Jennifer Pattison’s interest in magical worlds finds expression in the rich traditions of the Punjabi lori. Her fine art photographs, titled Rice Pudding Moon & The River of Dreams, are inspired by songs that sing of a mother’s love and of a land of dreams. The artist is interested in how lullabies are passed down the generations from grandmother to daughter to grandchild.
How did you begin to think about tackling the Reimagine commission?
Rice Pudding Moon & The River of dreams came from a personal place. When I was offered the commission my daughter was six months old. It was an inspiring time and I wanted to channel this energy into my work. It felt natural to focus my project around motherhood as that was what was and is going on for me at the time; I specifically chose to work with the theme of lullabies as getting babies to sleep is something, I hope, mothers, can identify with universally. I was also very keen to find a theme with existing stories that I could respond to.
Can you tell me about your process and do you have any rules that you follow?
Recently I’ve been exploring using fictional, often magical stories as a creative jumping off point and/or something to respond to. For Rice Pudding Moon & The River of Dreams I chose to work with loris – Punjabi lullabies. I spoke to professor Surjit Singh and Sandeep Kaur from the Punjabi University, Patiala who have been researching lori’s from the Malwa region of Punjab; they helped me to source traditional loris from the Punjab. I also looked at loris which featured in Bollywood films and often included references to the moon.
What I find interesting about working in this way is the freedom it gives me to be creative. I begin with a shot list and see where it takes me. Often first attempts at images end up feeling a bit obvious or the images don’t say what I wanted them to so I go back and if I think it’s worth it re-work an image. Luckily for this project I was able to make many trips so each time after shooting there was time for reflection and it became obvious what was missing in the story. I’m also interested in the photographs taking on the function of the source material, for Rice Pudding Moon & The River of Dreams I was working with lullabies so I wanted to create imagery, which conjured fleeting moments between wake and sleep. The mood I wanted the images to reflect was one of safety, warmth, intense love and dreams.
I make my work on film and the only rule I have is when taking a portrait I try to limit myself to three rolls per subject. The reason for this is partly down to the expensive nature of shooting analogue, however I have found this discipline helps me to carefully consider each frame.
On your trips to India did you have any preconceptions about what you might find and how did that compare to the actual trip?
My trip to the Punjab wasn’t my first time in India however I had not visited the Punjab before. I was quite apprehensive about the first trip. It was the first time I had been away from my daughter so I chose to go for short trips. Taking into consideration I wasn’t entirely sure what direction my project would take I felt nervous that I had a lot to achieve in very little time.
Fortunately I had a fantastic producer, (thank you Tania Sohal) who made everything feel accessible and easy.
We would head out every morning at dawn to catch the light; I had my shot list and would be watching out for anything, which seemed to fit. The sleepy city of Patiala offered up a gift each morning and something wonderful appeared. I was on the look out for dreamlike imagery. One morning on the way to my hotel, after a pretty fruitless dawn shoot. Slowly coming towards us on the road were two gardeners pulling a cart full of pink balloons. We stopped and spoke to the gardeners; the balloons were from a wedding the night before and the gardeners were taking them home for their children. I took a few frames and one of these images is in the project. Astonishingly magic moments like this kept appearing throughout the trip giving me confidence that I would find what I needed to make my idea work.
What was it that most appealed to you about this particular project?
The style of work I like to make suits longer-term projects so I was excited by a project of this scale. It was also a unique opportunity to make a piece of work about women as part of an all female exhibition. I enjoyed the challenge of coming up with a visually interesting concept linking two countries and two communities.
India is a special place for me and I have never tired of visiting. However I was keen to experience it as more than just a tourist and felt that this project would give me the opportunity to understand a little bit more about such a fascinating place. Similarly the project offered the chance to connect with people in a part of the U.K I wasn’t familiar with.
Do you have a favourite photograph that you’ve produced for this project and if so and why?
I really enjoy depicting characters from my imagination and look for texts or in this case loris that contain inspiration for me to this. For Rice Pudding Moon & The River of Dreams I made a portrait of the celestial Chanda Mama (the uncle in the moon) who features in the popular lori Chanda Mama Door Ke from the 1955 film Vachan, (this lori is more from hindi hinterland than traditionally Punjabi however it is widely recognised pan India) many women I spoke to in the Black Country knew it.
I am sure that you met lots of inspirational women – was there anyone whose stories stand out that you can share?
I spoke to many wise inspiring women in Patiala, Punjab and the Black Country. What struck me most was how open and generous all the women were, even those who were vulnerable. I’m extremely grateful to those women who welcomed me into their homes with their children and gave me permission to photograph. Without this generosity and honesty I couldn’t have made this work.
What was the most interesting, surprising or exciting thing you found out about your time in India?
Sweets and sweet treats are mentioned in the loris as rewards or bribes to encourage infants to go to sleep. I spent one evening photographing in a sweet shop called Jaggis Sweets in Patiala a giant shop first established in 1949 where they made ninety different traditional sweets from original recipes. That evening I met Gurmeet Jaggi, the owner of Jaggis a wonderful man, a bit like a Punjabi Willy Wonker. He gave me a tour and told me everything I needed to know about the history of all the sweets and he gave me free reign to photograph whatever I liked. I had no idea the extent and variety of sweets that existed in the Punjab. It was a fun night fuelled with chocolate cake and coffee!
How would you describe your photographic style?
Unselfconscious and intimate with the power to transcend reality
When did you first discover your creative talents?
I think I always enjoyed performance, I remember as a child making up stories which we would act out in front of the curtains in our neighbours sitting room. Photography feels similar except I’m behind the camera directing the performance or observing it.
What inspires you to keep going and how do you keep yourself motivated?
When I take pictures and it’s working everything else seems to fall away and I find this inspiring. I keep notebooks filled with ideas. If I’m in need of motivation I flick through these or go and see an exhibition, which usually stirs things up.
Who and what are your main influences?
Usually my immediate surroundings and the people closest to me are my source of inspiration, and this is constantly in flux. Many artists influence me so I’ll just name two, and they happen to both be Bills, Bill Brandt and Bill Henson.
Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
I never feel alone taking pictures. The lonely bit can be the down time and too much time thinking and not doing can be destructive. I like being around people so I choose to be a lot of the time.
Jennifer Pattison is an award winning British photographer based in London. Her work has been exhibited at The National Portrait Gallery in London, UK and internationally. She is interested in otherworldly stories and creating characters from her imagination. Her portraits are arresting and full of unselfconscious expression.
GIRL GAZE: JOURNEYS THROUGH THE PUNJAB & THE BLACK COUNTRY, UK is a new photography project which launches this March in Chandigarh. About women, by women, the project explores the unique connection between women from the Punjab and the Black Country (Wolverhampton, Walsall and Sandwell).
The project, curated by Iona Ferguson, brings together newly-commissioned work by: Jocelyn Allen (UK), Jennifer Pattison (UK), Andrea Fernandes (India) and Uzma Mohsin (India) and is a collaboration with Creative Black Country, Multistory, Delhi Photo Festival and the Nazar Foundation. The project is funded by The British Council and Arts Council England.
Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi, Chandigarh, India , 10-18th March.
Apeejay College of Fine Arts, Jalandhar, 23rd-27th March.