What he saw and heard as the cinematographer for the documentary ‘Kakkoos’ drove Kumar to build a rich chronicle of manual scavengers’ lives.

In black and white this photo series lays bare the hard truths of manual scavenging
Features Photography Wednesday, November 15, 2017 - 19:35

In some of the pictures, the pain and hardship that we have come to expect from such chronicles is clearly visible. But other images are more unsettling – in these simple, monochrome portraits, the children of manual scavengers look through the camera at the viewer, calling us to hear all of their stories and be moved by them. 

It is an ugly reality that persists across our cities, towns and villages to this day. But manual scavenging is one problem that we refuse to look squarely in the eye. Nothing established this better than the 2017 documentary Kakkoos, which lays bare the politics behind the persistence of manual scavenging. 

In his new photoseries, Palani Kumar – the movie’s cinematographer – enriches the picture that Kakkoos uncovered, delivering an insightful and empathetic picture of those forced to clean society’s refuse. 

Kumar, who has been pursuing photography for five years, started working on the photoseries while shooting for Kakkoos. What he saw and the stories he heard then, pushed him to document the lives of manual scavengers, and do more for their empowerment. 

One story that has stayed with him, Kumar tells TNM, is of a family who were rendered homeless when the breadwinner of the family died. “The family broke down a toilet and had to stay there with the kids. That was the inspiration for this photo series. They were drinking dirty water. They had no facilities. It’s what helped me understand the condition of the people who clean the entire town. The kids after this shouldn't be taking up manual scavenging, which generations have been doing for now. The job should be to change society. The kids of that town were the inspiration,” he says.

The series also aims to push people to confront the realities of caste that are swept under the carpet, says Kumar. “Dalits have been doing this job (manual scavenging) for generations. It is only they who end up doing this. No matter how much you pay an upper caste person, they will never do it. It is only if the caste system changes that their situation will change. That is also an objective,” he adds.

He now hopes to take the series, which was exhibited at Chennai's Lalit Kala Akademi last week, to colleges and schools across the country to create awareness.

Here are some of the photographs from the series:

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