Art & Design
  |  11 MAY 2021

Slip Inside the Eyes of Their Minds

The sixth edition of the Indian Photo Festival showcased 32 exhibitions that included photographers from over 60 countries. We handpick some standout images and speak to the artists behind them

Along the lush walking trail of Hyderabad’s KBR park in Banjara Hills, stands a fence dotted with a vast array of over 300 arresting pictures. The organisers of the Indian Photo Festival 2020 deserve a special mention here for being just as creative as the photographers they’re highlighting. After all, what better moment to catch someone’s attention than in the middle of a leisurely stroll, when they’re hoping to sight a rare species of bird or plant? Suffice it to say, the 21 print exhibitions that are a part of the leading South Asian photography festival’s sixth edition are as remarkable as any uncommon flora or fauna one might hope to chance upon at the national park.

When Verve covered the IPF last year, we focused on the projects that had powerful portrayals of women struggling to survive in inequitable environments. This time, three of us conducted a remote experiment to determine how personal biases and experiences can colour our choices. In our selection of photographs from IPF 2020, the intersections that emerged turned out to be rather insightful. Senior Designer Swati Sinha was specifically drawn to a black-and-white photo for its inherent quality of concealing more than it reveals, whereas the common thread running through the photographs picked by Culture Editor Vivek Tejuja and me (Senior Features Writer) was the depiction of how war and tragedy ravage women and upend their lives. My religious leanings also influenced how I connected with my pick of photo.

Photograph by Antonio Faccilongo Photographer’s note: In Iman Al Barghouti’s bedroom, hangs the suit of her husband, Nael Al Barghouti, who is the longest-serving prisoner in Israeli custody, having spent 41 years in prison.

The overlap in our Venn diagram was, not surprisingly, centered on women. Whether it was about conveying the strength of femininity, honouring the resilience of women or even highlighting how the actions of men have profound consequences on the women in their lives, all three of us subconsciously put our weight behind the furtherance of a female-led narrative.

Presenting our findings along with interviews with the creative minds behind our chosen photographs…. 

Habibi by Antonio Faccilongo (Print)

“What I initially mistook for a photograph of some cleverly-concealed contraband actually ended up having a heartbreaking story behind it. Palestinian prisoners of war collect their sperm into empty pen tubes and hide them inside of chocolate bars that are presented as gifts to their children. This is the only hope their wives have of raising a family while their husbands serve life sentences. It says something if a single photo was able to elicit such heavy thoughts about the ongoing fight to rehabilitate inmates instead of meting out retributive justice and how women end up as collateral damage in men’s quest for power.

As someone who plans on being child-free for the rest of her life, the desperation and resilience of these women to procreate and build a life for themselves despite being denied conjugal visits becomes all the more poignant. I can’t say that I fully understand their plight, but my choice to not have kids seems relatively rooted in privilege and entitlement.” – Sadaf Shaikh, Senior Features Writer

Finding love/hope in the time of war and strife seems to be your theme for the Habibi project. Did this proclivity for capturing love come from a personal experience/revelation in your own life?

Too often, Palestine is depicted as a place of war and conflict, teeming with soldiers, military equipment and weapons. I felt this pressing need to delve deeper into the kind of stories that would restore a semblance of human dignity, which had been largely ignored by the mainstream media. I believe it is very important to bring out the hidden realities of war because they allow us to understand the daily lives of the people caught in the crossfire and force us to look at them in a more intimate setting.

Two of your previous projects (Single) Women and Wuchale speak about the plight of women, whereas Atomic Rooms and Kaitseliit capture the gravity of war. Habibi finds itself at the intersection of these two subjects i.e. the repercussions wars have on the lives of women. How did you come to be interested in these two topics specifically?

I haven’t had the time to update my website recently, and it doesn’t contain any of the work I’ve done in the last four years. Between then and now, I have created series based on the difficulties faced by women in this patriarchal age as well as the consequences wars have on entire populations. I followed the Rohingya exodus to Bangladesh and gathered numerous heartbreaking accounts from women. Some are still ongoing; I am working on photographic and video documentary surrounding the issue of abortion in Italy and also outlining a story on childhood in Albania. Femininity and the consequences of wars are recurring and personal themes for me – a spontaneous need arising from the difficulties faced by my own mother and grandmother after World War II. My grandmother raised her children all by herself amidst great economic difficulty in a society that was prejudiced against anyone who didn’t fit the constructs of a traditional family with a head patriarch. She overcame all adversities with great strength and dignity without ever losing her smile or sweetness, which were the same qualities I found in the women I met while pursuing these topics.

How did these women, many of whom are in hijabs and naqaab take to you, a strange man, photographing them and the lives they’ve worked so hard to build? Did you feel that there were instances of self-censorship, especially since this whole process operates on the premise of secrecy?

Initially, it was extremely difficult to meet these women and earn their trust. I am two meters tall with a very light complexion, blonde hair and green eyes. My physicality is so far removed from that of the locals that it made them suspicious of me before I even had the chance to approach them. Two incidents helped me gain my footing. First, I was introduced to the Palestanian Prisoners’ Club, an association which works to assist inmates and their families. Once they realised that we were working towards a common goal, they put me in touch with the families under their care and it really helped me break the ice.

The second was a chance encounter with a young boy whom I bumped into while walking through a refugee camp in the city of Bethlehem. He stopped me and asked me a series of questions about why I was there and whom I was photographing. He also took a picture of me, which made me very wary, to be honest, since I had been warned about being accosted by people who might want to get me into trouble. A few days later, a friend informed me that a local newspaper had featured my story and vouched for the goodness of my project accompanied by my portrait. Since that day, I have always carried a cut-out of the article with me, and it is the first thing I show the women and families I meet as proof of my good faith. It also helps me overcome the language obstacle without the help of a mediator. In fact, some families now proactively contact me in order to serve as witnesses in my project.

As a photographer, your life is bound to get intertwined with those of your subjects. This is your second project involving Palestinian women. Do you feel like chronicling their life stories visually has had an impact on your own life?

Today, I no longer narrate the stories of Palestinian women and their families. I present my own stories to the world because I feel like I have become a member of the families I’ve photographed. Their children are my own, their women are my sisters. The emotional involvement is now a 100 per cent complete. I continue to visit these families year after year because it has become an emotional need which I do not want to deprive myself of.

Saris for Memory by Isabeau de Rouffignac (Print)

“I was drawn to this image because of the story it tells, of a tragedy that continues to be a part of people living in Bhopal. It speaks of a certain resilience – that life goes on against all odds, and we wake up in hopes of a better day. This image somehow connected itself to our chaotic, current situation from which we shall emerge victorious yet broken.” – Vivek Tejuja, Culture Editor

Photographer’s note: The night of the drama, Hanu Bai (now 50) awoke with a burning sensation in her eyes. To alleviate her distress, she rinsed them in the lake’s polluted waters. She got sick. Today, she has night-blindness, nausea, high blood pressure and respiratory problems. Her two children are well. Financial compensation received: 2 x 25,000 rupees

How easy or difficult is it for an artist to be removed from tragedy that has occurred while creating art? What does it take to view subjects as just subjects – in this case, the women who wore these saris?

I would say no; it’s not easy. It may seem easy at first glance, but I internalise everything. It was only when I returned to France after shooting this series that I realised I was in pain. Our body remembers what it has seen and heard. I can’t manage to ignore it.

They are never simply “subjects”, and I take that into account. I take my time getting to know them and their back stories. My Hindi is not good enough, so I enlisted the help of an interpreter to explain to the women why I wanted to take on this project.

Was it easy to convince the women to wear the sarees? Was it cathartic for them?

When I started thinking about this idea, I approached the women of the healthcare staff of the Sambhavna clinic in Bhopal. I felt that it would be feasible prospect, with more likelihood of receiving positive rather than negative feedback. Some of them spoke to their patients, whom I saw in parallel in the wards.

I had two rooms at my disposal to set up two photo studios: one in the clinic to take photos of the women who worked there (and I would like to take this opportunity to thank Satinath Sarangi, managing trustee of the Sambhavna Trust that runs the clinic, who gave me permission to take these portraits indoors); and the other one outdoors for the women who did not visit the clinic on a daily basis. The Sambhavna clinic, where I lived while documenting this project, is financed by private donations received through the NGO Bhopal Medical Appeal and provides free medical care to survivors.

The reactions I got from the women I photographed were diverse and varied. It is true that I had a few refusals, but the majority of them didn’t take much convincing. For some, I really saw how much they wanted to take part in the project in order to transcend borders and share their narrative with an international audience. One of them fell ill on the day we were supposed to meet at the clinic and asked me to come to her home to paint her portrait. She could barely stand, and I offered to excuse her, but she insisted on going through with it. You might even be able to guess her identity by looking at the photos in detail.

I interviewed the women before photographing them to know more about their lives, and some of them cried during the process. The effects of the Bhopal gas tragedy are still very much evident in the lives of the people who are physically suffering themselves as well as those who have lost a loved one, have a disabled child or are yet to receive financial compensation.

The only part of these saris untouched by the tragedy are their borders. What was your understanding of this as you shot them?

The embroideries are there to symbolise that they are “women”. I physically had them sewn onto the saris, which were initially white; it is not a photomontage.

A little anecdote: When I couriered the saris back to myself in France, I realised that my package had been opened and some of the embroidery was gone. But the saris were still there. I feel like that has a symbolic meaning.

Prisoners’ Rehab by Abhijeet Gurjar from the Samyak Drishti Photo Asia Grant (Print)

“It was the stark contrast between the girl sitting all alone and the prisoners queued up behind the partition that made me pause on this particular photo. The tension manifests itself physically through the depth of it.” – Swati Sinha, Senior Designer

What is the story behind this particular shot? How do you relate to it emotionally?

I shot this photo during an annual event organized by Kolhapur Central Jail, where prisoners were allowed to meet their children in an open atmosphere. Every enlisted inmate had to wait behind the curtain. I was struck most by the forlorn expression of the small girl sitting in the chair, waiting to meet her father. The see-through cloth barricade, the shadows of the inmates, the empty chairs and tables, the big tree juxtaposed against the smallness of the child lost in this chaos made me shoot this image. The partition is an indication of the rigid government policies and the suspicion surrounding the inmates, also extended to their family members in some measure.

Are you more driven by your thoughts or the subject you are photographing?

It depends on the situation and topic of imagery; sometimes I listen to my thoughts, other times the subject dictates the course I will take. Photojournalism assignments are mostly subject-oriented stories, and personal projects hinge on the photographer’s thoughts.

Why have you chosen black and white over colour for this specific subject? Do you shoot the photographs in colour and convert them later, if the subject demands it, or is it something you decide in advance?

I shot this particular photo in colour and changed it to black and white in the post-processing phase. A technical reason behind this was to hide the reddish reflections of the tent on the white clothing of the inmates. The shadows are meant to represent the misfortune and the dark side of the inmates’ lives.

How do you choose a particular issue or place as your subject?

Accessibility and availability are the key factors I keep in mind while choosing my subjects. I also read up extensively on the idea I want to express through the image ahead of my introduction to the subject. Finally, I inform the subject of my exact motives and how I’m going to portray them to best represent their story.

The Indian Photograph Festival is on until December 13, 2020.