“Here, prayers take on potent forms. People dress as gods. They take to the streets. Men metamorphose into goddesses. Children paint themselves as black demons with perfect white fangs. Women, possessed by spirits, utter prophecies. Colours run riot. Rivers of arrack flow. Everybody dances throughout the day. They stop, briefly, only to seek Alms. The high-voltage, pulsating beats of Tamil war drums drown out the roar of waves on the rugged seashore. Days fill with euphoria. Nights float with ecstasy. At the end of this festivity, people prepare for the holy dip in the sea. As their divine disguises wash off, their dreams perhaps come true.” – Yannick Cormier
NOTES ON MASQUERADE FOR THE GODS
By Waswo X. Waswo
Since the publication of Edward Said’s groundbreaking book, Orientalism, ethnographic photography has found itself in contested terrain. Once a respected branch of anthropology, ethnography has fallen out of fashion, becoming entwined with notions of pseudo-scientific racism. In places such as India the mere mention of the word conjures up memories of the colonialist project, a project that relied heavily on an imperfect scientific categorization of peoples according to tribe, caste, dress, religious subsets, and even cranial features, all of which was designed to give the British Raj a database from which to structure means of control. Upon hearing the words ‘ethnographic photography’, academics in both India and abroad are prone to visualize squatting half-naked tribals, miserably forced to hold frozen poses for the long exposures required by chemical-process box cameras, or sad-faced tradesmen dutifully holding the implements of their professions for their overlords to ‘capture’ and exhibit, adding to archives designed in part to prove backwardness and inferiority.
Yannick Cormier’s photographs tread dangerously into this ground. On the surface, Cormier’s series Masquerade for the Gods is reminiscent of such ethnographic photography. The modern India of urban Metro systems, grand new airports and ubiquitous cars and mobile phones has been excluded. Instead, he gives us images that seem culled from ancient and exotic ritual, images that, except for minor clues, might have been made one hundred years earlier. And yet the clues exist: a toy gun, a boy wearing sunglasses, people in current dress, the corner of a modern-day home. These visual clues bring us into the contemporary, and we might think they transform the photographs from the ethnographic to the documentary. But it is worth asking what is the difference between? Perhaps ethnography has merely changed its name, putting on a mask and renaming itself documentary? The issues linger, and it is precisely these issues that give Cormier’s series its edginess and power.
On one level Cormier’s photographs are neither ethnographic nor documentary. His approach is neither scientific not journalistic, though he does offer us brief annotations to satisfy our curious minds. His approach is aesthetic and poetic. Cormier has an artist’s eye, with a way of seeing that could be compared to the elegance of Irving Penn. If there is any subliminal ethnography in his work, it is akin to the ethnography of Edward Curtis, an ethnography tempered with a keen sense of empathy and an appreciation of beauty. His images are a quest for visual poetry; a personal poetry with a personal narrative. As Cormier himself says, “During the work, it is like if I was a fisherman of my fantasies in a river of reality.”
This “river of reality” the artist talks about contains the archetypes that fascinate him. One of the artist’s favourite quotes is from Carl Jung: “All the most powerful ideas in history go back to archetypes…For it is the function of consciousness, not only to recognize and assimilate the external world through the gateway of the senses, but to translate into visible reality the world within us.”
Masquerade for the Gods is a manifestation of such archetypes as visible realities. It is not just about a particular people, enjoying a particular festival in a particular place and time. It is about the entire notion of hidden and complex identities and the equally complex surfaces of projected appearance. To see one image is to see three: the costumed figure, the person beneath, and the archetype that hovers as a mystery. The first is a visual reality; the second, a subjective conjecture, and the third an enigma impossible to articulate. Clues are again given: the expression of eyes beneath the fantasy of make-up, a haughty upward chin, the loose tie of a lungi, or the ambience of a barely hinted locale. The choice of costuming, and the manner with which it has been made, itself becomes an indication of the personality of the individual beneath. The costume clues us to a religion, a myth, and a history, but it is through Cormier’s art that the archetype assumes power in our subconscious.
As such, these images become the antithesis of the ethnographic. They give us little information about the people behind the masks, the make-up, and the costuming. If colonialist ethnographic photography was meant to capture “types” as classified by trade, caste, and tribe, Cormier’s images do the opposite, befuddling us with a non knowledge of the same. This is a game of layering and playful obfuscation. The persons photographed have concealed their real identities and instead reveal an imagined, self-constructed Other. We are given monkeys and madmen, gods and bears. Cormier embraces them all, and joins the charade. He has found his fantasies in the river of reality and shared them. In doing so, we now see four images in one: the costumed figure, the person beneath, the archetype, and the artist himself.
 Author interview with the artist, 2014
 Jung, C.G. (1970). The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, Collected Works of C. G. Jung, London:Routledge
Yannick Cormier is a French photographer, who worked at the studio Astre in Paris, while pursuing photographic studies at CIFAP in the early 2000s. After years of work as an assistant for Patrick Swirc, William Klein and many others for magazines such as Vogue, Flair, Elle, Vanity Fair, he started a career as a documentary photographer.
From 2003 to 2005 he teamed up with the agency Wostokpress and was sent to India as a correspondant. He then fell in love with India and has since settled in the coastal city of Chennai in Tamil Nadu. In 2007 he founded the agency ‘Trikaya Photos in India’ to showcase emerging photographers working on sensitive issues.
Since 2009 he has been working on the conflict in the region of Kashmir, the problem of addiction to drugs in Kolkata and the marginalized transsexual community across India. His photography is an aesthetic testament of traditions that are endangered in modern India, and his images have been published in various international magazines (OjodePez, Courrier international, Libération, The Sunday guardian, Le Nouvel Observateur, The Hindu, CNN), apart from having been exhibited in India and abroad.