In a world where censorship, advertorials and vested interests reign supreme, photography in media is a visual means of conveying what is debatably slightly more objective, and considerably more eye-catching. With photography jobs for print publications taking a nosedive and digitised publications multiplying like there’s no tomorrow, the French publication Libération said it best when they published an edition of their newspaper sans photographs, the empty frames where there should have been a point-blank show of support for photographers everywhere.
In India, it is highly likely there are a couple of iconic photographs over the years that you will remember from them having made headlines - photographs that you automatically associate with a certain event, perhaps. Documentary photography and photojournalism, however, still remain a largely niche area with a markedly limited understanding of the extent of its impact on media, and society. There are bodies of work that have been created in the country that have for far too long been tucked away, limited to critical acclaim amongst confined pockets, when their narrative should be reaching much larger audiences to relate their depiction of events for not just the showcase of such powerful voices, but for capturing the latent moments for posterity.
Homegrown engaged in conversation with five photographers in this first volume, and requested them to walk us through their series, and the ethos behind them:
I. ‘Staining the Sunderbans’ by Arati Kumar-Rao
‘Sundarbans, which literally translates to ‘beautiful forest’, straddles the border between India and Bangladesh along the eastern, Indian state of West Bengal. India has 40% and Bangladesh has 60% of the mangroves. Both areas are designated wildlife sanctuaries and reserve forests. When the monsoon storms well up and all hell breaks loose, the Sundarbans bears the brunt of its assault. Mangroves are storm surge barriers, the first line of defense against rising seas and blinding cloudbursts. This mangrove margin is home to some of the world’s most endangered creatures: the masked finfoot; the Irrawaddy, Gangetic, and four other kinds of dolphins; the Bengal tiger, and the beautiful, endangered sundri tree (Heritiera fomes).
Three of South Asia’s mightiest rivers — the Ganges (called Padma in Bangladesh), the Brahmaputra, and the Meghna — meet here in southern Bangladesh and purge themselves of silt and sand, into the raging waves of the Bay of Bengal. Life in this delta is lived between a thousand tongues, or khals (channels), and squiggly jigsaws of land. The sea and the river mix, the balance of sweet and salt crucial to the health of the delta. Upset it, and the salinity in the tides from the Bay would become too much for terrestrial life to handle.
On December 9, 2014, it was into this fragile balance that the OT Southern Star -7 poured its 63,000 gallons of oil. By definition and by law, heavy shipping traffic carrying hazardous cargo has no place in the Sundarbans. Yet in Bangladesh, tankers carrying “modified cargo”—oil, pesticides, fertilisers, insecticides, fly ash, cement, sand, and salt—travel through these channels every day.’
”I had travelled to the area in August 2014 to document life in the delta,” Arati Kumar Rao tells us. “I went back after the oilspill in December 2014 to document the extent of the spill. These stories are a part of my documentation of the entire Brahmaputra basin, the changes that the river is seeing, and the effect those changes are having on the ecology and the people dependent on the river.”
”It was cold on the river that day. The sun offered no comfort. I ducked under deck, into the cabin, and under a blanket, and stuck my head out of the porthole. I was eye-level now with the 3m thick black stripe of furnace oil dripping from tree trunks, sedges, undergrowth in the Sundarbans. But I had no time to rue this, for out of the ebbing tide arced three Gangetic dolphins. Again, and again. In spite of the ruin that had come to the river by way of the oil spill, life was trying to find a way to do what it does best. Thrive.”
“At least 200 hired workers in nearly 100 engine and country boats have started a campaign to collect the oil from rivers and channels,” a local resident told PTI over phone. “The workers were loading the boats with the oil they were collecting manually using the traditional equipment and depositing those in tanks in nearby ferry terminals.”
Considering the magnitude of the oil spill - and, in particular, its proximity to us - the issue has gone appallingly underreported by mainstream media.
Arati Kumar-Rao is a freelance photographer and journalist based in South Asia, focusing on changes in land-use over years and its effect on ecology and on the people living close to the land.
II. ‘Jatra’ by Soumya Sankar Bose
Independent documentary photographer Soumya Shankar Bose delves into a traditional musical theatre form popular in Bengali-speaking parts of the subcontinent in his evocative series, to capture its journey over time; from being a popular community-based art, to a profession today that is battling the constraints of attention-spans and the onslaught of information technology. Bose, whose own uncle used to be a Jatra artiste, takes us through his tale.
“I knew I had to work on this project when my uncle retired from the Jatra and joined a railway factory, hoping to do what he could not as an artiste - earn a living,” Soumya Sankar Bose says. “I began photographing artistes who are now unemployed but were once gigantic figures of the Jatra. Helped by my uncle, I have been peeking into the daily lives of these artistes for the last eleven months and trying to get a trip to the past of the Jatra ashor with them for briefest glimpses.”
Dating back to 16th century, the Jatra is a famous folk-theatre form of Bengal that employing dialogue, monologue, songs and instrumental music to tell stories in a vivid and and engrossing manner. Jatra pala, as the plays are called, are enacted on wooden stages without any barriers between the actors and the audience, facilitating direct communication between the two components of the performance. ‘Jatra’ itself meaning ‘journey’ or ‘going’, the plots of these stories depicted range from Indian mythology and historical incident, to more contemporary topics based on social issues as well. The partition of India had a major impact on Jatra as artistes in the newly formed East-Pakistan (later to become Bangladesh), a Muslim majority country, discontinued to enact Hindu religious folk-tales such as ‘Krishna lila’, ‘Devi Thakurani’, ‘Kongso Bodh’, ‘Kaliadaman’ etc.
On the other side of the border, artistes in West Bengal stopped playing Muslim characters such as Siraj-ud-dullah, Shah Jahan, Akbar etc. The advent of cinema and TV in the ‘60s and ‘70s blew a deadly blow to the theatre art form. As of 2013 , over 600 Jatra companies employed over 2,00,000 people, but it has come to a point where they often give out free performances since it is no longer a sustainable means of earning a living.
Soumya Sankar Bose is an independent photographer born and brought up in Midnapore. After completing his Engineering degree, he decided to go to Pathshala, the South Asian Institute Media Institute, in Bangladesh a few years ago. He returned to India a year and a half later and started his work related to his own place and the people of his own country. From his childhood, he has been afraid of losing things, people and even time, which actually forces him to capture them. Soumya has an intense interest for disappearing arts and people. He has attended several Master classes under Morten Krogvold, Justin Maxon, Shahidul Alam and many more. Soumya’s work has been published in magazines such as F-stop Magazine, Scroll.in and the Huffington Post.
III. ‘A Life of Manual Scavengers in India’ by Senthil Kumaran
In India, the world’s second largest populated country, only 30% of the people have their own toilet facilities. Others use Public and Dry Latrines (with no flush). Across in India nearly 1.3 million manual scavengers, (Predominantly Lower Caste people) are employed to remove human excreta using crude implements such as tin plates, small brooms and baskets, and carry them to dumping grounds, despite the Nation having enacted a law against it (The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrine (Prohibition) Act, in 1993) and also The National Human Rights Commission objecting Manual Scavenging work. There are an estimated 9.2 million dry latrines and other public toilets that employ the services of these manual scavengers across the Nation, most of whom also force their children into the profession to earn their livelihood.
”When I started working on this project seven years ago, I did not know that I was going to shoot one of the horrible and depressing jobs in the world,” Senthil Kumaran tells us. “I shot all of my photographs with basic pictorial style without too much focus on aesthetics. At an earlier stage, I focused on the subject only, either man or shit. On my first day of the project, I could not spend more than 15 minutes inside that public toilet. I skipped my shooting and met that guy in his house in the slum, and spent time with some scavengers and their family members. We spoke about a variety of things like cricket, cinema, politics, human rights and India...their friendship made me feel some sort of emotional connectivity with them, and that helped me do this story.”
“I believe that style plays a very important role in any visual art medium, especially photography. A style is a consistent combination of choices. A style is a reflection of the artist. I mostly use a wide angle, and place my camera very close to the subject.”
”I spent 23 days on this project,” he elaborates on the process. “One day, when I was spending time with a few manual scavengers, they were cleaning one composite septic pit. As they were cleaning the waste, they generally found trivial things, usually 2 rupees coins, safety pins, small rings.. the other day, one of the men told me that he found a cadaver of a new born baby from a manhole once.”
According to a Tehelka report in India, every year around more than 9800 scavengers die of noxious gases in manholes, septic tanks and other health-related issues. Alcoholism is inevitable to their life, and most of them die before their retirement. Also, the stigma attached to the profession and extreme poverty force them to pass on the legacy to their future generations.
“Since the Supreme Court condemned and prohibited the employment of manual scavengers, I haven’t been allowed to take photographs when I saw instances of a few people entering manholes,” Senthil relates. “They also explained that if they use basic tools and gear to unclog a manhole, it’ll take up to half a day, but if we enter into it, it gets cleared up within 10 minutes when they use their legs as tools. After that I’ve tried to shoot a few times but haven’t been allowed to do so. I do have a mind to start again though.”
Senthil Kumaran worked as a software engineer before studying computer science in Madurai University. He was drawn to the lens though and went on to discover his keenness at documenting social, cultural and wildlife issues’ he has today won more than 10 international awards that include UNESCO, Nat Geo, WWF, Pano, & Nature Image Awards, having been touted “Geographical Photographer of the year” award from Royal Geographic Society, London in 2007 and “Hope Francoise Demulder Grant” from Angkor Photo Worksop in 2014. His Photographs has been appeared in Getty Images, Nat Geo, AFP, Terre Sauvage Magazine, City Magazine, Photo Life Magazine, Outdoor Photography, India Today, Business Today, Open Magazine & Tehelka.
IV. ‘Ceilings’ by Ritesh Uttamchandani
Ritesh Uttamchandani’s take on his documentary of the ‘cleanest brothel’ in India is unique and disquieting, located in Sangli, a mosaic of images that averts its eyes from a cruder perspective to take you through a highly personal journey.
“In 2011, I was commissioned by OPEN magazine to take pictures for a story on Sangli’s cleanest brothel. Sangli is a small town in interior Maharashtra, known for its production of sugar, turmeric and electricity. ‘Cleanest brothel’ – the union of those two words is not only baffling but raised my curiosity quite a bit. The story was already filed, only the pictures had to be done. I reached a day late, sadly, and for the next two days, Deepak, a local journalist and the ‘contact’ who was to take me there vanished. So I chilled out and went sightseeing with Uday Deolekar, an old photographer friend from Sangli .. [who] also happened to know Bandamma, the madam of the brothel and volunteered to take me there. Bandamma’s brothel is at Dussehra chowk.
“The assignment was humbling, and broke many of my assumptions about commercial sex work and the women involved in it,” Ritesh says. “I shared dinners and sweets with them, some women had regular clients who would buy groceries and daily items for them and it was not ‘all’ about the sex. On the weekend though, a busy Saturday night, a Bengali girl from Calcutta, ‘naveen maal’ (new item/stuff) as the men referred to her, has a particularly heavy night. She entertained over 17 clients in the space of 3 hours. Just the 3 hours of the night that I observed, I have no count for those that came to her during day light hours. Some would say it’s inhuman, but that discussion is best left for another day.”
”While I was waiting for moments to happen, Deepak asked me if I want to shoot some of the women while they were at it. I refused. His offer got me thinking [though] on not only the way we photographers are perceived but how to not state or shoot the obvious, given the current scenario. I feel, we owe it to our subjects who open their doors and lives for us, to find better and more incisive ways of telling their stories. More often than not, we stick to the obvious, unwilling to scratch the surface or probe deeper and make images that surely bring us financial rewards but contribute nothing new to the understanding of the topic. Sometime, though, to be fair, there is no alternative besides stating/shooting the obvious.”
Motifs and finer details like ‘a picture of a family member’, ‘ashes of a father hung in a small green pouch’, ‘just a red bulb’, drying clothes and posters of actors adorned some of the rooms where Ritesh has photographed.
”Quite frankly, I was tired of looking at the routine images of brothels; women servicing a client, those hollow eyes, the shabby clothes... it’s been done over and over and sadly, it offers no new perspective,” Ritesh tells Homegrown.
“For me, this assignment turned out to be quite a game-changer. I used my personal experience of surviving an accident and managed to photograph the story off a tangent. I also did the regular images for safety, but two years later this series was published too. I found this particular approach very rewarding. Minus the actual subjects, viewers who have come in contact with these images found them more educational and more impactful. At some point in our lives, we gave all stared at our ceilings for hours to cope with emotional tragedies or physical pain or both. The process opened my shuttered brain as well. I realised that it is the simple images that are very hard to make. And finally, what use are my photos if they don’t add anything to the audience’s understanding of an issue or, at times, bring a positive change in the subject’s life?”
”It was tough explaining to everyone what I was doing, so I gave up and I’d just enter a room, ask everyone to vacate after having a cordial chat, lock the door from inside, do my photos and move over to the next,” he says. “There were many poignant moments during [the evening classes that Bandamma ran]. The one I loved most was when the daughter of one of the women came from school, still in her uniform and red ribbons, sat next to her mom, who was learning to write my name in Hindi on a slate with a broken piece of chalk. The moment that jarred me the most was of a man making an offer to the young Bengali girl, while a former sex worker, probably in her 60’s now, prayed to an idol in the background. Some of those images went with the writer’s story/ the series of images of ceilings didn’t work for the story, and hence I chose not to file them at all. In an absolutely partial-to-me world, I’d have loved to have both photographic versions published in the same issue of the magazine. After all..every story, does have many sides to it.”
Ritesh Uttamchandani is a photojournalist with OPEN Magazine, you can view more of his work here.
V. ‘Crematoria’ by Arkodripta Chakraborty
A body burns on a funeral pyre; here and there, out of the stacked pile, you see parts of human limbs, as the mourner could not afford enough wood. The smoke is thick and eyes sting; the smell in the air is rancid with the aroma of barbecued human flesh. Now and then comes a man with a pole in hand to prod the body to keep it alight. Feeling squeamish, you wonder how inhuman his work is. A few minutes in the conversation and you realize the emotion in him is long since dead, this work has pushed him into constant intoxication.
“I burnt my 6-year-old boy one day, I still see his face in the fire sometime.”
“I used to burn bodies, now I have stopped. I have offered myself to Bhutnath. See these patches on me, I am going through a slow death.”
His job, along with regular jubilation, has taken a toll on his mental state. Make your way through the constant exhaust and you realize how traumatic it is to deal with the constant sight of blazing human bodies.
“I explored the life that prevails around the crematorium and found a strange sense of melancholy that binds that space to the animals and human (both dead and alive) who dwell there and slowly it transited into me as I started photographing them,” Arkodripta shares. “This story is about a place, which stands witness to a few life and thousand death, salvation and solace, a place much believed to be between heaven and earth. The place is “Swargadwar” in Puri, Orissa, India.”
Born in the border town of Agartala, capital of Northeastern state of Tripura, Arkadripta Chakraborty is a 28-year-old independent photographer who currently divides his time between Guwahati/Assam and Agartala/Tripura. Having lived in Poona and Bombay, he returned to the Northeast in September 2012. After completing his masters in Business Law he perused a Diploma in Photojournalism, which he ended up hating. Some of his earlier works includes documenting life of Civil Death Victims in Uttar Pradesh and covering the ethnic conflict in various parts of the North East with particular focus on Western Assam, popularly known as the Chicken’s neck. In 2014 he was awarded the India Habitat Centre Fellowship for photography for his ongoing work ‘Crematoria’ and his work has been featured in BBC, Nat Geo Traveller, Reuters, Yahoo Originals, Danish Photo Journal, Open, Tehelka among others.