The philosophy of eye-level storytelling

Interview by Toonika Guha
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Sudharak Olwe

Padma Shri Sudharak Olwe may be a celebrated documentary photographer, but at the heart of it, he is a man on a mission to tell stories from the margins. He insists on enabling his subjects to tell their own stories through his photographs, by following what he calls “eye-level storytelling”. “At eye-level, the stories start to unravel. But once you bring in your baggage of prejudice, you alienate your subjects,” he says. This central philosophy, coupled with his emphasis on intersectional representation in creative workspaces is reflected in his expansive body of work.

Excerpts from the interview:

Telling the stories of marginalised communities – of communities relegated to the periphery – while not belonging to it requires awareness and nuance. How do you navigate being an outsider to the community you’re recording?

How you look at a story is important – the angle from which you view your subject. I look at them from an eye-level, from one human to another human. And once I do that, stories start unravelling. If I, instead, stand on a pedestal of prejudice that seeps in because of my family, background, etc., I start alienating my subject.

For my long term projects, I follow a process. I begin by internalising that people are giving me permission to shoot them. I, as Sudharak Olwe, as an entity, have no bearing. I cannot go to them as a famous person, feeling all important. I’m a commoner being allowed the privilege of their acquaintance. It is a very simple relationship, perhaps that of a friend at most. I then try to manage this relationship with dignity and respect, which translates into according my subjects dignity and respect in the photographs I take of them.

Before I take on a project, I do ample research and try to understand what is happening from different perspectives. 

Over the years, I have also gained experience in perceptions and personal behaviour. If I go to someone’s house and they offer water, and I refuse it, they know that I’m drinking from my bottle of Bisleri; they know I think of them as unhygienic. They are perceptive, intuitive and they understand. I have to value them as fellow human beings. There are no two ways about it. Everybody wants to share their stories, their pain and misery. And once you listen, there is an automatic connection.

Empathy, then, is your guiding principle? Because you operate with empathy is also perhaps why your work doesn’t seem voyeuristic?

 

Yes, empathy is very important. Because I speak to them – the subjects I photograph – I understand them. I am not saying I understand them completely, but they have my heart. I understand what is going on in their minds. I work with communities who have been denied a voice. I try to give them a voice through my camera. I try to give visibility to a part of society that is unseen.

You started off as a press photographer, a far cry from your current work and philosophy. What prompted the transition?

As a press photographer, I was shooting very raw images – images of people’s lives and their miseries. I had no connection with the subjects I was photographing because I relayed the pictures to the newsroom, which, after adding the reporters’ narrative, took it to the readers. So, those pictures served a very different purpose. I did this for four to five years. I covered riots, major fires, earthquakes. I would look at some of my shots proudly and think, “I took a great picture today”. It was ironic because they were pictures of someone’s tragedy. There was no time to stop and feel because media is cut-throat – you have to break the news before others do. 

After those five years, I was taking pictures of celebrities, shooting page 3 parties, and capturing famous people in their homes. I have, thus, explored both the worlds – the glamorous and the tragic. And all that while, for almost ten years, I was growing as a photographer. Eventually, I realised that I wanted to build a relationship with my subjects, wanted to understand them and be a part of their lives. That’s when I made the switch. 

I take mundane photos of issues we simply don’t acknowledge. I include them in photo galleries and shows and take them to the public. And that has been my career for the last 20 years. I have changed my viewing lens, metaphorically speaking!

Are artists – mainstream Bollywood actors included – talking about these issues? Should they be more vocal?

Artists – we – are not playing our part. Actors and filmmakers of mainstream cinema do not venture into the domain of “social issues” unless they see a market there. Movies like Article 15, instead of breaking stereotypes, reinstate them, by pushing the trope of the upper-caste hero as the harbinger of social change. Hardly any actors from underrepresented communities, who could bring in real-life experience on stage, are signed on. Without inclusion, how are you going to tell stories from the margins?

When art is not about the market forces but about society, the artist’s narrative is bound to change.

What advice do you have for the youth – politically vocal and otherwise – looking to you for inspiration?

The youth give me a lot of hope. They are technologically suave, focussed and aware of what they want. We – the older generation – should ensure they are also aware of realities in society, of their privilege, of oppressive caste hierarchies and their manifestations, etc. We are an ignorant society, consumed by our own lives, malls and mobiles. Writers, filmmakers and artists like me can help shake them out of their stupor. Like an intervention. Once awake, I’m certain, the response to their immediate environment will automatically be different. There will be empathy, coexistence and interdependence. We will reach out to each other, empower and support each other, and make sure no one is left behind – not even the last person in the queue.

You have often spoken of photographs as “visual metaphors” that can drive social change, the philosophy behind the work Photography Promotion Trust does with young photography enthusiasts. How has PPT adapted to the challenges the pandemic posed?

(The Photography Promotion Trust (PPT) is a non-profit foundation co-founded by Olwe in 2005. The trust uses photography “as a tool for engagement in marginalised communities” and supports photographers “who want to tell stories that foster social change”. It trains young people from disadvantaged and marginalised sections in the skills of photography and in collectively addressing problems in their immediate environment.)

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Photo by grassroot worker Amitkumar

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Photo by grassroot worker Aashish 

PPT was lost in the first month of the lockdown. We didn't know how to respond. We asked our participants – 20 grassroots workers from across India – to take simple pictures of their lives, immediate surroundings and locality, in an attempt at understanding how the pandemic was affecting them. We held online workshops and discussed these images. We conducted workshops on digital literacy. What were planned as one-hour sessions ran into four-five hours since everyone was engaging and there were so many conversations!

The participants, on the final day, put together an online presentation of their photographs. The presentation is on a Facebook page. The idea was not to make photographers of the participants but to open them up to new experiences. They shared that they were writing and seeing things differently now. That to me was the most unforgettable part. All attendees left feeling inspired and we could all do with a little push and inspiration in these dark times of the pandemic.

PPT also identified ten young and struggling photographers and awarded them a grant of Rs. 25,000 to work on covering social issues. 

 

What is the latest project you are working on?

I am currently shooting with the Pardhi community, a nomadic tribal community in rural Maharashtra. Pardhi literally means ‘hunters’. The British called them a “criminal tribe” for rebelling against their regime, a tag they are still trying to shrug off. Government’s ban on hunting, their source of livelihood, in the garb of its conservation plans and their “criminal” legacy adds to the already disadvantaged and marginalised community’s woes. I am following their lives and journey. I am conducting more online workshops with PPT. I also head out to the city sometimes to shoot photos of the COVID-19 situation.

 

Toonika Guha is  a writer, editor and audiobook producer based in India. Her writing has appeared in several national and international publications. You can find her on Twitter @ToonTooniG and @toontooniwrites on Instagram.