A few days ago I was contacted by a small local African NGO whose project I had made a short assignment with maybe six years ago. They were re-doing their website and wanted to give it a new look. Generally, I never, ever give away images but there are always notable exceptions and I remembered their tremendous work educating (and protecting) lone street children and their enigmatic champion, Agnes Chiravera. Agnes is one of those elegantly tough African women that just make things work through sheer will power.
I also remembered waiting for the school to open and being invited to do some skipping with a young girl and her friends that I subsequently photographed. Never easy to skip with cameras – but it certainly made the children laugh.
It’s those kind of memories that make some of the more tricky stuff bearable.
I read today with disappointment and resignation that Vedanta Industries have won their fight on appeal to establish a bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri Hills in India.
I wrote a piece for the Indian magazine Tehelka about this story in 2007 and it can be seen here.
Vedanta Resources, a UK-registered ftse -100 company has fought a long campaign to establish the mine and despite judicial review it seems now that nothing can stop it.
The story typifies the very real problem of India’s industrial development. The Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa are sacred to the Dongria Kondhs, a protected tribal group of ‘original’ Aboriginal peoples. Allegedly, the British geologist who “discovered” these rich deposits nearly a century ago dubbed them “Khondalite” in tribute to the people who guided him there. It seems that this simple act of hospitality will mean the end of another of India’s pre-Aryan traditional cultures. The holy mountain will be raped for its ore and the people who haven’t already fled the company’s previously illegal building programme will be scattered. Those who stay will doubtless be housed in the stalag-like accommodation blocks I saw laying empty and crumbling in Lanjigarh. They will have to sell their land at government determined prices and then work as contract labourers. What has happened to countless other ‘primitive’ and powerless peoples all over India will happen to them. Displaced from their traditional homelands, sacred to their animist beliefs, women and girls often end up working as daily wagers, domestic helps or prostitutes. The women will also have to cope with alcoholism and domestic violence.
The author and social activist Arundhati Roy has described India’s unfettered race to Market Capitalism as nothing less than India ‘eating its own people’ and in this macabre metaphor one can see the reflections of the Enclosures and urbanisation of the rural communities of England in the nineteenth century.
I am no romantic when it come to India. I don’t share a Raj view of the colonial apologists (despite inevitably by dint of being British having reaped the indirect rewards of the subjugation of that country). I don’t yearn for quaint, underdeveloped communities full of poverty and colour. I want to see India progress. But I know the stink of international corporate power when I smell it.
India had no colonies from which to steal resources so it’s stealing them from its own weak and vulnerable. The profits of this mine will not be spread evenly to benefit the Indian economy – it will be hoarded in the off-shore bank accounts of those corrupt politicians and corporate executives who already think that India is theirs by right.
A new Middle Class India has been brought up to believe that a successful society means a consumerist society. Greed and nationalism go hand in hand: it is not the poor of India calling for war with their brothers and sisters in Pakistan.
Traditionally, Indians have protested injustice in a dignified Ghandian way with hunger strikes and marches. While the Western media and much of India has been marvelling at ‘Shining India’ it has failed to notice that a good deal of India is now under Maoist rebel control. In Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand the Indian state is fighting a battle it might not win.
The students at the academy rise at dawn and undergo hours of daily exercise and academic studies for years to learn by heart the dances and the intricate movements of Kathakali. I thought Kathakali reminded me very much of classical Japanese Noh – a mute mixture of precise dance and theatre where slight eye and hand movements indicate an entire language.
The first picture has always reminded me of a pond of small frogs…
Here’s a link to my work on Shadipur Depot, a slum colony of artists and performers in New Delhi that was a previous post on the Travel Photographer.
I just returned from a job in Bologna several pounds heavier. It was actually the most enjoyable trip I’ve had in years: not only could I wander endlessly but the people were extraordinarily nice. In five days no one objected to being photographed, everyone was unerringly polite and everyone humoured my laboured and almost non-existant Italian.
I was searching for a way to photograph the city and quite by chance, after a long walk, wandered into a newsagent that sold books and found a panoramic image from the top of somewhere obviously very high. The guy in the shop was convinced it was taken from the top of a famous church but the caption read ‘O Coronato’… Confused, I called my new editor at Grazia Neri, Anna Savini. As luck would have it, Anna is from Bologna and the Coronato is actually a privately owned tower – and her Mum knew the owner. Very handy. Matteo Giovanardi who lives in and owns the tower was charm itself – but I had to climb the tower alone as he was waiting for his daughter to come back from school… I have to say that the tower was a marvel. It was also very high. For someone who isn’t great at heights and had already climbed the The Asinelli Tower, sweating and gripping the frail handrails tightly swearing never to do this kind of thing again, it was a bit of a trial. The view was however, extraordinary. The light, just before sunset, sublime. I remembered why I’d become a photographer. As I heaved myself down, Matteo showed me around his home that is the Prendiparte Tower…
I was terribly fortunate to be allowed to photograph from the Tower: I think Matteo has only granted permission twice – both for books. Anyway, this is what I saw:
Last month saw the release of Unseen a new collaborative project by the British Press Photographers Association (BPPA). So many images are commissioned editorially and never used and this project sought to showcase some of that work. I have a few spreads inside as well as the cover of which I’m very proud.
The image shows Ibrahim who had his right arm hacked off by rebels from the RUF (Revolutionary United Front).
Despite the Guardian Magazine running the story, the image above was never published. It did however get some recognition at Pictures of the Year (POY) in America.
I remember when I took the assignment, I was very apprehensive. I’d made quite a lot of work in Sierra Leone for a project on young men and violence called The Lord of the Flies (largely an attempt to partially refute Robert Kaplan’s arguments) and had returned subsequently to look at the immediate effects of the mutilations. In the intervening years it seemed that the amputees had become part of a grotesque circus of photographers coming in, ‘doing the atrocity tour’ and leaving; I honestly didn’t know what I could really add to the story. Still, the job was to produce a big exhibition for Handicap International and I had no editorial constraints.
I tried very hard to just photograph the amputees as they were – the fact that they’d been brutalised, an aside on everyday life. In one of those rare moments that make doing this work extraordinary, I turned a corner in a village in Makeni and came face to face with Hassan Fufona. Hassan had polio as a child and the rebels cut off his one good arm. I’d spent days with him in Freetown in 1999 watching him beg, being fed and returning to a hut where he lived with his ageing parents and small brother. A haunted, gaunt boy. Now newly married with two adopted war orphan children in a new town he was transformed. I photographed him in bed with his wife giggling as she put on his prosthetic harness and I photographed him as the head of a family outside his new house. Now, I don’t make any claims to have changed much with photography or in fact to have done much to make the world a better place but meeting Hassan again certainly changed me a little. Sometimes you can’t see the small victories in Africa but they are there. You just have to know where to look.
Hassan Fofona begs outside the Post office
We are the miracles that God made
To taste the bitter fruit of Time.
We are precious.
And one day our suffering
Will turn into the wonders of the earth