Kelsey Sucena + Deb Choudhuri

: A Fragile Trace of Things


KS: To start Deb, I’d like to thank you immensely for sharing this work with me. There is something so deeply moving about the frame within which you situate your practice as a photographer. I think that, for me, the theme of love within your practice, photography as an expression of love, as the product and culmination of little acts of love, comes forward as something of a godsend. It is a much-needed breath of fresh air within a cynical world, and at a time generally starved for love and intimacy, especially as it is expressed between strangers.

Could you talk a bit about how you came to emphasize love within your practice? And about what, specifically, love looks like behind a camera?

DC: I believe that photography for me is slowly becoming in itself an act of love. I realized the necessity for me to speak out through images, and the urgency of it, after confronting the suicide of a lover. Photography was the way to hold on to life itself. I do feel that we are all going through our own unique journeys and struggles, a lot of it remains unsaid and I try to make sense of this through photography. Everyone is a stranger at first but when you show someone love, it may not always be through physical intimacy, but also emotional and spiritual togetherness, a love that looks to bridge differences, to be with each other, to express solidarity,then everyone becomes a friend and gives their part of themselves to you. I keep going back to the fact that photography for me is a way to find that balance between the inner chaos and a certain hope that I can find in people around me, through the image. I am reminded of French poet Rimbaud’s quote that “Love Needs Reinventing”. This very reinventing is what I seek. Love is precious, both behind and in front of the camera. It lets you be the way you want to be and that is one premise to my work and life.

KS: I have similar convictions about photography as a tool both for building connection and for processing traumas. To that end, I am so sorry to hear about the passing of your lover. I can only imagine that experience as being terribly difficult and alienating, and though I try to reject the notion that tragedy lends itself to art, I know that for myself photography remains a deeply therapeutic practice.

As I’m looking at your images I am struck by a number of things. I’d like to start by mentioning the sheer diversity of subjects with whom you’ve collaborated. Of course, I can see you within these images, touching and interacting with your surroundings, but there are also so many of those ‘strangers’ to whom you refer. Could you talk a bit about what it’s like for you to engage with other people? That is, how do you decide whom you’d like to photograph, and what does that process usually look like?

DC: I feel this necessity of connecting to the other comes from my own feelings of loneliness. We live in a time and society where everything , nearly everything is reduced to a spectacle. Capitalism causes human alienation and it is this that I do explore through my work too when people are photographed as individuals and not in groups or gatherings. It is an intense feeling that also gives me room to share and be with each other. Those I have photographed, confide in me their feelings of desire, moments of loneliness, sometimes a past trauma and the need to at least talk to someone. It does not matter if someone is a sex worker or someone is a recovered addict or someone is going through a transition. Photography is my way of showing I am there for them and I will be there, as long as I am able to. It is my way of hanging on to a semblance of togetherness. This process of making pictures is largely built on chance. It started a few years ago when I was staying in upstate New York . Being from India originally, and having gone through personal loss back at home was a traumatic experience. It almost felt like I was planted in the middle of nowhere and I felt I could not belong anywhere. I had nowhere to go or be. So I used to make short trips to New York City and places near and in other neighbouring states and stayed in the couches of strangers I met through the internet. Occasionally I photographed them and when you meet strangers on the internet, you do run the risk and thrill of having different experiences. I soon wanted to expand this logic itself and incorporate that into this game of photographing people, sometimes more than once, if I am able to meet them again, in their vulnerable and honest moments, mostly inside their spaces. Over time, I started to build this in a way that talks about different identities in relation to my own queer self.
The process is spontaneous and although there is an element of performativity that does exist in the images, it is not directed by me or staged. I try to keep the situation minimal and not grand and attempt to honor their way of being. At the heart of it all, is a trust and love that exists between each other that allows me to try to understand their position. I never decided that it should be about a particular identity of people or the other. I feel it gradually becomes my own visual anthropological experience, a community of friends bound together through the thread of my photographs.


KS: I'm curious to know a bit more about these encounters. Are there any individuals or experiences you had which stand out to you? Moments that were particularly important or impactful?

DC: I feel today people are very self aware, of who they are and who they want to be in front of the camera and behind it . I never base my search or encounters on any specific logic. I try to break away from any rigid logic on what representation means. I like to think of my journey as what a radical thinker I go back to, Deleuze would have called an assemblage. To be queer is to not limit yourself to any specific way, certainly not what today’s capitalist representation often alludes to. To develop new ways of being and reimagining is my own way to keep this fight alive and to also grow myself. My earlier experiences did have a common thread, as I was moving around and was not staying in one place. They mostly include people who challenge my own way of being either through their lives or through what they do or who they are. Sometimes their presence in front of the camera, intimate or raw, nude or not, was a challenge for me to be able to be more forgiving of myself and to be free enough. In life. There was someone who is not present in the images, who was a friend too but passed away a year after I met her in 2018 and photographed her. In 2019, a year later she was not there anymore. And it was a death by suicide. So while that did hit me personally too as it brought back my own past, I would not be using those photographs, I developed my own way of making pictures through a certain anonymity, which I find to be powerful for me and for those I meet and photograph. And I believe that is when the “Fragments” started making more sense to me. I started slowing down and have been trying to retrace a few earlier journeys. Sometimes people move out, they don’t stay in the same place and one has to accept the situation.

Recently I have been growing a deep friendship with someone who has a strained relationship with his father for him being gay and has been a survivor of physical and sexual abuse. He is a special friend, currently living on disability. So photographing him and our friendship has had a profound impact. It is difficult to specify which experience is special as all of them are in their own unique ways. I feel every time I photograph someone I carry a part of their own self with me. I believe we have our own struggles, social, cultural, economic, physical and to call someone ‘vulnerable’ would be only my selfish way to establish power and agency over someone else’s life, something that photography does really well, especially in today’s numb capitalist society. For me, it is no longer about being, but the process of becoming and getting lost on the way.


KS: Let’s talk about capitalism. It's something I’ve always resonated with you on. I wouldn’t be the first to talk about the connections between capitalism, alienation, and the crisis of mental health we’re living through. These things are, of course, interconnected.

I am sometimes hopeful, though perhaps a bit naive, about photography’s potential to sooth, though never quite treat, these afflictions. This is to say that I’ve been drawn to the way in which photography draws people together. If I am being overly hopeful, I would say that these connections might serve to
work against our collective alienation, at least to a small degree. It’s a force that I feel you apply often within your own practice.

Do you often think of your work in similar terms? Do you feel that your photography is tied to an anti-capitalism in some way? And if you do,do you feel that there are any limitations within this line of thought which you are contending with?

DC: I can only speak from my own experience. I think we have put a lot of burden on photography and art to represent an idea, to have some sort of moral obligation to save society from the death throes of capitalism. It ends up having to appeal to the grand gestures that get eventually consumed by capitalism. I don’t think that photography has the ability now to be anti-capitalist in any way, somewhat cynical of a position maybe. Historically too, it never was. It is absorbed in this system. On a positive note, now we do see photography being a democratic medium and anyone can be a photographer. This I think is a great thing. I feel we can just let photography be what it is- a fragile trace of things. Everything surrounding it, the "discourse" is just too much to me sometimes. With time I try to not get lost in the noise around us. I have always been a critic in my own way, sharing an almost love-hate relationship with the medium and trying to find ways in which I can liberate myself from this system and in a way protect my love for photography. As far as representation of a work in any institutional context goes, that is where the game changes and photography and art end up being just another spectacle to be consumed. With a market value and a global chain.

It is a given that today art also functions like a Fordist production model, perhaps an advanced production model, almost like a factory. But we have to go back and ask ourselves what can art do for us at the most personal level? At a time when there is so much hatred and polarized opinions, a time when the media and the information itself is complicit in perpetuating this exploitative system, what can it do to develop meaningful relationships with others that are built not on the logic of a market nor the “power” of an image? This is what is at stake for me.

Every act that you think is “anti photography” if ever there is such a position ends up being an aesthetic itself and eventually used by the same system that it began to decry. When I started making images as a teenager, I was perhaps thinking of a way to challenge the grand spectacles that photography ends up being. This is limiting both for the growth of one's self as an artist and that of society at large. Gradually I work in a way almost always spontaneous, immediate, and based on chance and that to an extent keeps me free. Over time I feel I am letting go of this thought of what photography needs to be for the world and learning to just flow and discover more for what it has for me. This was the way I learned to speak up and I will continue to speak up and fight as long as I am able to.

The path is to stay free and to keep reinventing yourself every moment and to never stop questioning. In the end, whatever I make, it is up to the viewer to determine and make sense of their own biases and sensibilities while viewing and consuming my images and words. Yes, there is sometimes a certain desperation, a feeble cry perhaps in my images too. Not because I am pressing too hard to say something against this consumer society, but mostly due to the contradictions that capitalism imposes on life itself. And my own despair of living with these contradictions.

KS: Yes! Absolutely. Many folks seem to believe that photography can either act in opposition to capitalism (vectoralism or whatever we’d like to call that which is oppressing us), or resolve its contradictions. I’ve also felt that this was a bit too much to expect of the medium.

I like what you said about photography as “a fragile trace of things.” It’s a phrase that I think encapsulates much of what your photographs confer. At times there is this deep sense of closeness, intimacy with your subjects, but underlying that are these deep existential questions relating to proximity and mortality. I think of Zeno's paradox, which you mention in your statement.

Proximity feels important to me as a Queer. Though I try to avoid generalizations about queerness, I do imagine queerness as an approaching of subjects. Whether we are approaching ourselves as fully realized people, or approaching each other as friends or lovers. Do you want to talk a bit about queerness? About how you may situate it within your practice or how perhaps you work against it?

DC: I can relate to what you said on being queer. I think it is a process of becoming and a way of questioning. Today, especially as an immigrant from India, being an outsider and not really having any background in art history or anything in context of art, and being absorbed in western systems of thought, art and aesthetics, it could be easy for anyone who tries to fight these generalizations and specters of representation to be sucked into the system. To seek validation. I am at fault too. However, Queer for me is to remain free, to think about what is at stake , and to grow from within. and yet be “elusive” . Forming and reforming, reinventing my own identity and carving destiny.. It is a process for me, however fragmentary it may be. It is not only related to my sexual identity, not about who I make love to or not, but my very way of being and living. As I have said before, I believe my practice is situated in between proximity and promiscuity. I am guided by my own desires, fears, past, present and my intuition. Desire is not precise. Love is not precise. Queer is never a precise term too. And that to me is the queerness of my work and life itself. I think language, particularly textual language, imposes on us these rigid notions and often, we feel the need to represent based on language. I am guilty too ,that I have to use these tools to explain in some sense what my life is about and what my work is about. To me queer avoids these mass generalizations in the first place. Beyond what pronouns you use, the struggle of life is far more complex and intense than what sometimes language can be capable of. Photography for me sits somewhere in between this tension and release.

I think we once talked in the past about the author Jack Halberstam and my love for the book “The Queer Art of Failure”. Oftentimes I use the phrase “failed artist” not so much in the context of actually failing, but more so to not see life or art as success and failure. To develop new ways of telling your story and finding alternate channels that do not end up being consumed by capitalism. This in itself is a difficult, if not an improbable task and perhaps it will take years from now when we truly develop into beings where we have totally undone and unlearnt the binaries of systems and representations. To condense it all, I would like to say that the only way going forward is to reinvent love and hence develop new ways of looking.

KS: You situate questions of mortality at the heart of this work, both within your description of the project, which takes mortality as its inception and within the images themselves. We see these bodies in stark contrast, often black and white, disrupted by the camera’s failure to capture what is there, and often set against the imposing forms of a natural world, and I’m left thinking about our limitations. Against the sea, the sky, time, or each other, we are profoundly limited.
I want to wrap up by asking you about mortality. It’s something I think about often, especially in relation to photographs which often seem to sometimes rage against it. Do you think of this work as a reflection of mortality?
DC: My own confrontation with tuberculosis at an early age in life led me to live in a certain unspoken fear for a while. Too much fear often leads you to a certain isolation that can drive you to madness. And leads you to be more vulnerable and make decisions that can be regretful. When I was further confronted with the suicide of my lover, I started to understand what it means to be here- in this dimension. In this space. We are all travellers, through this space time continuum. We are flawed and have our limitations. I battle myself with extreme highs and lows. Of emotions. Of thoughts. Photography,as I said before, is a fragile trace of things , and personally for me goes against this movement of continuity. It is limited but is still an efficient tool to speak. Photography is frozen in time. Be it a single photograph or a multitude of it. It is about what has been. Life itself is difficult, and living with a camera makes it a fascinating experience. Sometimes it creates a filter between you and the other, and sometimes it lets you be as close as possible to love. To life and perhaps to death.

I don’t want my work or my life to be boxed into one category or the other. Photography let me speak and helped me to start living again. Feeling again. Mortality and issues of existence, alienation, and what it is that we exactly want from life are questions that have fascinated every mind. My work too is a small reflection of this mortality from my own lived experiences. It is not only a confrontation with my own personal traumas but accepting it and growing out of it. To not be limited and to be brave enough to keep going further. And in the process, find my own position of making pictures and also sharing joy and love with those who have touched my life. The ‘dying man’ is not dead. It is the shedding of the fear of mortality and accepting the truth of it. It is the acceptance of my own queer self through this 'dying man' and the need to go further and immerse in all experiences that life has to offer still.

KS: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me, Deb. It's been an immense pleasure. I'm so grateful for your time and wisdom. Before we finish I just wanted to ask you if there's anything you would like to plug? What have you been thinking about and what comes next for you and this project?

DC: Thank you, Kelsey. It has been a great experience sharing with you as well. I do think of life as chapters of a book in itself and the journey is what makes it worthwhile. What makes this book complex and fascinating is that we don't really know the plot till the end. So what matters is to keep living and having the courage to do so, despite all the grievances and violence of the world. I continue to photograph, both with rigor and with a necessary fluidity. I have been thinking of this chapter too, of being planted in America from India, after my own loss and making my way through it, in a more physical form. A book is in the thought process. For now, I believe I am learning to listen to my own silence and stay still for a while. And as always, take chances, believe in the magic of encounters, and see where life takes me. Through my work and life, I try to build my own community, beyond definitions and expectations of work, a community that I can say I weaved through my own image. The fragmentary passage of people and places keeps me alive.


Kelsey Sucena
(they/them) is a trans*/nonbinary photographer, writer, and park ranger currently residing on Long Island. Their work rests at the intersection of photography and text, often within the bodies of performative slideshows and photo-text-books. It is centered broadly upon the United States as a site for anti-capitalist, queer, and critical reflection. Kelsey is a recent MFA graduate from Image Text Ithaca (2020), Managing Editor of The Photocaptionist, and a freelance writer with contributions to Float Photo Magazine, Rocket Science, and 10x10 Photobooks.

Deb Choudhuri (b. 1992) is an artist from India, currently based in New York.

Deb deals with the “queerness” of desire, love, body and space through personal narratives. They see photography as an interface with the world, a way to confront it, a way to desire and define their own position. Deb’s practice has its roots in the need to take distance from the chaos of the surroundings, and get intimate, physically and emotionally, in places where the hunt is more lyrical, delicate, sometimes strong. Over time, the creative practice has naturally flowed from finding a sense of belonging in one place, to connecting to people by establishing closeness to one person, at a time. This way, the author tries to understand the way people express desire and love and uses photography to converse with them. They use these experiences, and conversations with strangers and friends to build the complex play of what it means to be here, to understand every struggle, and to live in a broader sociopolitical realm of existence. The lines between the subject and the photographer are fluid in the work. These dual conversations open new perspectives on the relationship between the self and the other.

Currently, Deb works on long-term collaborative projects that engage an interdisciplinary approach towards image-making, engaging photography, performance, and text.

Recently Deb was nominated for the prestigious Amol Vadehra grant for Young Contemporary Artists by Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art(FICA) (2021). Deb also worked under Magnum photographer, Antoine d’Agata for his exhibition, White Noise, Miami, USA(2019) and was given a scholarship to attend a workshop under Italian research school Spazio Labo by artist, Elinor Carucci(2018).