As I was looking for some contemporary photographers in India whose photography would not make me cringe because of their ethics I came across a photo essay by Amritharaj Stephen on Galli magazine on Koodankulam titled: Koodankulam: A Nuclear Plant in My Backyard. Do take a look at the magazine here: www.galli.in I think some interesting work is being published and interesting more so because the alienation of the photographer from her/his subject matter within the equations of power isn’t so visible and doesn’t structure, and bind in, the image itself.
Amritharaj Stephen’s work is interesting for a couple of reasons. He speaks right in the beginning of his own place, his reason for his interest in covering this resistance which attempts at placing him within the space of the struggle. He confesses to a placing that sets him in a space more powerful than the inhabitants of the village and yet points to how the resistance becomes a guiding force for all those living around to think about what their lives and livelihood may turn into. The usual photographer as adventurer putting himself at risk to get these images to show the world doesn’t exist. Instead it starts to look at the space of the neighbour, the strange yet familiar, the neighbour who didn’t turn into a genocidal monster but the neighbour who turned into someone opening up, inviting, speaking, listening and acting.
Looking at the series one is also struck by intimacies, intimacies that speak in proper nouns about names and places. The resistance is no longer a mass as the way the State and mainstream media sees it. The resistance has faces, the resistance is in motion, in action. The resistance isn’t one gender or one age and it isn’t constantly acting, sometimes it sleeps and the sleeping, the space of the sleeping so fraught with danger holding within it a now and a what is to come like Barthes’s addressing of the photograph of the young man on death row. This will be and this has been.
“In 1865, young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W. H. Seward. Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged. The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.” (Barthes 1982:96)
The photographs shot in black and white clearly work within a paradigm of aesthetics that govern photojournalism and thus run the risk of erasing the particular, the life, the person it captures within a time and space. The risk that has seen critique and sides wherein the subject becomes irrelevant in time and what only seems to matter is this summing up of a context.(Example: Sharbat Gula by Steve McCurry, Qutubuddin Ansari by Arko Datta, Florence Thompson by Dorothea Lange) A context that does not make its subjects active agents but a context that leaves the power, the agency or an idea of oneself as agent within the hands of the spectators. Do these individual subjects matter at all, do their lives matter? and how and in what ways do they start to come to matter?
In this photo essay I was struck by one particular image – September 11th 2012 as the leader of PMANE says he will be surrendering to the police. This was my first visual encounter with Dr. SP Udayakumar. I had been following the crackdown on the people’s resistance last year through mainstream news and yet never saw a photograph of him which in a way points to him being a face in the resistance and not a face of the resistance. I seem to love this photograph because of the women. A reading can be made along the lines of gender hierarchies (the woman who is crying and hugging SP Udayakumar resists any black and white reading) and yet for me what I am drawn to and see is this woman on the left, as she steps into the frame, the energy of that stepping into, blurring her, her face in pain, her hands trying to make space amongst the men, an understanding that surrender in this country most often equals death and death by torture. This is the beginning of a frame of a moment that will see SP Udayakumar being carried away to safety by the people as they continue to struggle and resist.
The photograph that I did see (was The Hindu newspaper) was of Napolean, his head bloody from the lathi charge, running. I know his name is Napolean because of Stephen’s caption as opposed to the photograph in the newspaper which carries this caption “ON THE RAMPAGE:Police lathi-charge activists of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy at a protest near the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu on Monday.— Photo: PTI” It matters that his name is Napolean and this continues to be seen in the captions accompanying the other photographs in this series. It matters because it makes an individual life important, the annihilation of which should and ought to be taken into account.
As a series these photographs attest to the power of a people coming together especially within the context of a neo-liberal India that sees them as lesser than urban India, that sees them as ignorant and not knowing what’s good for them. These photographs attest to a time, a time that is longer than the Bressonian concept of ‘the decisive moment’, a time that enables a coming into focus, into view of individuals, of a community, a community that will not disappear quietly in the service of urban India, a community that stands so defiantly against Macaulay’s babus and memsahibs and most importantly a community that has invited others to be a part of it. Martha Rosler in her wonderful essay on Documentary Photography says this:
“Perhaps a radical documentary can be brought into existence. But the common acceptance of the idea that documentary precedes, supplants, transcends, or cures full, substantive social activism is an indicator that we do not yet have a real documentary” (Rosler, 2004: 196)
Trying to read this photo essay with what Martha Rosler says, I do think this comes close to documenting the activism within a photojournalistic aesthetic paradigm and yet not rendering the subjects as passive agents in need of rescuing which is a great step!
One of the most wonderful call for protests came from this village, to celebrate together the coming of 2013 on the beach and in protest singing and dancing. You can see a discussion post that new year here:
You can read an account by Dr. SP Udayakumar here : The Koodankulam Struggle: Why We Fight
This was first published on July 28th 2013 on my personal blog.