Painted in black, white and grey, a piercing eye on a canvas draws you in through a sea of people at an art gallery. It is the still of 25-year old model and entrepreneur Nikhil Nagpal, captured through the lens of the photographer-psychologist duo, Vipul Amar and Harsheen Arora. Entitled The Naked Truth, it was the moment Nagpal found the courage to look at himself in the eye and embraced himself with his flaws and strengths. Was he always willing to shed his exterior? “Perhaps not, but this image is the product of an intricate process. Something that has left me changed forever,” he confesses. Nagpal, like several other volunteers, is a part of Amar and Arora’s Stupid Eye, a photo-exhibition that combines nuances of photography with those of psychological therapeutic techniques, to enhance an individual’s insight into their self. The mirror placed next to Nagpal’s image is for audiences to look into their own eyes after a walk across the gallery.
What is now an ongoing exhibition at Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi and a published research at the World Mental Health Congress 2013, started off as a mere coincidence after an accident Amar met with. A truck had almost driven his car off a bridge one night when he was driving back home. He stormed out of the car with a raging temper. “Peet hi deta (I would have beaten him) but in a split second, a voice inside me asked me to stop,” he said. And, that was the moment when Stupid Eye was christened. “These were the first two words that came to my mind,” he says. It was impulse that made Amar announce Stupid Eye as an event on Facebook. Arora was puzzled when she saw the notification, with her being tagged in the event as a co-host. Baffled, she frantically called Amar, only to be told: “I don’t know. I just want to do something,” as a response. “However there were two things I did know. Eyes never lie, and that little voice in our head is always talking to us, guiding us. But there are times when we all scramble to hear it,” he says. And, that thought laid the foundation for this confluence of photography and psychology.
The duo soon invited volunteers to be photographed according to three different themes – the real self, ideal self, and self-actualisation. “Derived from the Humanistic school of thought, the ‘real self’ stands for the way an individual actually is, whereas ‘ideal self’ is how the person wants to be. The idea behind this was to bridge the gap between the two and move towards self-actualisation, to capture the most honest reflection of an individual in a frame that will continue to be a barometer for each person’s journey,” explains Arora.
The duo went through an intricate process to draw their subjects into the frames. At first, group and individual therapy sessions were held to help participants realise and unravel their real and ideal selves. Their first group therapy session that was held in Mumbai in June 2012 was scheduled to last for two hours, but went on for six. The second stage involves a photo-shoot along with therapeutic intervention that leads to the participants feeling closer to their real self, resulting in one photograph that depicts their ‘true self’. And the last stage is where the end photograph works as a reminder, and a maintaining factor, for the individual to continue to work towards self-actualisation. Amar and Arora have also been invited to present the paper at the International Congress of Applied Psychology in Paris and the World Congress of Psychotherapy at Durban later this year.
Amar hails from a third-generation business family and his group of companies specialises in food ingredients used in the FMCG industry in Europe, Japan and the US. Photogrpahy for Amar has always been a second profession because he was clear he wanted to maintain his independence as an artist. Throughout his stint in Mumbai, where he shot several celebrities, he had been against cookie-cutter shoots and instead, delved into concept driven shoots where individualities were the key and that is what lay at the heart of Arora’s area of expertise.
“Through Stupid Eye we wanted to use the art of capturing images to custom design frames for participants, which unravel their core. Visuals enhance assimilation of information in the brain and provide the brain with something concrete to process. This is how these images continue to be therapeutic in the long run,” adds Arora. Participants across age groups play testimony to the theory. Dressed in a white gown and gold accessories, 29-year old make-up artist Roselyn Manuel is visibly comfortable in her skin. “But it wasn’t always so. I suffered from a major complex due to my dark skin. I had hair that did not make me look Indian. I was always trying to fit in. But Stupid Eye made me realise there was nothing wrong with my skin colour,” she says. 24-year old Prayas Chutani says that this project has helped him bring balance into his life.
All frames in the exhibit are complete with intricate details, some of which were also a part of the complex process of the shoot. After several therapy sessions, another participant, 40-year old psychologist Bharti, was asked to paint seven canvases with the statement –“Khud hi ko kar buland itna” while she was being shot. “As I was engrossed in the act, the statement I wrote across each canvas changed, and I ended up writing poetry,” she says. Bharti’s frame titled The I within I captures her sitting in a corner surrounded by canvases, a knife, and a shoe. The chaos in the frame reminds her that she can dissociate from the chaos at present, and let go of the past. “The knife has been a part of my personal journey. It symbolises the hurt inflicted upon me. The shoe stands for all the people who walked over me. The picture is a reminder of a moment of calm and an inspiration to keep moving forward,” she says.
Working with individuals who were constantly traversing through layers of their own selves was challenging. “But that was the beauty of it,” say Amar and Arora. While Arora helped individuals through this journey on the day of the shoot, Amar had to constantly adjust the light and settings. The duo had to ensure they were clued in to the participant’s journey, while still working in sync with each other.