Some of you may remember the UNITY convention I attended a little over a month ago. The highlight of that conference for me was not George W. Bush or John Kerry; in fact it was running into two desi photojournalists – Adithya Sambamurthy and Nick Oza. I have been in touch with both of them since then. Nick is an award-winning photojournalist now based in Georgia. He has promised to send me sampling of his best images. I’ll post them here just as soon as I get them.
Starting today with Adithya’s words and images, I am launching a special category called DISPATCHES. Friends of Tiffinbox who wish to display their work from the field, report on an event, write poetry, illustrate a concept or an issue, or generally want to have their voices heard in any conceivable creative way please contact me. I promise your life in the limelight will last more than 15 seconds.
Adithya is currently in India working on a self-assigned documentary project. When we met in Washington, D.C., he shared his portfolio with me. I knew right away that sitting in front of me was a very talented and enterprising young man. I think you will agree.
What follows is his first dispatch from India. It gives you an idea of how complex documentary work can be. The image at the end of this post is one of eight that Adi sent me. I did say he is talented, didn’t I? If you wish to send him feedback, email him at adi18(a)hotmail(dot)com. Please tell him Tiffinbox sent you. And please read his essay (click the link below) about his experiences doing documentary work in India. It’s an interesting read.
Capturing the Home Away from Home: First Time Explorations in Documentary Photography in India
By Adithya Sambamurthy
I’ve been in India a few weeks now, arriving first in Mumbai, then going to Bangalore and finally arriving in Chennai about two weeks ago. The purpose of my visit is to begin working on a documentary photo essay on the repatriation of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, back to their home villages near Jaffna and the surrounding areas of Northern Sri Lanka. I have spent the last two weeks interviewing a number of people on the subject, but have also begun doing some street photography around the area where I am staying.
I am 23 years old, and have spent almost 20 years of my life outside this country, having grown up in Germany and the United States. I have had some experience as a newspaper photojournalist, but have never developed a project of this magnitude before. In the last week, I have come to find that, in India, who you know is more important than what you know, but have also found the local journalists to be extremely friendly and helpful. I have always considered myself an Indian photojournalist, but have realized now more than ever that I’m not really Indian. In fact, no one here is, as everyone seems trapped in sub- categories of religion, ethnicity, caste and wealth, which seem to dictate how people relate and communicate with each other. The word “Indian” in India seems to be an empty word, a construct solely fabricated for the outside world to classify a disparate mass of people, and so that those in the Diaspora, such as myself, have a word with which we can define our identity.
This provides a difficult set of challenges for the documentary photographer, as I believe good documentary work is not contingent upon having fancy equipment, or good aesthetic judgment, but on the relationship the photographer has with her/his subjects. This may seem contradictory, as documentary work is supposed to have distance and objectivity, but my experience covering community beats for newspapers has shown that the best work usually results from the subject’s willingness to ignore the photographer, while letting her/him witness and record intimate moments. This requires a level of trust, which is bred by a sense of community, but how do you work in a community that is so fragmented, where social norms seem so restrictive?
During the first few days in Chennai, I have been too intimidated by the hustle and bustle, the sheer volume of creatures (people and animals) squeezing into the narrow roads, to begin taking pictures, and just wanted to observe the sites and sounds of the city. I was especially terrified of the people, though everyone I talked to on the street seemed friendly. How would they react to my taking pictures of them?
I find my language skills to be better than I had initially feared, though still barely adequate. How am I to explain what I am doing, if I am confronted by someone about taking pictures?
Since this isn’t assignment photography, I want to be a discreet observer while I am here and not call too much attention to myself. In accordance with the 6th Commandment (“thou shalt not ruin the documentary feel of photographs with heavy-handed use of fill-flash”) from the 10 (+2) Commandments of Lighting, which was written by some wise person whose name I no longer remember, I have chosen to keep the equipment simple. The objective is to look for good light and document every day life in the city. No fill-flash, and only two lenses. I’m also trying to stay away from the clichéd images of India I believe we are all familiar with: no religious festivals, no temples, no weddings, just everyday people doing everyday things.
After several days of simply walking around my neighborhood, I have begun taking my camera with me. It is amazing to see how sheltered I have been during my previous visits to India, usually to visit extended family and friends. Simply walking the streets has exposed me to a different India, a vibrant one, where life happens in the streets, out in the open, with no fluorescents, no tungsten. People selling produce, shoes, books and fixing machines, all in little stalls where natural light just seeps in. Without wanting to unnecessarily romanticize it, I am smitten. A photographers dream, right?
Well… not exactly. Unfortunately, I have quickly found that the narrow alleyways are situated so that these little stalls are perpetually in the shade cast by the buildings. What makes perfect sense for the people working in these shops, and the passers by who are their customers, has made things tough for me, as the light is always flat, giving very little definition to my pictures. What am I to do? The only solution is to find buildings that are not quite as tall, and, through trial and error, visit these areas during different times of the day, to see when the sun is at an angle which creates directional light in these little patches.
The next step is to be able to enter people’s personal space, camera in hand, as they go about their daily lives. This is something I am still finding very hard to do. Initially, I would simply shoot everything with a medium long (70mm) lens, which spared me the problem of actually getting in peoples’ faces. Even then, I would often be keenly watched, not just by my subject, but by a multitude of people, who crowded around to see what this foreigner was doing, essentially making it impossible for me to take the kind of natural pictures so prized in photojournalism.
People ask me questions like: “Why are you doing this?” “Where is this going to run?” and “What is your native country?” I think the reaction is natural and legitimate, and in response to the former two, I usually try, in broken Tamil, to explain what I’m doing, but in response to the latter, I’m usually quite perplexed.
What do I say? Germany? America? India?
Well, probably not India, since clearly no one here thinks I’m Indian, or they wouldn’t have asked me this question, but, in Europe or the US, when asked something similar, the answer seemed much clearer.
Since my first few days shooting, things have gotten somewhat better. I have become more courageous in my approach, using wide angles lenses and getting in close, and my Tamil has gotten to the point where I can even pursue I little small talk with the people that question me on the street. I still am hesitant about really getting in close though. As you will be able to see, the pictures on the site lack a sense of intimacy, as I still am trying to find that connection with my subjects. I hope, over time, that this will change. My approach has been to simply make prints at my grandparents’ home, which I give to my subjects subsequently, and believe that with this simple gesture, I open the door to talking to them, and thereby can also gain caption information. Especially the shopkeepers, some of whom I have photographed and given prints, now know me is the foreign kid with the camera, and usually smile and wave when I walk around this neighborhood.
In editing my pictures however, I also have realized that I seem to be most comfortable photographing those that are most like myself, that is male, Hindu, young to middle-aged. I still am hesitant to get in close with a wide-angle when photographing women, and Muslims, for fear of offending them. This, I believe, will be my next challenge, to work up the courage to begin documenting those in this community that are different from myself.
I leave on the 13th of September for Thirunelveli, Erode, and Rameswaram, little towns in the South, where three of the 103 refugee camps in this state are situated, and where I have arranged to meet a few of the families, who I hope will be gracious enough to let me into their lives. However, the towns are situated almost at the tip of the sub-continent, a 12-hour drive away from Chennai. If I have had problems assimilating with a camera in a big Indian city, what are my chances going to be in the small towns of rural India?