It is the urban visitor who ruins hill stations, says photographer Ian Lockwood

“I can look at a plant, and so can you. Even though both of us see the same thing, as a photographer, I look at it in terms of composition, framing and post production,” says the American photographer and documenter Ian Lockwood, pointing at one in an artificial pond at DakshinaChitra. This view is substantiated by his black-and-white photos at Hills of Murugan, an ongoing exhibition of photographs and annotated maps of Palani Hills, an eastward extension of the Western Ghats.

The pictures reflect the man behind the lens and his political approach to environment. Lockwood is not interested in showing you pretty images of the hills; he focusses on the transformation of the terrain over the last two to three decades. For instance, there are images of shola forests, with pine and eucalyptus trees in the background, to make the viewer reflect on what these exotic tree species have been doing to the indigenous ecosystem of the hills.

It is the urban visitor who ruins hill stations, says photographer Ian Lockwood

The environmental educator based in Colombo has approached the exhibition thematically; if the viewer takes walks around the gallery in the clock-wise direction, she will be able to witness the larger story of the transformation. “I am not giving out any opinion. There is nothing in here that graphically says, ‘Oh, it is so painful’,” says Lockwood. Photographs and satellite imagery constitute the works on display. Through his collaboration with scientists, Lockwood gives us a sense of how these sholas used to be and how they are now. These are a compilation of nearly 30 years of documentation and 48 years of experience in exploring the Palani Hills. His frames have also captured kurinji flowers that bloom once in 12 years. But, there is more to the story of kurinji than meets the eye, says Lockwood, who has been documenting the change in landscape where the flowers flourish. “These areas are affected by invasive weeds. That is a scary situation. The average visitor is excited about the pine plantation, maybe because of its film connect. It also has to do with a certain lack of awareness about the terrain.”

Lockwood’s bond with India, especially the Western Ghats, was formed quite early in his life. With parents who worked in South India; he studied in a boarding school in Kodaikanal and later did his university in the US, but came back to the Palani Hills to do volunteering work. As a child, Lockwood, whose grandparents were in Madurai, grew up listening to the stories of the Hills, which his ancestors visited frequently.

It is the urban visitor who ruins hill stations, says photographer Ian Lockwood

“My mother has worked there for a brief while too. I have heard narratives of three generations about the terrain. And, there has been a dramatic change in the landscape by the time I visited it, due to the advent of plantation culture.”

Much to reckon with

The Ghats have been going through some major shifts. For instance, UNESCO has been talking about dangers such as mining; other issues include encroachment of humans into the ecosystem and the challenges thrown by visitors who travel up the hills in vehicles, and trash the place with plastic waste. “The tourists are bringing into the ecosystem the problems of the cities. The people native to these hill stations have a civic responsibility. It is the urban visitor who ruins the place. You need the Government and civil society to work hand-in-hand,” feels Lockwood.

It is the urban visitor who ruins hill stations, says photographer Ian Lockwood

Even though he is deeply critical of the developmental changes to his favourite mountain range, his exhibition ends on an optimistic note, with images of a civilian holding up a kurinji flower and environmental warriors trying to save the mountain zone. One of the final images in the collection of a man surveying the land around him, leaves a poignant thought in the spectator: of what one individual can do to change the face of a mountain.

The exhibition is on at Varija Art Gallery, DakshinaChitra, Muttukadu till July 30. For details, visit

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2021 10:58:06 PM |

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