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April 2007


Snapshots of a photographer

in conversation with Carel

The photography exhibition ‘Infinite' by Sebastian Cortès was held in Kala Kendra in February – March.

Sebastian Cortes.


All the photographs show the wide open space where sea and sky meet; the sea is at rest, the sky has only remnants of turbulent cloud formations. The moment is October 26, 2005, a day after Hurricane Wilma had struck the U.S. mainland with ferocious intensity. Sebastian Cortès, in his own words, just happened to be present at the right place and right time, on the 24th floor of a building in Miami . Instead of photographing people in distress or collapsed buildings, his eye was drawn to the sea and sky, to its vastness, its silence, its immensity, and that indefinable sense of the infinite.

This is not an exhibition you can do in a hurry. It requires time, a quiet inner opening to experience what the photographer wished to communicate: the pervading sense of peace after the great storm. An installation elsewhere in the exhibition helps to enhance that experience. In a darkened room, a continuous play of images of sea and sky slowly overlap while the sound of waves and some ethereal music feature in the background.

Sebastian Cortès, an American national from a mixed Peruvian-Italian background, came to Auroville three years ago after having lived ‘a life' in Italy – my soul country, he says – and another one in the USA . He took up photography at New York University film school, then moved to Italy where he worked as a fashion and lifestyle photographer and ran an advertising agency together with his wife Marcella.

Auroville came into the picture six years ago, after Marcella had returned from a trip to India . “She had spent a few weeks in Auroville and was enthusiastic. There was something magnetic the way she talked about it. The idea to get involved with the developing vision of Auroville attracted us enormously, as well as the philosophy behind it, the correlation of Western and Eastern thought. Lastly there was the magic of India itself. When we finally joined Auroville we realised that it was necessary to shift our ideas from pursuing high ideals to joining a laboratory – The Mother used that word explicitly when talking about Auroville – in the sense of a place where things can very much go wrong. That helped us to deal with certain issues which did not work out,” he says.

What was most important for them in their Newcomer period was to get time to search for something new, to reflect on the differences between life here and before. “The atmosphere of Auroville allows for a certain expansive investigation where you can search deeply with a strong concentration. That is one of the great gifts of Auroville for which Aurovilians should be immensely grateful: the joy of being allowed to experiment on oneself. All Newcomers should be given the time to reassess themselves, they should not be expected to continue their lives at the same speed they were used to before they joined. Since I started living in Auroville, I allow myself the joy of a certain contemplative existence, and there has been a deepening of awareness as a result. For me, just sitting on the roof and watching the trees was an exercise in ‘freeing up' because thoughts came in a different way. Auroville awakened me to a certain silence – a gift which I wanted to share through these photos. Ten years ago, I wouldn't have been able to take them.”

Asked what he wishes to bring to the Auroville laboratory, the answer is instantaneous. “To enhance Auroville's way of dialoguing.” And he explains, “All the big cities of the world promote themselves through their culture. This is also the direction Auroville should go. We have to invite artists from all over the world to come and share their work. If Auroville is to be a universal township, then it is necessary that the community open itself to the artistic truth of many outsiders and, through that medium, experience the truth as they see it. All good art invites a response; the best allows one to experience the spiritual dimension of art. In return, these artists would experience Auroville's ‘truth'. It must become an attraction for the artistic world to have an artistic dialogue with Auroville. Ideally, this should happen in a proper exhibition space – a gallery or a museum – which we do not have yet. In the meantime we have to enhance what is available with professional exhibition facilities so that professionals can be invited to present their work. For the Infinite exhibition a small step was made, as we were able to install professional lighting equipment and add wall space to the inner circle of Kala Kendra.”

Sebastian's projects for the immediate future include making a series of portraits of Aurovilians for Auroville's 40th birth anniversary. “I would like to show through these portraits the inner value of people, and at the same time highlight through the individuals what Auroville is all about: people.” This project would be similar to that of the German photographer August Sander who, in the 1910-20s, documented German society by photographing over 1,000 citizens to get a sense of what his country was at the time.

“My project is on those lines,” says Sebastian. “But I want to highlight the person's ‘gaze,' the rapport each one has with him or herself, to see if common traits can be identified, some common vibration. The pictures will then be displayed in a location where all can go and, ideally, get a sense of the Auroville community by identifying the inner intent of the individuals.” He acknowledges that it is a risky endeavour. “I am not talking about making a series of mug-shots. I would rather try to catch that ‘inner something'; but all will depend on the people, as portraits are usually deeply honest and not necessarily flattering. To what extent would the Aurovilians be willing to open up and ‘share' themselves? At a later stage, such a series of portraits could be published in a book which could be a part of what Auroville has to offer the world in its research on human development.”

Photography, says Sebastian, can communicate on many levels. “I would be happy if someone would remember a photo of mine as having evoked something on a higher or more inner level.” The Infinite exhibition was an attempt towards that.


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