For Achuthanand Tanjore Ravi, photography is all about probing serious social issues through images, and his photo-documentaries stand testimony to it. Hema Vijay meets the young photographer.
Twenty-two is hardly a wise old age, but this young man’s photographs have the insight of the mature glance we associate with age and experience. Look at his photo-documentaries — Maha Kumbh Mela 2013, Beyond Sight (on how the visually-challenged lead their lives and manage education), Disfigurement (on acid attacked victims), Is this the age? (on child labour), In the Name of God (documentary on devadasis) and Alms to Arms (on the transformation of beggars).
All this make for quite a large body of work. “I didn’t do post-graduation after I completed my engineering degree, so I had enough time, almost a year to do all this,” says young Achuthanand Tanjore Ravi. His photographs probe into reality rather than gloss over the surface. Even without this gift of insight, photojournalists like Achuthanand Ravi are a rarity in India. While scores of talented photographers in the country have taken to art photography, wildlife photography and the like, photographers have largely steered clear of serious documentary photography, a medium that probes issues through images. With photo-documentaries, we see only the end result of his study — photographs. “But photojournalism is not just about going to a place and starting to shoot pictures. I spend days and months with my subjects before I even bring out my camera. It is only after I understand them, and they feel comfortable with me, that their reality gets captured by my photographs.” Of course, small narratives accompany these images, but the photographs speak volumes.
Incidentally, Achuthanand shoulders photojournalism without commercial backing. Sometimes, he does get financial support, such as for his photo-documentation of visually-challenged students, for which Rs 60,000 has been sanctioned by UNESCO, for this year. But this kind of financial backing is an exception, rather than the rule. The fact is, photojournalism is a stillborn in India. “There is no respect for photojournalists, no freedom, no backing and no support system. In Europe and elsewhere, photojournalists are regularly employed and paid by publications and other bodies, and given months of time to document diverse subjects,” he points out. Which is why Achuthanand has an HR job to sustain himself; he shoots and processes photographs on weekends and over late nights.
These challenges notwithstanding, the young man is not complaining. Because photo-documentation has let him experience interesting journeys, meet intriguing people, and to look at himself objectively. The 2013 Kumbh Mela was one such experience. He had spent a week at the mela, living out of a tent, sharing experiences with the Naga sadhus there and people like the Pilot Baba, who had renounced his high-flying job to become a baba. “I hardly managed to get 15 minutes of sleep on the nights I spent there,” he says.
At the Kumbh, Achuthanand managed to capture quite a few rare images, like those of Nigerians in their traditional gear of peacock feathers and other material, offering their love to Lord Shiva and the sacred rivers. Such a picture has never been taken at the Mahakumbh since its inception, causing Sir Mark Tully to review this photograph and remark that it was a ‘million dollar picture’. “I got these images in the fringe sector of the mela when I went across the Ganges,” he recalls. Some of his Mahakumbh shots have also been bought by the UP Government for their promotional material. All the documentation experiences haven’t been uplifting. The photo documentation of devadasis left him dejected. It may have been banned by the government a decade ago, but as he found out, the devadasi system very much exists. “In the name of God Yellamma, they devote young girls to the trade. Maybe in an earlier era, this group of people had an alternative. Now, they have for long been branded outcasts and cut off from progress; they are not allowed into the city; not allowed to acquire an education, or enter other trades. They are caught in a social trap,” he narrates.
As for Disfigurement, the photo-documentary on the victims of acid attack, he had travelled to Mumbai and the Great Rann of Kutch to reach the victims who were willing to be photographed. “My goal was to create a positive change in the victims, and in the society’s outlook towards them, which still remains pathetic,” Achuthanand states. He found that the acid attacks were perpetrated in the name of family disputes, refusal of marriage, suspicion of infidelity and land disputes. Victims are not provided easy medical access, and not cared for. It is estimated that there are as many as 200-300 victims a year. “Imagine what she would be going through now,” Achuthanand rues.A self-taught photographer,
Passion for photography
Achuthanand had always had a huge passion for photography since childhood. He started off with a digicam, as we all did. Even as a teenager, he had founded the photography club, Madras in Motion, which holds photo walks around the city for trigger-happy people, wandering around the city in groups, trying to capture the essence of the city through images.
More than video, it is photography that can tell a story better, feels Achuthanand. But photographs are handicapped when it comes to telling the sequence of events around a moment, aren’t they? “A good photograph can show the exact mood of pain. And because videos move past events, they lose focus over the moment. And we, photographers, also have our techniques to convey narratives,” he says. At times, Achuthanand also likes to do a little of wildlife photography and a few singles. Singles photography is about telling a story with a single shot rather than the series of images that photo-documentation involves. He says, “Doing singles is much lighter.”