Tribal Visions: A Conversation with Marcus Leatherdale

Photograph by Marcus Leatherdale

Marcus Leatherdale is an accomplished photographer whose dramatic black and white portraits document everything from the decadent New York art scene to the Indian holy city of Benares. His work has appeared in various publications including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Details and Interview and has been exhibited at galleries and museums worldwide. In the past two years, Leatherdale has taken portraits in hundreds of rural villages in India in the hopes of preserving a record of tribal culture and history in the face of modernization and assimilation. A retrospective of Leatherdale's work in India opened September 21 at the Dialectica Gallery in New York City and runs for six weeks.

View an online exhibit of Marcus Leatherdale's work.

You started your career taking photographs of celebrities in New York, like Madonna and Keith Haring. What made you decide to make the move from documenting New York's art world to tribal people in India? The two worlds seem to be polar opposites.

I came to New York in the 80s and I was much younger and much more impressionable at that time. I didn't really have a sense of meaning or idea about what I really wanted to do with my life or my work. The whole idea of photographing celebrities seemed an exciting thing at the time. It worked for me then and there but as time went on, I began to realize that the whole world has more than enough photographs of celebrities. We don't need another picture of Madonna really. I had been spending time in India, though no one was terribly interested [in India] at that point. I wasn't taking pictures professionally yet; I was just going to India and I wanted to start photographing in India the same way I did in New York, in a studio situation. But by 1992 I was disillusioned with New York, especially after the recession. The art world didn't seem to be as interesting to me and certainly the celebrity fashion aspect of it seemed to be waning. And it's just a different tribe. As uninterested as I am now in what I did in the 80's, there are a lot of people who think in its own way my work will document a period of time and a group of people living and acting in a certain way. In a way it was an anthropological survey of urban tribal people as opposed to [my work] in India.

While you have also photographed Indian wrestlers and holy men, much of your work is focused on adivasis, or tribal people. Why did you decide to focus on adivasis?

Because tribals are not going to be as traditional as they have been much longer. They will be integrated into Hindu society and they will not function in the pure form that they have lived in up until now. The global village is setting in and even their lousy land that they thought nobody wanted is turning out to have mining possibilities. They are being pushed into the cities and forced into being lowly workers and I feel these are proud, wonderful, extraordinary people and one should see them in a good light. This to me is much more important than another picture of a celebrity.

How is adivasi culture changing?

It's been changing drastically. India is changing and the tribals are changing least of all. There are over 20 million tribals in India, in every state except Hariyana. I am based in Bihar, but I will travel to all of them in time. I have photographed in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal. I'm going up to Assam next year…. So I just take what I can. Strangers and friends; one contact leads to another. Soon everyone knows I'm this crazy martian going around photographing tribals, which makes me the most interesting thing that's happening in most people's lives at that moment. And they want to be a part of it and they want to help....

[My work] documents the way tribals live before the change. I'm not politically correct by a lot of people's standards. I have a tunnel vision of India. I'm not documenting the changes in the way India is. I'm not interested in the way India is; other people can do that…. There are tribals sitting around in baseball caps who don't even want to know about being tribal. I'm not photographing that. I'm singling out the traditionalists who represent their tribes in their true ethnic culture.

Why is that more important to you?

Because it's something that's going to disappear. Who cares about homeboys and the global village and baseball caps? That's going to be around for along time and what's going to be gone are tribals and tigers and rhinos and drinking water and all those things we take for granted…. All of these things are being snowplowed into a generic global village which I am really quite opposed to.

Do you think your work is political?

No. I mean you can look at anything politically if you are political,... but I'm just me out there depicting my India, how I see it, what I think is beautiful. It's a homage to the wonderful timeless traditional aspects of India. There are very few places in the world where you can find that now…. And my work is probably too poetic to be considered political. But I'm not making it up. It's documentation. I'm not manipulating people into being what they're not….

Isn't this a romantic notion of Indian culture though? How does your work differ from colonial portraits of India?

Initially I looked at colonial pictures [from India] and I thought these could be such extraordinary pictures if there wasn't such a barrier between the person who shot it and the "specimen"…. I certainly hope my pictures aren't coming off as that. I'm just trying to depict the pure cultural aspects of India up to the point where they've all decided that in order to be modern, they've got to be Western. And that irritates me. You can be modern without being American; I think that is possible. To see people who are willing to trade off thousands and thousands of years of glorious traditions just so they can be modern is deplorable. So if you want to call that romanticism, fine.

But at the same time you advocate modern Western medicine in these villages in India.

I'm not saying that India shouldn't be modern, I'm just saying they shouldn't trade off all this culture and tradition and that is what I'm trying to show and keep that aspect of India in my mind. That's what I seek out, that's what interests me. There are Indians who... are willing to throw away everything just to be MTV. I don't have to agree with that. I don't think it works there. It creates a lot of unrest and dissatisfaction because it can only be a facsimile at best, if that. They can't afford to have that kind of lifestyle…. So India becomes a dumping ground for all of this second and third and fourth rate Americanesque black market stuff that doesn't work and breaks down and the next thing you know, India has become a graveyard for broken old plastic contraband…. And it's sad to see that….

What is it like viewing these photographs in a New York gallery setting? There's something very uneasy about looking at pictures of impoverished villagers when you're surrounded by affluence a world away.

It's interesting that you asked me about viewing these photos in the context of the show. My last exhibit was mostly tribals and it was interesting to sit there and watch these people in Prada just sipping their white wine and not even bothering to look at the work. It was just wallpaper for a night out to show off their new shoes. I often sit there and listen and think how everyone is so accustomed to having instant, effortless information. Vicariously they get everything, so they're like "seen it, done it" when they haven't seen it or done it; they just know about it. So there's a seen it, done it, who cares mentality, and they just wander by and don't even give it a second thought….

I think this work is anthropologically important in the long run and not just a nice coffee-table book. Maybe it will be a reference book in the future. If I can get all these tribals down, it will take my whole life. And whether it's poetry or political and people think it's romantic or not, people can view that as they choose.

Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell of Asia Society.