UNSETTLED WATERS - Book Review

A Lake Reflects

Arvind Hoon’s reflections in Unsettled Waters aren’t just visual in nature. It is this constant play between apparent simplicity and implied meaning that urges you to look beyond the edge, to find depth within the shallow waters of the lake, reflected.

The title of the book is what dictates the viewing experience of Unsettled Waters. Though the very first photograph establishes the fact that these are images of the Dal lake, arguably the most iconic tourist attraction in the troubled land of Kashmir, there is no text in the beginning that explicitly states the same. So all you are left with is an unnerving title, which forces you to read the images in a certain way. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or bad thing, frankly, as the tension that the work portrays is done with great subtlety, unlike the title that makes a rather strong statement.   

The first few photos seem to be leading nowhere, and when I first went through these pages, I remember feeling a sense of fatigue and impatience… is this just a set of attractive cliches, I wondered. But it was the title that was constantly playing on my mind, a part of me wondering if the beginning was simply the calm before the storm. 

It’s a photograph of a house and two chairs that jolts you and breaks the reverie. The house is sinking, you cry to yourself. It’s the first time in the book that you feel a little numb, a feeling that only grows as the book flows ahead.

This is where things get interesting, as the reflections start including familiar elements and distort them, and in the process, distort one's mind. A boatman reflected at the bottom of a blue-and-yellow frame, holding his oar... or is that a presence of the military, with the reflected silhouette looking like someone's pointing a gun. In another excellent frame, a child's gaze, in its distorted form, seems fearful, and a hand at the bottom right, creates further dissonance in the frame. 

Some of the reflections do seem a little repetitive. For a form that is already limiting in its visual depiction, I would personally have preferred a tighter edit. But then, it is these photos that also create the rhythm, the cycle of routine followed by the absurd.

It is the absurdity of some of the slogans in the reflections that adds a sense of bathos. These, for me, were some of the most memorable images. ‘Some Rest’, says a harmless sign that seems ominous, given the conflict of the region. ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’ and ‘Good Life’, say two others, in haunting expressions of cold irony.

The design of the book is such that the photos start small, and slowly start increasing in size, eventually bleeding into each other. This causes the reflections to run into each other. This is fascinating as it makes you look twice and question, whether the image really ends at the point where it does. This is also the point in the book where the photos now include the people of Kashmir, and since they are water reflections, their forms, much like their troubled lives, are disfigured. That said, the white space that runs above and below the conjoined reflections seems to take away a little from the experience.

While this is a thoughtful book, it probably does not go much beyond that, as the imagery is attractive, but the vision, not unique. But while I write that, I must question my own judgement. Does prettiness come in the way of serious photography? Are we in a day and age where we are so inundated with images from every quarter, that a traditional, pictorial way of looking at reflections, is not ‘interesting enough’? For a casual viewer, these photos may just be about colour and form, but on further reflection (to borrow a bad pun), I believe the photographer-editor deserve credit for creating a nuanced narrative out of simple abstracts. It’s not easy to convey both beauty and pain simultaneously, and Hoon has successfully done the same.

Raj Lalwani

Assistant Editor at Better Photography magazine, Raj Lalwani's world consists of a curious intermingling of photographs and words. According to him, inspiration lies in the fantastic, the ordinary and in love.