The question of representation is one that rings loud and clear - who can tell the stories of the underrepresented, of the working class? It is a question that plagues many artists of today.
For thousands of years the stories of the oppressed, if at all they were told, were told by upper caste, upper-class rungs of the society. But the narrative is now changing with the empowerment of the oppressed castes, who are telling their own stories.
It is this very idea that cinematographer Deepak Bagavanth had when he began working with young adults from Chennai’s Semmencherry - one of the biggest resettlement colonies in the city.
“We were working on a film set in Semmencherry and to understand the landscape better I wanted to be a part of it. But how to interact? How to approach people? Fortunately, I got in touch with Thozhamai, an NGO, who helped break the ice,” shares Deepak.
The result was a photography workshop that 15 students from the area initially attended. On day two, ten of them turned up and this group stayed for about four months. Deepak then chose three young boys — K Vinnarasu, K Saran Raj and M Ganesh Kumar — to train further. The three close friends are visual communication students from Mohamed Sathak College Of Arts And Science.
L to R: Ganesh, Deepak, Saran Raj and Vinnarasu
The photo exhibit at Lalit Kala Akademi put together by Deepak has a total of 30 photos taken by Vinnarasu, Saran Raj and Ganesh Kumar. Ask them about these photographs and the boys immediately begin talking animatedly.
The images on display, printed on 16x24 archival quality print, are quite poignant as well. While photography in itself can be quite uncanny and promiscuous, these images have been presented with an honesty that can be quite difficult to achieve by an outsider. What makes them even more important is that these photographs have been presented by the people from the area with a perspective that can never be acquired.
The very first photograph on display is that of a school, the school in which all three studied. The sequence of photographs then ebbs and flows from here, showing us multiple facets of life in the area.
Quite undeniably, the women hold a special place in most of these photographs. A fish seller with a look of undecipherable firmness and melancholy, her look perpendicular to her hand that’s doing the transaction; a group of older women intently staring at the ludo game board on the floor; three women conservancy workers walking together with brooms in their hands, the tall towers of a private building looming just ahead; a lone woman reading the newspaper with her legs stretched out towards the frame while an Ambedkar portrait hangs in the background…
A thousand stories lurk inside these frames and what appears to the eyes is just the tip of the iceberg.
There’s especially one image, that of a woman, that director Pa Ranjith who had come to inaugurate the exhibit recalls fondly. “Vinnarasu, who had captured the image, explained to me that he saw his mother (the woman in the photograph) through the hole in a sambar ladle. How small should their world be to be able to see things like that? I was reminded of filmmaker Wong Kar-wai from Hong Kong. His maximum wide shot would fill the frame. These photographs have so much honesty in them,” he tells us.
Talking about the photograph itself, Vinnarasu half chuckles and says, “It was something that I had taken for myself. I least expected it to be selected for the exhibit. In fact, I had taken it long back but only showed it to Deepak anna a few months ago. A lot of them have asked me how I captured it. I had just woken up then and saw my mother through the ladle’s hanging hole while she was wringing clothes. Only her face was illuminated and I clicked it.”
It is perhaps this innocence and honesty in these images that strikes a deeper chord with the viewer. All three photographers have gone through a personal journey, overcoming their inhibitions, while working on this project.
Wile Vinnarasu shares that he has been able to break away from his comfort zone, having come from a very protective family, Saran Raj tells us that he has been able to understand his own area much better. “Initially we were hesitant to even venture out with the cameras. We felt shy, we weren’t sure how people would react,” says Saran.
But the exercise helped them make more friends and establish stronger bonds with their neighbours. “Previously we did not know who lived where. Even amongst people in Semmencherry, the area has a reputation. But once I started observing more, I understood better. That’s when I wondered why do we feel ashamed to say we live here? Why were we being kept outside the city? It is not easy living here and why should we have to struggle for everything? Who decided who gets to live where?” asks Ganesh.
It is this very dialogue that Deepak has orchestrated through this exercise. This photo exhibit only lies as a pretext to some very important questions that ring loud and clear through these images.
Deepak who was working on Al Jazeera’s India’s Forbidden Love documentary and another personal photo project on displacement — the Coimbatore CMC Colony eviction — during this period, says that he enjoys teaching photography and cinematography. “Although I travel with the camera everywhere, I rarely shoot images. My formative years in photography were shaped quite harshly. The 2004 tsunami and the Kumbakonam school fire accident happened in just two years after I completed my undergraduation. I don’t always click photographs,” shares the Thanjavur native.
Deepak also tells us that the exhibit, in a way, feels a lot like his own. “This exercise is just a warm-up for the boys. In fact, I will be teaching them the techniques of photography only now. I want to help them apply for grants. I want to equip them with tools to tell their own story and in the process, I’ve learnt immensely too. The frames that they’ve captured will be recreated in the film that we’re working on. These are images that no outsider can create,” he tells us.
When his plans to invite Maharashtra based photographer Sudharak Olwe did not come to fruition, Deepak turned to filmmaker Pa Ranjith, who has a keen eye for such narratives. “I wanted someone who would understand the stories better,” he says.
Deepak quotes American photographer Gordon Parks to best explain this photography exhibit - “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sort of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”
The photo exhibit will be on until the December 25 at the Lalit Kala Akademi.
(All photos courtesy Deepak Bagavanth)