Mythological Universe of the Tamil people (2005 - 2018)

Brad Feuerhelm in his article writes: Photography has a long history of documenting performances and rituals. The two terms, though separate are inexorably linked when they cross the path of divinity in all of its forms, invocations, and variations. From Christianity to the most abject forms of its antithesis, photography has always been instrumental in the documentation of rituals, the protagonists involved are performers in a wider and more unrelenting form of spiritual endeavor. 

In Tamil Nadu, southern India, the earliest and most ancient traditions have remained intact more than anywhere else.

The camera, when documenting such events is asked simultaneously to record, but also to be the machine in which a form of spiritual propaganda is manufactured. We believe when we see. The camera is the perfect Doubting Thomas of our industrialized culture, though we go to great lengths to diminish its claims on reality. Perhaps its use in spiritual matters best defines its objectives. We see, but we do not entirely rely on our theoretical selves to believe the photograph that it produces to be true or absolute. We believe it to be a condition of something extraterrestrial and obtuse, something too great to be understood by its mere prophylactic illustrations.

The powerful presences of the living spirits and gods are embodied under the masks, in the bodies which abandon themselves during the rite and in the animal remains during the sacrifices.

This exchange exemplifies the natural synthesis in trying to “see” that which would normally remain unseen or even mystical. And in seeing, through the fixity of the photographic image or its chemical compounds, the unseen image of the face of God would be enshrined for posterity so that others may avoid uncertainty for that of the tangible image-object to refer to in which they may confirm and re-confirm their beliefs while spinning through the vast and nebulous reaches of the expanding universe. 

In absolute conflation, photography represents a technical tool that since its beginning has sought to document the fleeting, the unseen, and the spiritual, and yet, photography itself is held largely with distrust, with a rank disadvantage to producing results that its audience deems as lacking artistic application first and round credibility second. What is important is that this schism of belief in images continues in the realms of the spiritual. Every photograph of ectoplasm or Marian apparition raises more doubt than it calcified belief and doubt and redemption of the unseen are at the very crux of the religious and spiritual arrangements. Photography in many ways, through its inability to claim belief, exemplifies its very nature.

Yannick Cormier’s excellent Dravidian Catharsis - Editions Le Mulet, 2021 >> is a perfect example of an artist looking to examine belief systems through the physical instruments of its nature-namely the humans who perform the function of ritual devotees thus turning belief from canon to approximation in their performative worship. Cormier has spent nearly two decades between his native France and Tamil Nadu, Southern India where he has photographed native ceremonies, rituals, and worship that defy the organized forms of religious worship instead wishing to concentrate on the primordial visual elements of belief in which ritual and performance of the spiritual are unabatedly left to more arcane devices such as masks and sacrifice, and in doing so are seen as potent concentrations of spiritual performance that elude the polished versions of more polite variations of Hinduism. The work is chaotic, hallucinatory, and transcendental. Cormier’s focus on the ritual elements is interspersed with more sanguine portraits which bring the world of ritual and belief to the level of the human instrument. The portraits are sensitive and offset the performative role of worship.

Men and women in a trance sink into darkness in full light; these trances do not belong to them, they are collective, staged or free. Individual psychology gives way to a large common body which vibrates in unison.

Of course, in 2022, it is impossible not to speak on the role of ethnography in such projects as Cormier is certainly not a native to these rituals and customs that he documents. I am less apprehensive about the nature of these discussions in Cormier’s work as much as the discussion regarding the work of Charles Fréger has never struck me as exploitative either. It is true, that Cormier is and will always be an outsider, no matter how many friends he has there or how innate his understanding of the rituals is. Does this suggest that he should not photograph the Tamil people during their worship? Not at all. I believe that Cormier is well-aware of the difficulties of photographing in a foreign environment to his own. I believe, as evinced through the text in the book and his general commentary on its release that he is aware of these concerns and that he considers his position as an outsider, which actually begs him to employ more sensitivity in making these images work in order to justify their production. He is acutely aware of the concept of exploitation and navigates the terrain to the best of his ability to avoid it.

Dravidian Catharsis is the fruit of this deep immersion in the culture, the theater, the traditions, and the soul of this mythological universe of the Tamil people.

Ritual and spiritual worship have at their very heart a reliance on spectacle. That is implicit in the action of ritual. To suggest that it is possible to avoid this is impossible and the argument against such an experience is going to be hard to parse out. In the work of Cormier, these discussions are implicit and the artist has gone the distance in explaining the work with these fundamental approaches in mind. He has been accepted by the community over time to make the work. The community itself is fine with the images, therefore, the real question is who is to be offended at the sake of whose image? I highly recommend the book for the challenging discussions and the quite spectacular images that Cormier has made.

Yannick Cormier was born in 1975 in France. In 1999 he joined the studio Astre in Paris. During this period he worked as an assistant for Patrick Swirc, William Klein and many others for magazines such as Vogue, Flair, Elle, Vanity Fair. In 2002, he began a career as a documentary photographer and his images have been published in various international magazines e.g. OjodePez, Courrier international, Libération, The sunday guardian, Le Nouvel Observateur, The Hindu, CNN, etc. In spring 2018, he moved to France (Dordogne), after 15 years spent in India.

The photographer reveals this form of resistance of cultural identity by traditional societies or smaller communities who have not as yet been completely anaesthetised by the modern consumerist world. It is an attempt to glimpse at the mythical attitudes of these groups. But more than myths, these images show people playing with symbols of a culture that is at ease with its traditions and hence can be self-mocking.

His photography evokes the spiritual and the material, fiction and reality, tradition and modernity. His photographs are living images that he discovers in travel, in social rituals, in religious ceremonies, in cultural fantasies, in personal dreams and more generally in all the games, sacred or ordinary, that distorts identity and appearance.






Dravidian Catharsis is the fruit of this deep immersion in the culture, the theatre, the traditions, and the soul of this mythological universe of the Tamil people. The powerful presences of spirits and living gods are embodied under masks.


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