An art and documentary photographer known for his long-term projects and night photography, Arko Datto primarily focuses on region-specific cultural shifts that result from larger political conditions. His works cover a range of contemporary issues such as digital surveillance, displacement of populations and ecological destruction across South Asia and parts of Southeast Asia.
Datto initially studied theoretical science in Paris, France, completing a master’s in theoretical physics at Ecole Polytechnique in 2010 and a master’s in pure mathematics at Université de Paris VII in 2011. While in Paris, however, he developed an interest in photography to the point where he was inspired to change careers. He then pursued a course in photojournalism at the Danish School of Journalism, Aarhus, Denmark in 2013. Although his work spans many genres, a documentary approach coupled with social commentary has remained central to it.
For his series PIK-NIK (2015-18), Datto photographed the picnicking culture of eastern India, specifically Odisha, Jharkhand and his own home state of West Bengal. For five winters, starting from 2013, he photographed families from urbanized areas who came to riverside spots each winter with food, alcohol and large sound systems to indulge in various forms of recreation and revelry outside the confines of their homes. He published these photographs as his first book in 2018, in collaboration with writer Kushanava Choudhury. In 2020, he received a grant from the IDFA Bertha Fund to extend the series with a film.
With the exception of PIK-NIK, Datto has compiled and framed his series as trilogies, often with multiple overlapping projects. Cyber Walks, a 2013 project on surveillance, was subdivided into the chapters Cybersex, Crossing and CaptiveCams. The series offered a new dimension to the idea of a surveillance state in which constantly being recorded becomes a lifestyle, or even a professional task. Through his 2015–2018 project Shunyo Raja, he documented the steadily dwindling mangrove forests and rising water levels of the Sundarbans delta, highlighting the precarious lives of the communities who depend on the region for their livelihood. The project is also split into three chapters: Kings of a Bereft Land (a translation of the project’s Bengali title), Where Do We Go When the Final Wave Hits, and Terra Mutata. The second chapter, shot mostly at night, was shortlisted for the Greenpeace Photo Award in 2018.
From 2014 onwards, Datto has continued to experiment with flash photography taken at night. His ongoing trilogy uses heavily saturated colours, most prominently blue and fluorescent yellow and pink, while muting out most other shades. The resulting effect resembles the interior of a neon-lit nightclub, regardless of the subject matter. The first chapter — Will My Mannequin Be Home When I Return? — was published as a book in December 2020, and focuses on cultural and political gatherings at night in Kolkata. The second, titled What News of the Snake That Lost Its Heart In The Fire and set in Malaysia and Indonesia, documents the displacement of local urban populations by luxury condominiums and other real estate projects. The third chapter, based in/on Bangladesh, is yet to be produced.
Datto has won multiple awards over the course of his career, most notably the Sony World Photography Award in 2014 and the Prix Voies Off award in 2017. Much of his work has been funded/conducted through grants he was awarded, such as the Gomma Grant in 2016, a grant from the Rainforest Journalism Fund under the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting in 2018, and the Prince Claus Fund’s Cultural and Artistic Responses to Environmental Change grant in 2019. Notable exhibitions of his work include Mannequin at Imago Lisboa, Lisbon, Portugal, PIK-NIK at Galleri Image, Aarhus, Denmark and Crossings at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale, Australia. He has participated in the Obscura Photography Festival, Malaysia variously as curator or artist since 2013, and is part of the curatorial team for the 2021 installment of the Chennai Photo Biennale.
As of writing, Datto lives and works in Kolkata.
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