Of human plight

Different strokes

Of human plight

Amirtharaj Stephen says that photojournalists should respect the dignity and privacy of people whose plight they are capturing on camera. GIRIDHAR KHASNIS talks to the young lensman.

 As the members of the Jury for 2013 TFA (Toto Funds the Arts) awards sifted through hundreds of images submitted by dozens of enthusiastic applicants, one set of black and white photographs clearly stood out. The pictures were powerful, poignant and hard-hitting. An intensely sustained effort, they explored a complex human interest story in the best tradition of photojournalism. The story related to the people’s movement against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project in Tamil Nadu. Moments of anger, anguish and utter helplessness of the affected men and women were captured with rare sensitivity. The judges of TFA awards unanimously chose the photographer of these images for the highest honour.

Amirtharaj Stephen (born 1984 in Tuticorin), it was later learnt, hailed from Kavalkinaru village in Tamil Nadu, not far from Koodankulam. He had been documenting the anti-nuke protests since November 2011. He had, in fact, grown up in the staff quarters of the Department of Atomic Energy, when his father was employed at the Heavy Water Plant of DAE. 

Stephen’s journey into the world of photography makes for an interesting read. After earning a diploma in Computer Engineering, he headed to Bangalore in 2004 with the hope of pursuing photography. But finding it difficult to survive in the big city, he had to take up odd jobs. “I even joined a BPO thinking that it will support my passion for photography. But that too did not work out.” He moved to Coimbatore in 2006 to work at another BPO but returned to Bangalore two years later. This time he found a job as a photographer for a publishing house; his job was to cover lifestyle, fashion and page 3 events. 

Gandhian struggle

It was one of his office assignments which led to Stephen shooting the backstage activities of fashion shows. His submission to Angkor Photo Workshop won him a scholarship to work in Cambodia with renowned French photographer Antoine D’agata. Subsequently, he got an opportunity to assist yet another Magnum photographer, Nikos Economopolus. “Working with senior photographers helped me to understand different perspectives and approaches of photography.”

In September 2011, Stephen visited Idinthakarai (the nerve-centre of Koodankulam protests) and was immediately drawn by the goings on. “The Fukushima disaster had already shaken me. So when the Koodankulam movement started, I was naturally pulled to it; also, my native village, where my parents lived, was less than 15 km from the nuclear plant.” 

It turned out to be a life-changing experience for Stephen. It was not just photography, but many other aspects including the suffering of ordinary people and the aggressive attitude of the establishment that moved him. His connection with the people and their struggle against great odds made him revisit the place again and again. “What inspired me most was the non-violent and Gandhian methods of protest adopted by the Idinthakarai people.” 

While being sympathetic to the cause, Stephen did not personally jump into the agitation directly. “No. As an observer and documenter, my mind worked differently. I was not interested in taking some dramatic photos for the next day’s newspaper. My intention was to document the protest on a long term and cover all complex events as they unfolded.” 

At the same time, it was difficult for the young photographer to remain totally unaffected in those trying situations where emotions flew high. “We are also human beings. We are also committed to humanity; we also dream of a better society, better environment, sustainable living for all. But one has to be honest to the situations without bringing in personal or political agendas. In my case, I am not associated with any media group or political party or NGO; so, I am able to document the ground realities without any external pressure.” 

Stephen came face to face with many poignant incidents during the course of his photographic journey. “There were many moments when I totally broke down. Photographing Xavieramma on the beach while she was wailing; picturing another weeping and praying woman at the altar of the church; shooting the funeral of a person who was killed during the protest; watching Pushparayan, one of the leaders of the movement who was unable to attend even his dad’s funeral; scenes of police brutality on innocent protestors… there were many, many moments like this which left me utterly speechless and helpless.”

Honours & accolades  

Stephen’s Koodankulam pictures have attracted critical and popular attention, and been shown widely across the country. They featured in the second edition of Delhi Photo Festival. His photo-series titled ‘Koodankulam: A Nuclear Plant in my Backyard’ won him the 2nd prize at the Photo China Original International Exhibition, 2013; and 3rd prize at Japan International Photojournalism Awards, 2014. Incidentally, his pictures were also exhibited at the Idinthakarai village itself in January 2013. 

Stephen is articulate. He shares his views on photojournalism and related matters, with Sunday Herald.

About the essential qualities of a good photojournalist...

“First of all, he/she should be a good human being, and care for the society and environment. One should be brutally honest in work; at the same time, one should respect the dignity of people whose plight is being captured on camera. One more thing: the privacy of the people should never be compromised. They should, in fact, be considered as part of one’s own family and protected.  

How does the scene pan out for freelance photojournalists in the country?

“Freelance photographers are always underpaid and viewed with suspicion. They do not command any respect or dignity in India until they make a name for themselves. Even established names find it hard to make a living with this profession. Many publishers claim to work for social justice, people’s rights, etc. but show no commitment whatsoever when it comes to treating the freelancers well. Freelancing is difficult in short term, but it becomes easier if you think it as a process and work on a long term… And actually, it is wedding photography which is helping a lot of freelance photographers to survive.”

Are there specialised programmes on photojournalism?

“There are some courses, but they aren’t effective. A few promising institutions are coming up, but their courses are going to be very expensive; and totally unaffordable for common students. We definitely lack an institution like Pathshala in Bangladesh which has a vision and passion for the medium. The good news is that several senior photographers are taking great pains to guide and groom young photographers in India.”

About the future of photojournalism in India?

“Photojournalism as a viable industry or vocation may be dying, but photojournalism as a craft will survive. The industry is rapidly changing. Mobile cams and online platforms are booming. On the other hand, magazines are shutting down or starting to utilise user-generated and internet-based images for free. In-house photographers of publishing houses are getting trimmed day by day internationally. In 2013, a leading newspaper in the US reportedly laid off all its 28 photographers; and re-hired only four photographers later — on contract basis. In India, conditions are not bad. But they could certainly be better.”

His future projects?

“I continue to be involved with Koodankulam. I also plan to work on the Sri Lankan refugee issue in Tamil Nadu. Another project which interests me immensely is the man-animal conflict which is affecting our already abused eco-systems.” 

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