Narrating human conditions has been highly satisfying: Seema Krishnakumar

A scene at Kuttanad

A scene at Kuttanad   | Photo Credit: Seema Krishnakumar

The lenswoman zooms in on her journey in documentary photography marked by fresh perspectives

My journey in photography so far has been a tussle between where my job takes me and my roots. Initially,photography started as an extension of my career in communication design but it turned out to be a soul-searching medium in the last decade or so.

It’s an interest in socio-cultural-political angles that gains focus in my photography. I personally consider my work to be in the photo-documentary genre of storytelling; several of my series have a strong connection to people, livelihood and their geography. I consider myself belonging to the ‘slow journalism’ category, spending more time looking at the evolution of places over a period of time.

The strongest of my geographical connections is with the backwater area of Kuttanad, which also happens to be the home of my mother’s family. Kuttanad has deeply affected me on several layers. As a witness to the transformation of this piece of land over the years, I look at some of the water-locked hamlets and the life around water in this picturesque region, through a still-evolving series. One of the striking pieces was on how the land and the economy get overtaken by invasive water hyacinth. Though there was a respite during the floods last year, the aquatic plant is now back all over the place.

In another series, one that is closer home, I look at the hustle and bustle on the eve of Attukal Pongala in a series of long-exposure shots. It was a conscious decision to shift my focus to the night before the Pongala, which is a tad more challenging in terms of natural lighting. Even more interesting was to see how a public space was slowly taken over by a sea of women, backed by interests of religion, politics and business.

In Tamil Nadu, where I worked for five years, I began looking at the ‘freebie politics’ embedded in its political system through a series of images. Other lesser-known yet satisfying series include four months of following ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement in New York city during my student days, because of the fervour and excitement it suddenly brought to the mundaneness of city life.

So far, deciding a subject has been an impromptu decision based on my personal affinity with and accessibility to a topic. Some of my best photographic experiences have been while travelling through new lands when my eyes are still curious and looking fresh at the subjects.

The toughest is still when I have to look for stories in Kerala, churning fresh perspectives from already acquainted landscapes. A travel series from the Amazonian city of Belem and Meghalaya in India worked for the same reasons.

As a woman, I’m not sure if I see things with a particular frame of mind or with a ‘female gaze.’ But I try my best to portray my subjects with a certain dynamism that is also infused with calm in my compositions.

Photo documentation often comes with its own challenges of being at the right place at the right time with undivided attention, which has been the hardest part I have been trying to overcome all these years with a regular job in academics.

With no media tags or association badges, independent photography can be tedious at times. For instance when you have to approach sensitive locations, as in my experience with Vizhinjam port construction area or in the vicinity of Padmanabhaswamy temple after discovery of treasure in its underground vaults.

Other than that, challenges come in the form of curbs on going alone with men in the rice cargo vessels of Kuttanad or visiting a toddy shop or curfews at night. At the end of the day, being able to narrate human conditions, whether from closer home or far away from a personal point of view, has been highly satisfying.

Beyond photo documentation, my larger academic interest with photography lies with storytelling in newer interactive forms in the web medium and how stories can be built with multiple layers of information.

(The author is Assistant Professor at the Department of Design, IIT Hyderabad)

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 12:29:50 PM |

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