Of forlorn faces and a glimmer of hope

Vijay Singh Jodha’s “The First Witnesses” brings viewers face-to-face with the victims of the ongoing agrarian crisis

March 17, 2018 12:58 pm | Updated 12:58 pm IST

A HUMANE APPROACH Vijay Singh Jodha at the exhibition

A HUMANE APPROACH Vijay Singh Jodha at the exhibition

It is frequently remarked that a picture is worth a thousand words. Yet some images go beyond words and pierce the heart. This is what filmmaker and writer Vijay Singh Jodha’s black and white pictures do. Called “The First Witnesses”, each image in the exhibition features a victim of the large-scale agrarian crisis in India which has claimed over three lakh lives by way of farmer suicides. Jodha has tried to cover with dignity the first-hand witnesses to a tragedy involving their spouse or parent by providing details about the names, places, the exact day of suicide and amount of unpaid debt with the pictures.


On the genesis of the exhibition

I have done several social communication projects over the years. This too was another project inspired in equal parts by aesthetic concerns and social communication. Social communication part needs no elaboration, as we all know how our agrarian crisis is among the burning topic of the day even if not getting enough media coverage. Aesthetic was about photography practice and issues of representation. When photographers are clicking rich, famous or the glamorous, they ensure that every detail comes out right, images are framed nicely and they don’t have to share space with anyone else. On the other hand while photographing the marginalised such as people in this exhibition, one will not bother to even ask their name. They are just a mass such as “a group of farmers” or a “group of refugees.” One may go with basic photo equipment, even unimaginatively or badly shot images are acceptable and names quite unnecessary.

On how his approach is different

One could photograph the people from the normal angle, which, with all these women being much shorter than me, would be looking down on them slightly and engaging in all the sloppiness and insensitivity. Or you could photograph them from a bit of a low angle, the framing, the production value and all the biographic details and restore a bit of individuality and dignity to them – which is what I tried to do. One can look at the details next to every image and discover all kinds of connections: Is a two lakh debt such a heavy burden that a man would kill himself? How do all these figures stack up against our own lives or the life of our nation where stealing of thousands of crores of public money is becoming a routine occurrence. One may discover other connections. For example, the day the show closes on March 18 will complete one year since Yadamma’s husband M. Mallayya killed himself over a 3-lakh rupee debt in Telangana.

On the exhibition’s objective

Firstly, to put a face to the abstract facts and figures. Second, to create a platform to raise certain questions. Third to deploy photographic art towards other things besides selling cars or making people (including our rural folk) feel how inadequate or unattractive they are. Four and the most important is to help create a larger, collective record. We don’t know how many perished in the great Bengal famine or the Jallianwala Bagh massacre or for that matter how many were displaced by Bhakra Nangal dam and where exactly they went. So we have a film Darkest Hour that lionises Wintson Churchill, the Butcher of Bengal for me, and gets nominated for multiple Oscars. Or a ruling monarch’s spouse asserting that not that many were killed by General Dyer. It is absence of records that creates space for such rubbish.

On clicking black and white pictures

I didn't want the colours of some of the clothes or the background to distract the viewer from the faces and the body language. Also colour is overused and is the language of glitz, glamour, sometimes gaudiness and certainly of commercial messages/ads. So I wanted to get away from that. Black and white evokes a certain warmth, credibility and association with the best documentary work produced in the history of photography.

On how the project evokes hope among those clicked

This project is about hope. The participation of all these people is driven by hope and they are retelling their experience over and over, hoping it will reach that one most important ear. None of the people I photographed spoke Hindi or English. The real help was from grassroots groups working with these people like Rayathu Swarajya Vedika and Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture.

On how the stories affected him

In all my professional life, I have never felt smaller and insignificant as I did when I was taking these photos. I don’t know if this project would make any difference to the lives of these people but it has certainly changed me as a person. I am grateful that I am not in a profession where constant exposure to extremities blunts your responses, maybe even leaves you cynical or defeated.

Vijay Singh Jodha’s photograph of Manjula

Vijay Singh Jodha’s photograph of Manjula

On Manjula’s picture being different from others

Widow of G. Buchi Reddy, she was among a group of farmers who had come to Delhi from Telegana to raise this issue. I had photographed her while she was waiting to speak to some journalists. I thought the background with concrete pillars and the barriers so typical of central Delhi which is heart of our democracy and her staring out of the frame to an uncertain future both seemed a telling comment on the state of things.

(On till March 18 at India International Centre)

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