The wasteland in focus

The wasteland in focus


Cheek by jowl with the high-rise buildings, are hovels and shanties; sad, depressing shanties which are home to a million denizens, alongside mounds and mounds of waste matter.

Brazilian lenswoman Conceicao B Praun’s show at the Gallery Beyond titled ‘The Load — A Journey’ is an assemblage of images of garbage and more garbage. You could even say she’s a “drain inspector” of sorts.

The thing is, Praun has travelled across India and photographed our muck, our waste in analog, black and white pictures which have been compiled into a small coffee table book. At the back of the book is a photograph of the lady in conversation with a top official from the Central Pollution Board.

A peroxide blonde, Praun was born in the northeastern region of Brazil, and at 37, has globetrotted a great deal (Europe, UK, US, Cuba and the UAE among other places). She picked up English in London where she first got interested in photography, mastered French in Geneva and Paris, where she was mentored by a Monsieur George Fevre who would greatly impress her with the following dictum: “White gradations have to be white and black gradations have to stay black, without forgetting all the hues in between black and white.”

B&W has a natural affinity to reportage and verite. Praun’s exhibition at Mumbai’s double-level Gallery Beyond can be summed up as an exercise in photo-journalism. A solo traveller in most of the countries mentioned earlier in this piece, she has enjoyed the company of her mother in the course of the three-and-a-half months she has sallied across India. India, she says, is a “charmed” place, most of all because she has made many friends. The opening of her show, for instance, was enlivened by some wonderful piano playing by young Vineet George who came all the way from Kerala at her request.

Conceicao Praun is very keen on creating awareness on the prodigious quantities of of waste generated in India. In the course of her travels across India, she says, she “looked at different people (and) found the common man living and working in close proximity to high emission levels, usually in areas around water bodies, airports, industries, dumping grounds, and so on exposing themselves to pollutants in water, in the air and on land.”

And she is really sorry that India fails to “recognise the amount of waste” or even acknowledge the contribution of sweepers, sanitary workers, rag pickers — important pillar’s of society all. “They are the ones who have to face this reality; unfortunately, they only do it for their livelihood which makes them no different from the others.”

She also expressed concern about the disproportionate consumption of the earth’s resources. “Our way of life is responsible for creating an unhealthy, unpleasant reality by contaminating natural resources.” Hence, the provocation to produce a  body of  work accruing from the relationship between the nature and man-made activities.

Noting that the human race is linked to the animal world and to the good earth, she said, “Most creatures, other than humans, generate quantities of waste that is in harmony with the eco-system. However, we are reversing the clock. Are we simply uniformed or is it a lack of value for mother earth? We humans have enjoyed the earth’s resources lavishly till date, but now we are at a critical stage to satisfy our wants, necessities, and luxuries.”

And so, she does her bit. In the hotels she stays in, she urges the staff to be sparing in their use of limited resources like water; she herself wears unlaundered clothes as many times as possible “if the weather permits.”

“I like black and white,” Conceicao told me, “they are neutral colours.” She acknowledged generating “some unaccountable waste in my life which, has been cleaned swiftly at the places of my stay...” But embarking on a quest for answers, she met with sweepers and rag pickers, as well as engineers, health inspectors, environmentalists and scientists. All of whom gave her enough food for thought, ample material for the collection of images as well as detailed descriptions, some gratuitous, some informative to accompany the 50 plus photos on display. These included rag pickers at a garbage dump; diode lamps and a recycling machine, toxic chemicals dumped into a river, other dumping grounds, a sewage treatment plant and so on.

The end result is a journalistic record of the waste that’s responsible for the rancid smell that assails our nostrils; detritus that often makes us avert our eyes. She points out that a toilet roll costs more than the daily wage of a sanitary worker. Is it possible we have become inured to the poor, cynical even?

Conceicao Praun’s photographs do not tug the heart-strings, but this does not make her visual narrative less important  now that a mutated virus (H1N1) threatens to ravage the weak.