Deep in the heart of Tamil Nadu, in small scattered groups live the gypsy communities of the Narikuravar. The tribe is thought to have migrated centuries ago from the North of India and are best known as skilled hunters. In fact, their name is derived from the Tamil words ‘Nari’ and ‘Kuravar’ which mean Jackal hunters. While their name is Tamilian, they speak a language called Vagriboli which has traces of Marathi and Telugu as well as Tamil. This proud tribe was criminalised by the British in 1911 under the Criminal Tribes Act and labelled ‘born criminals’. While this was abandoned after independence, they still face persecution by local authorities. They were given small plots and houses in newly constructed settlements and there are currently around 900 Narikuravar colonies trying to live peacefully in Tamil Nadu.
Photographer Yannick Cormier learned of these astounding people and decided to make them the focus of a photo-series. He started work on the project in 2010, after taking the first picture ‘A young Narikuravar Hunter’. He was captivated by the quiet dignity and intelligence of this boy and despite its morose appearance he was inspired to delve deeper into their story. The whole series stems from this encounter.
While they speak a very unique language, Yannick found he had no problems communicating with the tribe in the 5 years he spent travelling among them. The main issue he faced was actually trying to locate all the different clans. As a tribe they are closely associated with nature, as opposed to tribes in the surrounding areas which are more focussed on culture. They are treated like people living in the past and consequently can be very hard to track down.
The stark black and white imagery throughout the series really captures the emotions of the Narikuravar without distractions. Yannick says that the lack of colour is a reflection of his feelings towards his craft; “Photography is very subjective for me not really objective because actually, I take photos of what I have learned. Because I work with something coming from the ancestral and primitive part of my mind. A kind of intuition,” he says.
The Narikuravar story is one that displays the strength and grace of a group of people that have faced decades of prejudice. Yannick hopes that his project will show the world the dignity they maintain in the face of their difficulties and he tries to find their poetry through the lens. Although it seems like an ethical or political issue, for Yannick it’s much more than that, it’s personal - “I see their struggle, their sorrow, their sufferings. I think it’s time to welcome them into our hearts.”
We’ve posted below a selection of images from the series, you can view it in its entirety on Yannick Cormier’s website.