The way to look at trees

Delhi-based photographer Serena Chopra showcases part of her latest series, which takes inspiration from the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, in London

author_img Paramita Ghosh Published :  17th September 2023 06:29 PM   |   Published :   |  17th September 2023 06:29 PM
The way to look at trees

A photograph from the Shinrin series. (Photo | Express)

Photographs come out of wandering. Their purpose is not to speak a thousand words. What they relay is an artist’s decision to pluck a moment out of life and shoot—it’s his or her wire to the world that this was a moment worthy of record and that this one moment has been selected for illumination. The work of photojournalist Serena Chopra at the ongoing show, Entwined, in London, featuring the trees inside the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary in the Kumaon Himalayas, is the result of one such selection.

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The trees are seen as living beings of scale; shot only when the season or the light was right for a capture; trees through which she aims for inter-connectedness with nature. “Forests reflect your own self. They help us understand the oneness of self with the environment. It’s a co-existence; you are embedded in the forest and the forest is embedded in you,” she says at her Delhi home, as she packs her bags for London.

The photographs are part of an ongoing large-format series that Chopra started documenting in 2017 on India’s disappearing forests. Titled Shinrin, it references the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or forest bathing that is similar in practice, but not in intent, to the Chipko movement, which started in Uttarakhand in the 70s. “Shinrin is about healing; its followers hug trees. Chipko, however, was a forest conservation movement,” the 70-year-old explains. Four photographs from the series are exhibited at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in London as part of a four-artist group show curated by writer-scholar Esa Epstein.

“The four photographs were in the original 15 works Serena had shown me in the Fall of 2019. She had pinned them to her wall and was playing with the process, size and treatment of the images,” says Epstein. “While the first image is very painterly of a tree in the snow and mist, the negative space of the sky contrasts the impact and detail of the single tree. The three other photographs are shown together as a triptych. Each one individually depicts the path through the forest that Serena spent so much time exploring,” says the gallerist.

Chopra’s work has, so far, indeed been primarily about portraiture. From Naga sadhus and Partition survivors to members of the Tibetan community staying at Majnu ka Tilla in New Delhi following the 1959 uprising, it is such faces and lives in homely settings that have been lit up by her camera. This time around the focus is on oaks, pines and rhododendrons. And it took Epstein by surprise. “‘You always do portraits, how come you are doing a landscape"’ she remarked. 

"I said it’s not a landscape; I know every tree,” recalls the photographer with a smile. And why not? The Chopras bought a house in the Kumaon Hills in 1990. Shinrin has come out of a long engagement of walking in this forest for more than 30 years in a mode of “self-conscious observation”, as John Berger would call it. She has seen trees fall and also stand unchanging and solid in the face of nature’s events the snow, storms, lightning and wildfires. The photographs show mood and texture; not for nothing does Chopra call the trees “main characters”.

In their black-and-whiteness, they throw into relief their entire trunks, looking like the limbs of some dark mythical creatures that pushed up through the floor of the forest one night. Then there are boughs that extend towards another tree as if in camaraderie, and there are those that look as if they have been shot just before they were about to break. Taken together, they capture the schedule-lessness of a forest, a place of no time.

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The photographer explains it thus: “Time takes on a different meaning in the forest. Some of the trees are 100 years old and yet so powerful. A forest teaches you to lose a sense of time—here there’s no past, no present, no future. It’s the echo of the eternal inside you.” They stand in all their majesty without a human prop, one notices as Chopra shows some of the postcards made over the years, including those photographs not part of the exhibition. One such photo, of a human figure passing under the trees, therefore, almost comes as a shock. “Why do you need to see human beings when you can look at trees?” she quips. 

The show is on till October 6.