‘Thin line between photojournalism and humanity’: Documentary photographer Sudharak Olwe

Padma Shri awardee Sudharak Olwe was in Chennai recently to discuss his work on documenting manual scavenging, malnutrition and more.
‘Thin line between photojournalism and humanity’: Documentary photographer Sudharak Olwe
‘Thin line between photojournalism and humanity’: Documentary photographer Sudharak Olwe
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Mumbai-based documentary photographer Sudharak Olwe was in Chennai on Tuesday for a talk organised by the Photographers for Environment and Peace (PEP) Collective at the Koogai Library. Sharing photos from his latest work, 'Endangered Species,' Sudharak shared his thoughts on his work process, in addition to discussing his earlier work.

“It is a very thin line, in this process (photojournalism). You can cross it and be so ruthless. It is a very thin line between your work and humanity,” he tells TNM after the session. The semi-lit library had been packed with students, photographers and non-photographers, taking in every word he said and every picture that he projected. Sudharak sat on a stool surrounded by books on varied subjects ranging from world cinema to politics.

The Padma Shri awardee discussed the time when he realised his responsibility as a photographer. “My father was a poet and so I was reading so many things as a young boy. The social awareness was always there, but to understand more I needed to grow,” he says.

While he worked as a press photographer for about 10 years, Sudharak shares that his understanding changed when he entered his 30s. “I used to take photographs of disaster, of earthquakes, of fire. Earlier, when there was a fire I would shoot pictures of people dying and I would think, ‘Ah, I got good picture’. 15-20 years later it changed. I understood that it was not a good picture, somebody was dying. Then it started impacting me more. I’m still learning. You know it is a very thin line,” he explains.

The responsibility of a photographer

Sudharak’s latest work titled ‘Endangered Species: Malnutrition stalks India’s Children’ was recently exhibited in New Delhi. The series of black-and-white images are of children with Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) and their mothers. “Malnutrition in India is very high and children are dying because of it. I visited Nutrition Rehabilitation Centres (NRCs), in five states - Maharashtra, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Assam - to document the children and their mothers,” he says.

He also displayed pictures from his other works — ‘Thrice Oppressed’ (stories of different kinds of oppression Indian women live with beginning from female infanticide/foeticide), ‘Kamathipura’ (the sex-workers of Kamathipura neighbourhood in Mumbai), ‘Threshold’ (a story of unusual love between Zarina, a Kamathipura sex-worker and Parvez), ‘Threshold of Change’ (the importance of hygiene while delivering babies in a tribal village) and his most important work on manual scavenging, ‘Including the Excluded.’ Sudharak has been documenting these stories for over a period of 15 to 20 years.

“The responsibility of a photographer is very important. One has to bring dignity and most important is their subject’s consent to be photographed and or displayed. If there is injustice meted out to them, the photographer must stand with him/her. It is not enough to just stay superficial and sympathise with them. One has to empathise, treat them equally. If their thinking changes, it will automatically reflect in the photographs,” Sudharak passionately explains.

Elaborating on the topic, he paused on a picture showing an acid attack survivor, her shoulders bare and hair gathered to one side to show the extent of her injuries. She sits with her back to the camera and only a portion of her face is seen in the picture. “When she saw this picture, she told me that so many photographers had taken her photos but not one had shown her pain and suffering. First, we have to respect them and gain their trust. When it comes to pictures of rape victims, I withhold their names and other information,” he says, while pointing to one picture of a rape survivor where only one of her eye is seen.

Sudharak also made it a point to invite them to some of his exhibits. “I think they get very emotional when they find that respect but they are also very aware that nothing is going to change it. It is a very mixed feeling. We also have limitations as a photographer. One picture may not change the world. I have not been able to do it recently but I believe it is very important,” he shares.

“But going back and bringing them is very important. Only when you become friends will the photos have more depth. You become like their family at one point and that in itself is a form of support. Making the connection is most important,” he continues.

The continuing menace of manual scavenging

Sudharak believes in long term projects, a process he uses in his own work. “One cannot just visit an area, click photos and return.” For his work on the love story between Parvez and Zarina, he has been following the couple for close to 19 years no.

His work on manual scavenging too has been ongoing for close to 15 years now and his searing images in black and white, of people covered in grime and dirt have brought significant awareness to the plight of manual scavengers in the country. The problem persists even today and Sudharak is most ashamed of the state, he tells TNM.

“This is nothing but modern day untouchability. It gives me pain. How can we continue to treat people from one certain community like this? This is caste-based violence. The law should be made severe. People should know about its repercussions. The house owner and the contractors must be arrested and SC/ST Atrocities Act must be filed on them,” he says.

Sudharak’s body of work has been inspirational for young photographers like Palani Kumar, who has now been engaging with his own work from Tamil Nadu. “He had shared an open call on Instagram, calling photographers to submit their photos relating to manual scavenging earlier this year. I saw this only on the last day and sent him my work. I was surprised when he immediately invited me to the exhibit in Delhi. He creates space for young photographers and I think that itself is very important,” he shares.

The PEP Collective, which was formed 2017 by a small group of photographers like Amirtharaj Stephen, Steevez Rodriguez and a few others, plans on conducting such events regularly. For updates, check out their Facebook page here.

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