In today’s world, calamities, disasters and events of significance are meticulously chronicled by news reports, videos, and photographs. The era of smartphones means capturing the minutiae of daily life for widespread consumption. Despite constant documentation of almost all moments of our lives, there remains a noticeable absence in the documentation of the lives of the oppressed from within the oppressed communities.
A striking example is the aftermath of the recent Chennai floods caused by cyclonic storm Michaung, which wreaked havoc in the northern parts of the city. While the circulating photographs and videos stirred a spectrum of emotions, such as anger, sympathy, and helplessness, the narrative from the residents of north Chennai unfolds with a distinct perspective.
In Vyasarpadi, two emerging women photographers – Rasiya Banu (20) and S Nandhini (18) – stand at the forefront, wielding their cameras to capture the profound impact of the floods on their lives. TNM met the two women in Vyasarpadi and spoke about how their mission is not merely to elicit pity but to unveil the systemic failures within the government machinery which have perpetuated their plight. Both of them are students of photographer and cinematographer Palanikumar, who also runs Palani Studio and trains Dalit students for a year in photography.
Rasiya Banu, a BA Economics graduate, teaches at Dr Ambedkar Pagutharivu Paadasaalai, run by a collective of Dalit first graduates, Vyasai Thozhargal. Introduced to the world of photography through the classes organised by Palani Kumar, Rasiya initially harboured hesitation until encouragement from Vyasai Thozhargal nudged her to join the classes. “They said that at one point, women were given textbooks instead of a ladle, and now it is an attempt to give us a camera also,” Rasiya says.
Recounting how ‘Vyasarpadi’ is equated with derogatory labels like ‘good for nothing’ and that it haunted her in school and college, she says, “We face a lot of discrimination in schools and colleges. Some teachers keep asking us why we want to study. I want to change that perception through my photography," she said. Here are some of the photos captured by her and what moved her to take them.
In one of her photographs, a dog sits isolated in a rickshaw stuck in water, its fear of water evident. Rasiya says the dog spent three days in that desolate spot, with food scraps provided by them, and draws a parallel between the fearful dog and their experience of being neglected. "In a sense, we were also like that dog stuck in rainwater, and no one noticed us at all," she says.
"We are not there in anything—in news, stories, photographs, or any public space. Whatever we have gets destroyed in instances like floods and disasters. My photography is an attempt to keep our stories alive," Rasiya explains her motivation behind her photography. She says her camera should be a powerful instrument to reclaim the narratives that have long been neglected and overlooked.
In two other images, she has captured the raw emotions of grief and profound sorrow of individuals beside their departed family members. “The circumstances meant that no rituals were possible, which compounded the pain of the mourning. The bodies of the deceased were transported on cycle rickshaws and their daughters were unable to come to terms with the unfolding tragedy.”
Showing photos that captured carefree moments of people playing and that of a child joyfully immersed in a small inflatable swimming pool, she says that their worry over the devastation are concealed. “While onlookers may romanticise these as manifestations of simple joys and happiness, we know the devastation felt by us. It is not happiness or joy, but resignation that comes after losing everything,” she says.
Rasiya shows two more pictures that encapsulate the profound impact of the flood. A woman and her grandson, who stayed in a relative's house, return to witness the extent of the damage in their neighbourhood. “Their expressions convey a mix of sorrow and disbelief as they try to understand what happened and the challenges that lie ahead,” she says. The second photograph portrays an elderly woman in a red saree, standing in the middle of knee-level water, to confront her once-familiar surroundings, now submerged after the rain stopped three days earlier.
Nandhini (21) is a journalism student driven by a profound purpose. "I want to tell the stories of our people. There is no weapon stronger than a pen," she says. In a field where representation matters, Nandhini aspires to fill a void. "I don’t personally know any Dalit woman journalist from my area. I want to be a journalist to tell our stories." Her commitment to amplifying marginalised voices is evident in the fact that she walked several kilometres to charge her camera before capturing the photos of floods.
Many photos are of school textbooks damaged in the rain and some being dried. When asked what drew her attention to that, she says, “For us, getting educated is not as easy as it is for others. For everything, from pen to textbooks, we have to struggle. If that itself is washed away, what is left for us?” she asks as she shows the pictures.
In an attempt to portray the harsh realities faced by a Dalit family, Nandhini shows a distressing scene where the absence of basic necessities is laid bare. “With no access to drinking water or water for essential tasks, the family resorts to cleaning their belongings in stagnant rainwater. The lack of this basic necessity exposes the neglect we suffer.”
In another photo, we can see how the residents of a building collected pots and cans to fetch water from a nearby area in a rickshaw.
Nandhini shows the paradox of perceived safety for those residing in tall buildings. Contrary to the assumption of security offered by height, the structure tells a different story, with leaks, devoid of electricity and lacking essential facilities.
“The government resettles us to different areas and tall buildings. This one is from Mullai Nagar. After the resettlement, people thought they had all the facilities and they were safe and secure. But the truth is that the elevator does not work most of the time, cutting access to those living on the top floors. In times of floods, the building completely leaks and they cannot come down to get help.” Nowhere is safe for them, she says pointing to completely inundated huts.
Both of them say that their photos differ in the way they portray the people and their lives. “For others, photos are for news, and to see what is happening here. But for us, it is a documentation of life with all its struggles and no filters,” they say and add that they acquired this perspective from their mentor Palanikumar. Apart from Nandhini and Rasiya, there are six other students who he is currently mentoring.
Speaking to TNM, Palani says, "Our main aim is to document and shed light on the aspects of society that are often ignored and silenced." Palani, who has dedicated the past seven years to capturing the lives and deaths of manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu, traces his commitment back to his role as a cinematographer in the documentary film Kakkoos. Talking about the portrayal of workers, he emphasises the significance of the angle from which photographs are taken, noting that it reflects our mentality. “We have to always try to take photographs from an equal angle. The subject and the photographer should be on the same line,” he says. Palani also takes a principled approach by ensuring that the faces of manual scavengers engaged in their work remain unseen, prioritising dignity and privacy. “It is very important to portray the people in a dignified manner and also maintain their privacy.”
In his role as a mentor, Palani stresses the power of personal narratives. He believes that their stories, rooted within their community, carry more profound emotions and depth. “It would be more impactful if these kids tell their stories from their side. Their stories have more emotions and depth, as they come from within the community. I teach them to document their daily lives, culture, protests, celebrations and everything that happens around them,” Palani says.