5 Compelling Series by Indian Photojournalists That Lend Us Perspective (Vol. II)

[In a world where censorship, advertorials and vested interests reign supreme, photography in media is a visual means of conveying what is perhaps 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 images a point-blank show of support for photographers everywhere.]

After showcasing the powerful series of five Indian photojournalists that shed unique perspective on little-documented phenomena in the country, we move further into the undulating world of visual vocabulary in this second edition. Photojournalism and documentary photography are often overlooked in the 24-hour news cycle, where news is buried as soon as it ‘times out’ leaving highly compelling bodies of photographic work suspended in a vacuum, which is a pity for the narratives a lot of us lose out on.

The five series we have in store for you this time document the gritty realities of life in India in areas where few have ventured. From the conflict-ridden media-dark zones of the North East documented by Vivek Singh to Harikrishna Katragadda’s captures of the heady village of Malana in Kullu valley, which follows one of the oldest forms of democracy in the world,  we hope that you linger over each of these photographs and find them provoking in the way we did.

I. ‘India’s Long, Dark and Dangerous Walk to the Toilet‘ by Mansi Thapliyal

“I have always been interested in exploring the psychological struggles women go through in their everyday lives,” Mansi says. “In the Badaun gang rape, in which two girls were raped and hanged because there was no toilet in their house, I had a perception that maybe they had no money. But, when I went to one the villages outside Delhi, I found it has to do with priority not poverty.”

The danger faced by women going to the toilet outdoors in rural India was made clear when two girls were ambushed, gang-raped and hanged from a tree in Uttar Pradesh.

The danger faced by women going to the toilet outdoors in rural India was made clear when two girls were ambushed, gang-raped and hanged from a tree in Uttar Pradesh.

Entitled ‘India’s long, dark and dangerous walk to the toilet’, Mansi’s series sheds light on the lack of sanitary facilities in rural areas, especially for women. She explains that in our society, men in the village feel safe venturing out at any time of the day or night hence, building a functional toilet at home was never give the importance it deserves. The series we’re showcasing has been shot in a village called Kurmaali, less than 50 miles outside the capital. “As we reached this village outside Delhi, it was still very dark and I could hear many whispers coming from different directions. Most of the women were out by that time rushing to the fields with bottles in their hands.”

Less than 50 miles from India's capital Delhi, in a village called Kurmaali the women walk out to the fields twice a day - at the crack of dawn and the onset of dusk.

Less than 50 miles from India’s capital Delhi, in a village called Kurmaali the women walk out to the fields twice a day – at the crack of dawn and the onset of dusk.

“It was essential that I captured expressions and moments of vulnerability and fear without going too close to my subject,” Mansi elaborates on the experience of shooting the series. “Just as in our families, women’s voices are missing, in photojournalism also a woman’s perspective is unseen. I think there are a lot of things that impact one’s ability to relate to others and how others relate to you, and gender is definitely a factor in that. Being a woman allows me to talk to my subjects on a personal level.”

Mansi Thapliyal is an independent photographer based out of New Delhi and Rishikesh. Born and raised in Rishikesh, India, she earned a B.A. in political science from Delhi University and a postgraduate diploma in photography and visual communication from Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi. In 2011, she joined Open magazine – an Indian news weekly – as a photo researcher and a year later became a photographer with Reuters in Delhi.

II. HIV/AIDS in India 2001-2004 by Srinivas Kuruganti

“Since 2001, I have been exploring through photos and audio, the impact of the AIDS epidemic-on the living and working conditions of people in India,” Srinivas tells us. He began by photographing patients and staff at the Freedom Foundation HIV/AIDS clinics in Bangalore and Hyderabad, one of the few free private run facilities where HIV+ people can seek treatment. Since then, he has documented through photographs how the virus spreads through inter-connected communities, including a series on high-risk groups such as truck drivers, eunuchs and male sex workers. SrinivasKuruganti_HIV_AIDS-Project11 SrinivasKuruganti_HIV_AIDS-Project06 “In 2001, when I first approached the Freedom Foundation in Bangalore to do a story on HIV/AIDs, I met with the director and talked about my interest in this subject,” he elaborates. “The director requested that I put aside my camera for that week and first spend time with them, get to know some of the patients and learn how things work. During that time, there was a young girl who was diagnosed with HIV and her health was deteriorating fast. People in the organization and around her were very upset, especially the staff who had grown close to her. Patients around her were equally disturbed as they began to see their own mortality. A few days later, the girl died. The director appreciated the fact that I had refrained from taking any photographs of this girl or any other patients and then granted me full access to the patients. After this, I continued to work with them and spend time photographing patients over the next five years.”

A photographer of Indian origin, Srinivas Kuruganti began his photography career in 1999 after moving to New York. Currently based out of Delhi, he has photographed the daily lives of manual labourers, from the ship-breaking yards of Bombay to the coal mining villages of Dhanbad. He has also documented the industrial belt in the Patancheru district of Andhra Pradesh and Ankleshwar, Gujarat, where over 5000 chemical, pharmaceutical and dye factories pump their poisonous waste into tributaries and rivers. His most recent project looks at how mining in the forests and fertile lands of Orissa has altered the landscape and destroyed the forests that are so crucial for the survival of Adivasis. His earlier long-term project was on on HIV/AIDS in India. In 2001, his focus shifted to exploring the impact of the AIDS epidemic in India. This effort evolved into a collaboration The Lives in Focus Project which documents through interviews, photographs and video the impact of India’s new patent law on the country’s HIV+ population

III. Malana by Harikrishna Katragadda

Malana, an isolated hill top village in the Kullu valley of the Himalayan ranges is famous for its local hashish with high oil content. Malana was inaccessible until recently because of its forbidding terrain and a belief system that prohibited interaction with outsiders. Their form of self governance traditionally resisted any interference from the Indian government. Guided by the ancient rules laid by their local deity, Malana follows one of the oldest forms of democracy in the world. Cannabis grows freely in large swathes of region around Malana.

An uncertain future awaits the residents of Malana. A paved road for the Malana Hydro Electric Project has made it easy for outsiders to access Malana. It has brought the benefits of modernization including cable television, mobile phones, better health and educational facilities. It has also led to fast erosion of local culture.

An uncertain future awaits the residents of Malana. A paved road for the Malana Hydro Electric Project has made it easy for outsiders to access Malana. It has brought the benefits of modernization including cable television, mobile phones, better health and educational facilities. It has also led to fast erosion of local culture.

September-October is the harvest season of cannabis during which women leave their home and and children their schools to join men in the farms to make hashish. Cannabis leaves are rubbed to extract its maximum oil content. After a thick layer of oil settles on the palm it is creamed off to form balls of hashish.

September-October is the harvest season of cannabis during which women leave their home and and children their schools to join men in the farms to make hashish. Cannabis leaves are rubbed to extract its maximum oil content. After a thick layer of oil settles on the palm it is creamed off to form balls of hashish.

“Smoking cannabis has always been a part of their culture and for the last three decades, cannabis cultivation has become their main source of income,” Harikrishna says. “A lenient view towards cannabis changed when the Indian government enacted the Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS) in 1985 under the sustained pressure from the United States since the mid sixties. This law criminalized the use and cultivation of cannabis. The local police now conduct annual drives to destroy cannabis fields. They have also been campaigning for cultivation of traditional food crops and provide alternate sources of income.”

Harikrishna Katragadda is a photographer based in Mumbai. A B.Tech degree from IIT Madras convinced him that he isn’t quite cut out to be an engineer. He discovered his passion for photography while documenting the Narmada Bachao Andolan. He later studied photojournalism at the University of Texas and then worked as a staff photographer at Mint in New Delhi between 2006-2009. Interested mainly in long-term photography projects, he has travelled widely to document isolated communities and development initiatives of NGOs. His work was awarded by the Media Foundation of India, South Asian Journalists Association, National Foundation for India and The Poynter Institute and has been exhibited at the Goethe Institute, India Habitat Centre, Delhi Photo Festival and the Angkor Wat Photo Festival. His photographs have appeared extensively in print and online publications including Fountain Ink, India Today, Caravan, Vanity Fair, Stern, Geo, Missio Aktuel, Internazionale, New York Times, Greenpeace and BBC.

IV. ‘Jadugoda Unumo Tene’ by Ashish Birulee

The Uranium Corporation of India Limited has been mining and processing uranium since 1967. There was no illness before the establishment of UCIL, Ashish, a Ho tribal of Jadugoda himself, tells us. “People’s experiences and researche from Navajo Nation’s Church Rock, Chernobyl, Fukushima have come to a conclusion that uranium mining and processing of ore gives rise to radiation – then why don’t all government bodies including Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) accept the truth that it brings death, lifelong suffering and will continue to affect generations and generations?”

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“Instead of bringing an end to this madness the government is still making nuclear deals and promoting nuclear energy as safe and cheap energy,” he elaborates. “I began to work as a guide, an interpreter to all photojournalists who come here for documenting the toxic effects of radiation in Jadugoda. Every year some journalist would come to cover a new story but the situation still remains the same here; there’s been no relief, just endless suffering. Witnessing the problems, I felt demoralized but after being around these journalists it hit to me  - why don’t I contribute to bringing the hidden truth openly into the world?”

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Ashish’s grandfather was an employee in UCIL, and both his grandparents died of lung cancer. “The truth is that being in a radioactive zone, I know I could be the next victim. Despite being a local, it wasn’t easy shooting the victims. Not all of them allowed me to take their photos. Most of the families looked frustrated as they haven’t got any relief, and some of their pensions for being handicapped have even been stopped.” “And I was also being subjected to questions similar to how the photojournalist who’d visited them before had – what had that photojournalist done with their photos? They’d also ask as I took photographs whether it would really bring any change? It was a big question to me, and till date, I’ve no proper answer to it.”

Ashish Birulee is a tribal photographer hailing from Ho community of Jharkhand. He is also a member of Jharkhandis Organisation Against Radiation, which has been raising its voice against the hazardous effects of uranium mining in Jadugoda for decades.

V. Beyond Chicken’s Neck by Vivek Singh

Chicken’s Neck is a narrow strip of land that connects mainland India with its north-eastern states. Vivek Singh has been reporting from this remote frontier comprising seven states, known as ‘Seven Sisters’ since 2006. Violence here spanning decades has claimed thousands of lives and left survivors with scars that may take years to heal.

“In early January 2014, Lacchu Mardi, 65, lay dead underneath a bush in a forest camp for more than three days before his body was finally found. He lived landless and died on a piece of land violently contested by the neighbouring states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. His stiff body was still wrapped in a plastic sheet and covered in his tattered shawl. The stink was unbearable, but the wailing family stood a few feet away from a bonfire that substituted for the final rites. There were fifteen others who were killed the same day as Lacchu.”

The burnt remains of the Duramari ME Madrasa (Religious School), about 15 miles from Kokrajhar town, the site of a fierce battle where Migrant Bengali Muslims of the village by the same name were holed up against armed Bodo militants in late July 2012. The School was badly destroyed in the battle and finally burnt to the ground after the villagers fled to a nearby river.

The burnt remains of the Duramari ME Madrasa (Religious School), about 15 miles from
Kokrajhar town, the site of a fierce battle where Migrant Bengali Muslims of the village by the same
name were holed up against armed Bodo militants in late July 2012. The School was badly destroyed in
the battle and finally burnt to the ground after the
villagers fled to a nearby river.

“More recently, in December, 2014, armed separatist Bodo militants killed 81 adivasi men, women and children with automatic weapons, setting off reprisal attacks and arson in western Assam. Fear of further violence left more than 200,000 displaced in the state.” In 2012,Vivek Singh documented the aftermath of the worst violence in decades in the Bodoland Territorial District Areas in Western Assam, witnessing large-scale exodus of immigrant settlers after violent ethnic clashes with the indigenous Bodo tribesmen. The previous year,he made images of Brus, a small tribe numbering 35,000, displaced from Mizoram since 1997 and languishing in camps in Tripura, even as life was brought to a standstill in the sleepy Sadr Hills in Manipur by one of the longest economic blockades in India’s history. Vivek also witnessed a vicious cycle of violence and displacement in the region that he believes threatens to repeat itself soon.

In Northeast India, the term ‘adivāsi’ applies only to the ‘tea-tribes’ brought in from Central India by the British more than 150 years ago. Generations later, these adivāsis have no special protected status and are now competing with indigenous tribals for land, forest resources and representation in local government.

Narayanpur in Assam's Chirang district is a village of 63 families, it houses the poorest of those Bengali Muslim refugees who have just returned to their village after living in relief camps for two years.

Narayanpur in Assam’s Chirang district is a village of 63 families, it houses the poorest of
those Bengali Muslim refugees who have just returned to their village after living in relief camps for
two years.

“These images are from an ongoing series of photographic essays which I have worked on for eight years on the people of India’s north-east,” Vivek says. “They’re a  fragmented jigsaw of indigenous peoples in one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse regions of Asia and their growing insecurities relating to land and demographics, and the embrace of ‘identities’ that makes them look at everyone else as the ‘other people’.”

Whilst still experimenting and honing his skills in photography, Vivek Singh’s day jobs included journalism and television news production during 2002-04. By late 2006, unsettled on home soil, Vivek headed to the country’s remote north-east, since which he has been photographing and documenting indigenous people in a place where cultures and facial features have more in common with Burma and Tibet than with mainstream India, and, where armed conflicts are the norm with 26 active armed groups in five of the seven states. Recognition for his work came with The Manuel Rivera Grant for documentary Photography in 2013, allowing Vivek to continue his work in western Assam. The images were presented alongside the prestigious photography festival Les Recontres D’Arles in July 2014. Vivek has worked with The Caravan and has also contributed to regularly to international magazines including Der Spiegel, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times’ first country-specific website, India Ink. Most notable among his recent work was for CNN.com about a rape survivor from a tribe in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, Born in a coastal town in Gujarat, he is currently based in Delhi, where he spends the time that he gets off from his travels as a photojournalist.

Words: Aditi Dharmadhikari 

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