Photographing Behind the Indian Boom

To mark the end of the ‘Behind the Indian Boom’ exhibition I thought I’d write something about photographs. And specifically, this photograph and the different uses to which it has been put:

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This is a photograph of a family in their home.

Jhanum (far left) and her husband Latif (centre) are both in their mid-forties though Latif’s beard and worried frown makes him look older. On the right of the photo is their son Hanif. Three of the couple’s daughters are included, one daughter-in-law (third from left) and a young grandchild. Their oldest son lives with his family in a similar kota next door; another son was out working on the afternoon this photograph was taken. A high school-age boy and a new-born grandchild were present but are not seen here.

The photograph shows the family at home in their kota – a single roomed, flat roofed structure made of wood, stone and mud. Jhanum sits next to the simple cooking stove, food items are stored in a secure cupboard while plates, pots and pans occupy the shelf on the back wall. Intruding into the left-foreground of the picture is the corner of a charpoy which is the only substantial piece of furniture they own. The family are Gujjars – recognised as members of a Scheduled Tribe. They live in Siundi village in Himachal Pradesh’s Chamba District.

The photograph is a product of ethnographic research.

Fieldwork carried out between September 2014 and September 2015 required me to visit every household across nine different villages in the upper part of the Saal Valley. In interviews with nearly 150 different families I collected information on household composition, education, occupation, assets, debt and expenditure. Sometimes I might ask to take a family photo to help me remember who they were and where they lived. The photograph of the family of Jhanum and Latif fits into this collection. It is a record of a specific family but it can also be taken to represents a general type of family. Gujjar families are often large and it not unusual for this number of people to live together in a single kota. As is the case for many Gujjars living in rural Chamba, Jhanum and Latif’s kota is without an electricity connection, water is supplied by a village tap some walk away and there is no latrine.

There is a second part to the picture which makes for striking viewing: for, sharing this single room with the eleven members of Jhanum’s family, there are five large adult buffalos. Many Gujjar families keep buffalo for the milk that is taken to the nearby town for sale. The buffalo are very valuable and spend the nights inside. In Gujjar households it is not uncommon for these large animals to fart, piss and shit only meters away from where the family cook, eat and sleep. In some kotas a curtain separates the two parts of the room; in other cases it does not.

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I was working on a project investigating forms and causes of poverty in India. This project documented how Dalits (formerly known as untouchables) and Adivasis (tribal people) had least to gain and most to lose from the rapid expansion of India’s economy. This is an important story that needs to be told. As part of the project a photographic exhibition was planned in order to highlight the issues of inequality and the oppression and exploitation experienced by Adivasis and Dalits in India. A photo of a family living under the same roof as their animals provides compelling visual evidence of the extreme material poverty that exists among tribal communities in Himachal Pradesh.

Yet for me nagging doubts remain about the manner in which their poverty is show in photographs of this kind. The photo of Jhanum and Latif and their family could be seen as intrusive and voyeuristic. It is easy to take a picture of material poverty but much harder to capture the political and economic forces that create inequality. I worry that such photographs forward an image of their subjects as a characterless, nameless and unvarying mass. What we don’t get is an understanding of how the individuals depicted actually think and feel. We don’t learn about the everyday quality of their relationships some of which condemn them to poverty while others make life worth living. How do they conceptualise their position and how do they seek to improve it? I will now turn to the circumstances that led to me taking this photograph.

For its subjects the photograph is a useful tool.

On a cold but bright February morning, I encountered Latif on the path that runs below Siundi village. We had a brief chat and then Latif invited me to drop by his place for a cup of tea later that day. He added that I should bring my camera. Having completed my work for the day I walked up through Siundi to Latif’s kota. On arriving I was seated on the charpoy and given sweet hot milk to drink. As I warmed myself I came to understand that Latif wanted me to photograph his family inside their Kota. And it was important that the family’s buffalo should be included in the picture.

Photography was introduced to India in the 1840s and its potential was soon recognised as a tool for colonial knowledge collection. Chris Pinney has written of photography’s indexicality – the direct relationship between light and film – that underpins its potential for providing evidence. In mug shots, records of crime scenes and ID cards, photography has a ‘truth quality’ absent in other visual media. Photography continues to provide state bureaucracies in present day India with a means of gathering knowledge of people and places and extending control over them. I’ve written elsewhere of families needing to photographically demonstrate their construction of a toilet in order to avoid losing welfare entitlements.

The contemporary ubiquity of photography – especially digital images – means its ‘truth quality’ intrudes into all aspects of daily life. As well as collecting evidence for the state these images may be used to demonstrate evidence to the state. The two photographs I took in Siundi on that cold February afternoon provided the means for Latif to demonstrate that the family lived in the Kota alongside their buffalos. As part of an application to the village council these photographs would assist Latif to access the government India Awaas funds he needed to build a new house. This was not the only time I gathered photographic evidence to provide to the state: I was also asked to photograph collapsed houses and landslips that had destroyed fields.

 

Photography as a technology works to fix people and makes them legible to bureaucracy. Over time people have learned how to use this tool to gather evidence against the state especially in instances of violent oppression. The photographs from inside Latif’s kota demonstrates how the democratisation of photography provides a means for citizens to creatively represent the realm of the mundane and the everyday back against the state.

And again, it is a photograph of a family.

It required two visits to the photo studio in Chamba town before the images were stitched together in a way that met Latif’s requirements. I handed over four copies of the final picture that Latif needed but Jhanum wasn’t happy until I provided additional copies of the family side of the photograph. One of these copies was to make its way into the possession of Latif’s brother who had left Chamba a decade earlier and now lived in Punjab. And similarly a photo I took of that family now living in Punjab made its way back to Himachal where Latif and Jhanum were able to see how their nephews and nieces had grown up.

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