera allows me to become immersed in new cultures and perspectives. This has made travel an essential part of my creative process where a feedback loop allows for new connections to be made and provides an evolving vantage point. Recently, I have become more interested in conceptual work and political and social commentary. I seek to highlight these subjects within controlled environments as a way to show greater nuance.
As a largely self-trained photographer, Varun Baker’s work is surpringly conversant with the history of photography and the debates surrounding that medium. This body of work came out of an experience that Baker had while visiting Cuba in 2009. Wandering the streets of Havana, he met an old man whose image graces the cover of Lonely Planet‘s very popular guide to Cuba. The old man held a copy of the book bearing his face, and told the story of never receiving any compensation for the use of his image. The experience got Baker thinking about the relationship between photographer and subject, and the ethics of photography. This body of work, Journey, is the outcome of those ruminations. The photo-essay presented here was produced in collaboration with his current subject, Joshua Brown, and with the aim of getting more exposure and help for Joshua’s plight. Through a months long process of consultation with Joshua, Varun has created a compassionate portrait of an individual who many of us have probably passed on the streets without truly seeing or acknowledging as a member of our community.
The work recalls Cornell Capa’s ”Concerned Photographer” concept. And when one considers the fact that Capa’s ”Concerned Photographer” approach and the 1964 exhibition of the same name led to the establishment of New York’s prestigious International Center of Photography, the importance of this kind of work to photography’s development as a field becomes clear. It is my hope that an engagement with this work will not only challenge our perceptions about ourselves as compassionate, engaged citizens, but also our perceptions of what fine art photography is and what is (or is not) appropriate for display in an art gallery.
For more about Varun Baker’s work, please see: <http://varunbaker.com/> and view