(This is the article that I wrote for “Un(T)ravel,” the April-July 2011 edition of Offbeat, The Alternative’s quarterly ezine celebrating alternative living. The Un(T)ravel edition of Offbeat can be viewed here.)
There is a calling in everyone’s life, and you ought to answer it – I personally believe that. I answered mine when I was creating software products inside an IT giant’s plush office in Bangalore. I wanted to change the world through my camera. Will I succeed in my mission?, is a question that can be answered in retrospective. But I believe that our world is changing every second, and what we say, see or do is a catalyst in shaping our planet’s future. Therefore photography is a catalyst for change too.
So, I set about travelling with a camera as a photojournalist. I soon realised that the camera had been democratized in my era and everyone who was travelling had a camera in their hands. It was good to see so many catalysts.
I recollect an incident in the year 2008 when I was at Siem Reap, Cambodia, on a fellowship. As part of a documentary photography workshop held during the Angkor Photography Festival, I was documenting the lives of Indian migrants living and working across Siem Reap. Most of them were men from Gorakhpur making a living as travelling salesmen. Their families lived back in India.
I was taken by my source to an area where many of them lived as a group in rented rooms. They were glad to receive a visiting Indian. The hospitality however changed the moment I told them that I was documenting the lesser known portions of the Indian diaspora. One of them told me something in Hindi that roughly translated to, “Sir, you are from the media. And media shows only negative things about us. Your stories will finally appear according to the whims and fancies of the newspaper. We are sorry but we don’t want to be photographed.” I was taken aback but I obliged. We sat there for the rest of the afternoon drinking cola and discussing life and longing.
It was a watershed moment for me. The problem was not with my identity of being a photographer, but it was with my identity of being part of the mainstream media, a catalyst I had till then believed would bring positive influence to a changing world. It was no longer trusted by the oppressed. The media landscape had changed. Fresh journalists were often indoctrinated with the idea of ‘making the important sound interesting’. But, most of the time it turned out to be ‘making the silly sound as it were really important’.
Absolute truth (it never was) has become a battle between perspectives. And all too often, the perspective of the protagonists seems to be getting lost somewhere. As a visual story-teller I am committed to giving a voice to these perspectives. How do I do that? I found an answer in embedded journalism.
Embedded journalism is often thought of as a way to present wartime stories from the perspective of the government by embedding journalists in army units. But if used intelligently, it can do wonders to this world. One should look at the works of late Tim Hetherington (he was recently killed in Libya) – he brought out perspectives of soldiers fighting the battle till the last mile. These are voices lost in every war; all that we hear otherwise is a military spokesperson addressing the media at a press conference.
If you are a photographer visiting new places, I ask you to engage with the people you photograph. Communities, places and festivals in the developing world hold a lot more value than just being ‘exotic’ subjects. Photographers of the past, the tourism industry and colonial agendas have done harm by capturing stories with the aim of only making things sound attractive. Unfortunately this tradition is being followed by present day photographers without understanding its adverse effects.
Since 2008, I have been a part of the lives of people I document. And it has been an enriching experience. For the last one year, I have followed the life of a 5-year-old dark-skinned girl from the day she was adopted by a family comprising a single woman and another adopted daughter. I have spent little time shooting, and more time understanding their lives. I have spent time playing hide and seek, teaching “2+2=4”, wiping tears, laughing at jokes, listening to rhymes, getting breakfast, cutting apples and listening to serious discussions in the last one year. This has helped me become a better messenger of their story that I tell through my camera. I hope this can be a catalyst in the change that I hope for.
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