A Sri Lankan-French lens-based artist who has worked extensively in India since 2013, Vasantha Yogananthan is known for his analogue photography and an aesthetic approach inspired by traditional genres of painting and the muted palette of natural lighting. Characterising his works are a pronounced inclination towards narrative structure, influenced by literature and cinema, in an zone of practice that resides between the film and documentary. This stylistic preference is also reflected in his choice of the large- and medium-format cameras, which better lend themselves to his slow and meditative process of image making. Piémanson (2009–2014) and ongoing series A Myth of Two Souls (2013–) are long-term projects that arose from his childhood experiences and preoccupations and grew from his evolving engagement with them.
The self-taught photographer, Yogananthan began his first major photographic project in 2009 in Piémanson, the only uncommercialised beach in France. The beach as his first serious photographic subject was a tribute to his recurring childhood motifs of summers and the sea. Every summer for five years, Yogananthan photographed local families who visited and camped at the beach, producing a series of photographs that dwelt on the way childhood memories are shaped by the season of summer. In 2014 the project culminated in the book Piémanson published by the Marseille-based agency Chose Commune, which he co-founded in the same year with Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi.
Yogananthan began to work on the series A Myth of Two Souls, in 2013, from which six books — or “chapters” — were published between 2016 and 2020. The series is based on one of the founding epics of Hindu mythology the Ramayana, which Yogananthan grew up listening to from his parents and reading in Amar Chitra Katha comics. The interest kindled by the epic and its cast of extraordinary characters persisted into his adulthood, piqued by the many retellings and interpretations he later encountered. Beginning in 2013, he visited Nepal, India and Sri Lanka thirteen times, during which he attempted to retrace the route taken by the epic’s protagonists from North India all the way to Lanka. For his contemporary take on the epic, he photographed scenes and landscapes at several of the locations mentioned in the Ramayana, including Ayodhya, Hampi and Ram Setu or Adam’s Bridge in India and others in Sri Lanka. The photographs in each of the books (or chapters) are carefully composed scenes of ordinary people and everyday life that function as subtle references to key episodes and junctures in the Ramayana.
He uses a combination of text and photograph to elicit a sense of cultural identification and to demonstrate the pervasiveness of myth even in the experience of reality. In his compositions, such as a man stringing his bow captioned “Ram practising archery” or an image of an embracing couple is captione Sita remembering Ram, he blurs the boundary between reality and fiction. He also uses visual and aesthetic devices such as foggy backdrops and large-format black-and-white photographs, which were retouched in the nineteenth-century tradition of hand-tinting by artist Jaykumar Shankar, to give his images a surreal quality. The enigmatic text in the first three chapters — Early Life, The Promise and Exile — was composed by Sanskrit epic scholar and translator Arshia Sattar and writer Anjali Raghbeer. In Dandaka, the fourth chapter, Yogananthan adds excerpts from the Ramayana comic series to his photographs as a narrative device. In Howling Winds, he mainly uses images of animals, and paints over some of them himself, such that they acquire a fantastical quality. Afterlife, the digital chapter that deals with death and reincarnation, is a collage of still images overlaid on video that are meant to disorient the viewer — an attempt to mimic trance-inducing rituals of Dussehra. The final chapter Amma is slated for publication in 2021.
Yogananthan has received multiple awards for his work over the past decade. He used the prize money from IdeasTap/Magnum Photos Award in 2015 to fund A Myth of Two Souls. Other awards include Prix Levallois (2016), the ICP Infinity Award for Emerging Photographer of the Year (2017), the Prix Camera Clara (2018), the Rencontres d’Arles Photo-Text Book Award (2019). He is represented by Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai, Espace JB, Geneva, and The Photographers’ Gallery Print Sales, London, and his books can be found in the permanent collections of MoMA, New York.
As of writing, the artist lives and works in Paris, France.
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