Walls on Beach Road are paved with pictures capturing poignant moments, through lens of Tirunelveli photographer Amirtharaj Stephen
A coastguard aircraft hovers over the constantly shifting line between sea and sand. Fishing boats and black flags line the coast while at sea are throngs of tiny figures, some with waters running up to their waist, others to their neck. Beyond a rocky boulder stands the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, the crux of the protests — the subject of photographs on the Beach Road walls in Puducherry presently.
Banglaore-based documentary photographer Amirtharaj Stephen, who hails from Kavalkinaru in Tirunelveli district (less than an hour from Idinthakarai), has never seen what he saw through his lens in Kudankulam on so wide a canvas. Since February, Pondy ART has used a stretch of walls facing the Bay of Bengal along the promenade here to capture public imagination on various issues and themes through photographs that are eight feet high. After touching upon issues concerning HIV-positive mothers, mental illness, lesser-known tribes and sin cleansing rituals, the walls revisit the protests of the community living around the nuclear power project this time.
Though similar images have been published in numerous newspapers and magazines, Amirtharaj says his work is distinct from that of a photojournalist. Content as much as composition matters to the documentary photographer, as seen in the way ordinary images have been captured. Ordinary images, like that of a row of policemen and another of children holding up postcards written to the Russian ambassador to discontinue support for the project, have been captured in unusual ways, revealing aesthetic patterns.
“I did not have the constraint of deadlines that photojournalists are bound by, and I was able to spend day and night, both observing and interacting with the people,” says Amirtharaj. It was curiosity to see what was happening in ‘his backyard’ that drove Amirtharaj to document the unfolding of the protests. Tilted ‘In my backyard’, Amirtharaj’s photo essay has been exhibited at the Delhi Photo Festival recently and won an award at the 6th Photo China Original International Photo Exhibition.
Paradoxically, Amirtharaj is not against nuclear power. “My father worked for the atomic energy department, and I believe that nuclear power can be the future. But what I saw in Idinthakarai and Kudankulam was the insecurity and fear of the people, which was initially fuelled by lack of government communication or assurance.” The lack of emergency preparedness for the villagers, the lack of response from the government to their doubts and questions fanned the fear, he says, though accusations have centred on non-governmental and religious organisations. “If the nuclear power project is a public project, then it must involve the public, particularly the communities that live around it.”
Other images capture myriad emotions reflected in candlelight during a vigil, women praying in the church, an aerial view of the village with tin roofs of the huts of fisherfolk at sunrise, fisherman laying siege to Tuticorin port to block passage of ships. An image of a pair of legs covered with scales of fish over a catch from the sea is a metaphor – the local community funded the protests by contributing ten per cent of their catch once a week, says the photographer.
Though Amritharaj admits his photos have captured the community’s protest, he claims he has tried to stay objective. An image of a woman lying on the surf, with a cry of anguish, with rows of cops behind her, indicates that she has been pushed. But it was some of the policemen, who later helped her up, says the photographer.
Though displaying images that are the epicentre of a national debate, on a larger-than-life frame in a public space, may provoke a range of responses, the organisers have gone ahead. Only captions have been eschewed, says Kasha Vande, founder, Pondy ART.