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The ins and outs of self-publishing with Kaamna Patel

Interview by Hunny Awatramani

Her work has been exhibited as part of both solo and group shows at galleries like Project 88 in Mumbai, as well as at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa. Through her practice, Kaamna explores semiotics and the periphery of photographic representation. Multilingual in her approach and working across techniques, she mediates the connection between process and narrative, often communicating through print and self-published photobooks. In her publishing practice, she talks about how even though it’s self-publishing, making a good book takes a village. “It’s a lot of fun and also comes with a lot of Admin. The distribution is probably harder than the actual making.”

Kaamna launched her publishing imprint Editions JOJO in 2019 and it has since evolved into a platform for contemporary visual culture in India. JOJO is now present worldwide and has expanded its activities into a photobook library and other peripheral activities related to contemporary lens-based practices.

“Even though it’s self-publishing, making a good book takes a village.” 

Kaamna’s work requires her to juggle between the computer and physical prints, testing out forms and making dummies before taking them to print. In the interview, she mentions how the process of going from idea to finished book can vary significantly in terms of time where Dori took 5 years, In Today’s News took 5 months, and Cake Cutting took a few weeks. She adds “It starts with an idea or noticing a pattern in the way I’m making or looking at images and then build from there.”

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“I think the first photograph I remember consciously making was on a family holiday to Ramoji Film City where I ‘wasted film’ on photographing the space and architecture just because I found it 'beautiful’ Says Kaamna.

Kaamna is currently working on a YouTube Channel to activate the JOJO library, a podcast on visual culture in Asia, a number of publications of her own and in collaboration with other artists, a number of workshops in Mumbai, the constant work that involves the upkeep and activation of the library & now producing a show for the Arles Louis Roederer Award where JOJO will support the work of Riti Sengupta.

From being a photographer to self-publishing books, tell us about this shift in your life.

When I discovered photography and decided to take the first steps towards making it a career, I didn’t have access to many options. Nobody in my family has ever worked in the arts (although many have had an aptitude for it) and since they were guiding and also funding my education, the question I got asked a lot was 'how will you make a career of this?’ Most of my immediate references in India were fashion photographers and I eventually got lucky with the opportunity to assist fashion photographer Farrokh Chothia in Mumbai.
By this time, I had already met with and spoken to a few photographers, visited their studios and was keen on learning all I could. I worked with Farrokh for nearly a year while picking up small gigs of my own. I eventually decided to study photography formally and this changed my course.
 

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How did the idea of JOJO become materialized and was there any particular thought behind not using your name?

JOJO is a moniker. My father called me that when I was an infant after the Olympic runner Flo-Jo and my uncle still calls me that sometimes. The imprint was launched in 2019 to separate my publishing practice from my name because I wanted to give it space to grow independently of me. I also found it a bit strange & egotistical to self-publish under my own name especially when I had to distribute the books so in a way I was hiding behind it. The name JOJO is a homage to my father and a reminder to me to never forget where I come from, to stay true to those stories and to not lose sight of a childlike perspective, play and wonder when engaging with the world. JOJO embodies everything I wanted for myself in my work & what I value in the work of others.

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How do people respond to your work? Are they able to gauge your intent? For example, was your project ‘In Today’s News’ received as you hoped it would be?

I don’t think I have received or can ever expect to have one response to any work. In Today’s News was very well received and for different reasons by different readers. The book is abstract & approaches the subject by requesting a sort of decoding on the part of the viewer, an approach that has its roots in semiotic theories, which I first encountered when I studied English Literature. Because the viewer is actively engaged in meaning-making, in a sense, it’s more of a dialogue with the audience rather than trying to make people understand a specific intention. With Dori, the visual language is a little more classical and even though it is very personal, readers often identify with the book through the lense of their own experiences with their grandparents. The most common responses I've received from readers is that of longing, regret at not having spent time with their own grandparents or identification with the characters through the lens of their own familial experiences. Others have bought it as a gift for people they love, as if the book articulates their own feelings somehow.

Recently, a friend and fellow bookmaker said to me that they revisited Dori because they are trying to articulate their own story of family trauma. They said that they appreciated the joy & mischief in the book and that even though I put myself in the book the people being photographed don’t lose their dignity & their agency. That really moved me, to know that the intention can be seen and articulated by a viewer and that they can share in it. Those are really special moments and they remind me why I do what I do, I feel a sense of community when people engage with the work so intimately.

What were you like as a child? Do you remember any incidents that might have led to your current career choices?

I think I was always inclined towards a creative practice as far as I can remember. I grew up with brothers, they always wanted to play outdoors and I was terrible at sports so I would bully them into drawing competitions so that I could win. I discovered my father’s mixed tapes quite young and picked up his guitar when I was around 10 and learned for around 5 years. I used to dance competitively in school, wrote bad poetry like most teenagers, and later tried my hand at the Sitar and taught myself how to play drums out of boredom at my boarding school. I think the first photograph I remember consciously making was on a family holiday to Ramoji Film City where I ‘wasted film’ on photographing the space and architecture just because I found it 'beautiful’.

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Does self-publishing allow you to take more risks and hold all the power in creating?

 

Power is an interesting choice of words. It is definitely risky, publishing or self-publishing, and yes you do have full control but the work is rarely made in isolation. I am grateful to have a community of peers whose opinions I value and mentors who have helped me work through difficult moments in the creative process. I don’t know about power but I am certainly a control freak and can be quite a stickler, self-publishing allows me to indulge that part of me!

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while creating JOJO?
 

The main challenges were and are funding and distribution. I’m very fortunate to work with wonderful bookshops around the world and those relationships have taken a lot of time, effort & trust to build up. There is a certain kind of work ethic I look for and respect and I only work with bookshops that work within those principles. Many bookshops hold back payments, don’t respond when it’s time to pay for your books on consignment and don’t respect your time as an artist or publisher. I’ve slowly removed myself from working in those situations regardless of how big or small the opportunity is. The challenge I set for myself I suppose is to continue to do the work I love, get the work out there and build working relationships of mutual respect. 

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Should an artist wait to be approached by a gallery or should they begin their projects as soon as they think that they have something of value?
 

A good gallery will rarely approach artists unless they see consistent practice. You have to do the work, there’s no way around it. It’s better to first articulate for yourself why you do what you do and what you’re trying to communicate before dealing with galleries. One needs to be clear about their intentions so that you don’t get easily swayed, plus immersing yourself in the art world requires a different set of skills that have nothing to do with making art. Being an artist is a job much like every other job but since it’s based on individual skill, research and practice, the working hours are longer, often thankless and the journey is even longer. That’s my experience & understanding of it. 

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What would be your tips for photographers who would like to turn their projects into a book form?

 

I guess I start by asking myself does it need to be a book? why? What does the book form offer that’s different from any other form? The book is not the only vehicle in which we can experience work. I try and imagine the work in many different forms and then decide whether it’s worth making a book of it or not. I love the process of printing, whether it’s for exhibitions or in books and a good way to start is imagining an exhibition first and then expanding on the work overtime to make a book. For In Today’s News & Dori, I was very clear that the only form it can exist in is a book and that will be the vehicle for the stories. In Today’s News later became posters but that’s about it.

Do you feel it’s necessary to have an academic background to self-publish photo books?

 

Fortunately or unfortunately, it does require a certain set of tools to know how to read photobooks and the academic background helped a lot. Now the information is much more accessible in South Asia and initiatives like the Akazi foundation, Chennai Photo Biennale, and Photo Circle Nepal are some of the resources that help contribute to providing access to learning resources. The Murthy Nayak Foundation is doing a great job in encouraging alternative education within the field of photography  by supporting independent workshops in the region and providing scholarships for South Asian practitioners. In a similar spirit, the JOJO library carries forward the legacy of the BIND collective which was amongst the first to have this vision of providing free access to photobooks as a learning resource in India.

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What do you look for in the books that you collect for your JOJO Library and how can one submit their work to be featured?

 

People submit all kinds of books to us and we try to incorporate as many as we can without bias, unfortunately we have limited space so we have to be selective now. When I collect, I look for harmony in form and content. I don’t really care if a book is very precious. What’s important is the context in which it is made, the access to production processes that define the form and how relevant it is to the time & place that it is being made in. I’m particularly drawn to books that demonstrate elements of play, humour & sensitivity to form. To submit work, please e-mail us through our website.

Do you think people in India are a little hesitant about spending their money on photo books? Or are you noticing a shift?

 

The popularity of photobooks is growing as we see engagements around the medium. Pricing and circulation also determine how photobooks are bought and this is something to be explored as the genre continues to develop locally.

Are there any publishers who inspired you to get into this field?When I started, my first point of contact was European & American publishers. I find myself more and more inspired by publishers in our regions and from the East, like Yaarbal books, Nepal Picture Library, Reliable Copy, Raking Leaves in Sri Lanka, Gueari Galeri in Indonesia and also self-published books like Vinayak Suresh’s Grime in India, Indu Antony’s self-publishing imprint called Mazhi books, Miti Ruangkritya’s Thai Politics in Thailand or Vasant Nayak’s first self-published book in collaboration with Cecile Poimboeuf-Koizumi.

Kaamna Patel Recommends:

Follow us on Youtube and Instagram and attend our workshops! Other than that, the ASAP connect app run by the Alkazi foundation is a wonderful resource and so is the Alkazi Foundation blog

MACK books have a series of recorded talks

Aperture Foundation 

American Suburb X

C4 Journal

CPB Learning lab

Hunny Awatramani is a fine art street photographer and fashion photographer from Ahmedabad, India. She is also the founder of Uncommon and is currently trying to explore print medium in photography. 

Image copyrights © Kaamna Patel

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