A lady, with a stoic expression, clad in a salwar with a dupatta covering her head can be seen holding a framed picture of her late husband. He is one of the several victims of farmer suicides from Telangana. In another frame, a woman stands empty handed, her frowning face showing traces of the early onset of old age and physical labour. She doesn’t even have a picture to remember her husband by.
These are part of a host of hard-hitting portraits that capture the grim reality of the farming community — faces that speak of the necessity of holding one’s head high in order to survive through bad times; photographer Vijay Jodha’s portraiture project, The First Witness, is an attempt at making the issue of agrarian crisis visible to all.
“People don’t really look at serious topics such as these, believing they may be controversial and can hurt the sentiments of certain sections of the society or are not very interesting. And, so they don’t go out,” says Vijay adding that the project did not have any particular inception point. When you go out to shoot celebrities or well-known people, you make sure that their individuality comes out. But when it comes to shooting people in the margins, you tend to not even mention their names, or where they are from, and end up giving them a collective tag like “widows of farmers protesting”. This disparity, according to Vijay, is extremely insensitive. “The way they are represented in the media perpetuates the injustice that they are already facing,” continues the photographer, speaking over phone from Puducherry amidst shooting a film.
There were farmers’ groups who were helping Vijay locate the families of the victims. Through this process, what struck Vijay the most, was the extent to which these families wanted their stories to be heard. “There is an 18-year-old girl that I met, who lost both her parents to the agrarian crisis and now is left alone. Meeting people like them was heartbreaking. Through these details, I want the audience to connect with them like I did,” continues Vijay.
Their willingness to participate was guided by a hope that something good will come out of the project, says the photographer. And so, he has termed this project as a collaboration with the families of the deceased.
“We are trying to provide an account of what is happening — the reality, because we are unable to find such stories in the mainstream media,” says Vijay when asked where the photographer’s responsibility end, when stories of this kind are told. This is a record that was made with the hope that it will keep the issue in the light, for at least a few years to come, concludes the photographer.
The First Witness will be on display at the Government College of Fine Arts in Egmore as part of the ongoing Chennai Photo Biennale till March 24.