Photo by Imran Bashir Kokiloo
Sharbendu De (b. 1978, India)
Imagined Homeland (2013-19) is a seven-year-long surrealistic exploration of the mythical life of the indigenous Lisu tribe living inside the dense forests of Namdapha National Park on the India-Myanmar border in Arunachal Pradesh, India.
Living in these forests is not easy. Traditionally, hunter-gatherers and now settling into subsistence farming, they are distanced from the monetised economy. They survive without roads, electricity, schools, hospitals etc. and trek 120-157km spread over three to six days — wading through knee-deep mud and braving inclement weather conditions — to reach the nearest town for supplies, medical aid etc.. But the very notion of abandoning the forest they call ‘home’ is inconceivable to them. They cohabit symbiotically with nature revelling in its mysteries as a ‘self-sufficient community’.
Prof. A. K. Ramanujan has referred to such ‘self-sufficient village communities’ as ‘mythical entities’.
What is and what is not represented? How is it represented, and why? Do we present the mere body in our work continuing our fetishistic obsessions with the material, or do we also look at the spirit of mankind? How does cohabiting with nature influence us? What lessons does this way of life offer mankind far removed from nature? If the classical representational approaches has divided us instead of bridging the society, then what alternatives do we have today?
Over the last seven years, I have reflected on the Lisu way of life — their philosophy and magnanimity of spirit, and realized it is magical. Thus, I opted for poetic aesthetics seeking to evoke empathy for the Lisus.
By harnessing mythological symbolism in these cinematic stills, I attempt to evoke an aura of the mythical world inhabited by the Lisus, animals and nature, as well as offer a cultural resistance in favour of finding new aesthetic approaches.
Note 1: The project has been supported by an Art Research Grant from the India Foundation for the Arts (and Titan Company Ltd.) and the Lucie Foundation.
Note 2: Each mise-en-scène was created on location and not in post-production. I have worked with live animals without hurting them.
When and how did you get started in photography?
I grew up in the idyllic Andaman & Nicobar Islands, far removed from the rest of India. So, I did not receive much exposure to photography or art in my formative years. My father, a hobbyist photographer, would take pictures of Ma, brother and me, creating family records for posterity. That was my first-hand encounter with the camera. Later, he passed on his Zenith SLR to me. I think I was about 21 then, but had started my affair with the camera around 16. He was also a wanderer (at heart) and often spoke about travelling and seeing the world — together – father and son. These are my formative memories. Later, I grew up with the dream to travel and see the world. Gradually, writing and photography became my passport into the world.
After completing my post grad studies in journalism (2004), I freelanced for papers for a while — I would travel to the mountains, photograph and write travel features. My photography was amateurish then. Much later, after my MA in photojournalism (2010) from the University of Westminster, my professional career slowly picked up. Till date, I have photographed in seven natural disasters across the Indian subcontinent including Nepal Earthquake (2015) amongst other developmental and environmental projects and worked on commissioned assignments for Oxfam, WaterAid, UNDP, Save The Children, WWF, Greenpeace etc.
What did photography give you?
Photography became my passport into other people’s lives, into different worlds. I was always interested in expressing my thoughts but found words limiting. The hope of being able to work towards social justice through photojournalistic and documentary practices drew me in, but then I gradually found its vocabulary problematic and limiting.
The intense creative engagement while working on a project draws me into a different zone, thus challenging my limitations. I have struggled majorly with concentration due to an attention span problem in almost all aspects of life and its exceptionally frustrating (my friends find it funny or annoying). But when I’m photographing, I reach hyper focus. It is exhilarating. Nothing distracts me then; the world beyond my viewfinder becomes white noise. I suppose I gain a bit of a sense of self worth in those moments. Besides, it brought me into the academic world where I have been teaching photography and visual arts for the last eight years in New Delhi. This has given me the opportunity to share and help many young photographers in India develop their command over the visual language, but also learn and grow in the process.
What is it that you try to achieve with photography?
I suppose a sense of belonging, a corner in this world where I can be intimately me without others pushing and shoving me around (I used to bullied in school). Simultaneously, I try to tell stories of and about people — to other people in the world. In efforts to do that, I scamper and hunt for effective approaches that will aid in communicating the story better. This exploratory process is my takeaway, while the images are for the world. I enjoy the process. My conceptual approach in Between Grief and Nothing (2015-16) on trauma caused by the Nepal earthquake, and Imagined Homeland (2013-ongoing) are some examples. I am trying to find a fresh approach to visual representation in my part of the world by posing a creative counter to the mindlessly aping classical sensationalistic approaches. This pursuit keeps me engaged.
What do you think makes a truly great image?
Andrei Tarkovsky in Sculpting of Time wrote, “The goal for all art — is to explain to the artist himself and to those around him what man lives for, what is the meaning of his existence. To explain to people the reason for their appearance on this planet or if not to explain, at least to pose the question”. An image that can even remotely do this, will qualify as an answer to your question.
An image that communicates facts as well as feelings, that create and further build that sense of ‘oneness’ by bridging the world as opposed to those that feed on and amplify our differences. But a truly great image cannot be explained no matter how much we intellectualise it. It bears an inexplicable untraceable imprint that eludes logical decoding.
Who were your early influences and where do you get your inspiration from today?
I have to admit being a fan of Henri Cartier Bresson, but I no longer believe in the ‘decisive moment’. The honesty, research and strict discipline of Fazal Sheikh is inspirational. Duane Michals is a maverick. Ragubir Singh’s philosophy (darshan) has had a significant influence in the way I look at color and contextualise stories emerging out of my social-cultural Indian context. I have also learnt a lot from my conversations with Dayanita Singh. She is a genius, a visionary. The philosophy and cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky has been the biggest influence, however.
David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and the Bengali filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta are a few other filmmakers. I also find myself guided by Carl Jung’s theories. Indian classical music has been a consistent stimulant. In paintings, I look upto Vermeer, Francisco de Goya, Rene Magritte and Edward Hopper. I also like Pushpamala N., Sheeba Chachi, Irving Penn, Cindy Sherman and Philip Lorca diCorcia. Within the young guns, I envy Julia Fullerton Batten; she’s absolutely gorgeous.
What drew you to pursue a project on this subject? How did the idea come about?
Imagined Homeland (IH) started in 2013. After an initial desk research, I went there looking for a story. Then, I had no clue that it will continue for this long. I just kept going one year at a time. It is a seven-year-long surrealistic exploration of the mythical life of the Lisu tribe living deep inside the dense contiguous forests of Namdapha National Park in Arunachal Pradesh on India’s extreme northeastern corner by Myanmar border. Traditionally, hunter-gatherers and now settled into subsistence farming, the Lisus are distanced from the monetised economy.
In 1983, the Government of India without consulting the Lisus converted 1985 sq. km of their native land into Namdapha National Park & Tiger Reserve, a protected area for wildlife conservation — an imperialistic act that left the Lisus voiceless and marked as ‘encroachers’ and ‘poachers’. As a result, by law, there can be no permanent construction inside the park area including roads. Today, they have no roads, electricity, schools, hospitals, phone network etc. It takes them an arduous three to six days trek to reach the nearest town for purchasing essential supplies like cooking oil, salt, spices, essential medicines etc.. Completely disenfranchised and deprived of their constitutional rights, they live and die isolated. Their children grow up without education or have to be sent to boarding schools removed from their mother’s warmth. But the idea of abandoning the forest they call ‘home’ is inconceivable to them. Despite the adversities, the Lisus cohabit symbiotically with nature –– revelling in its mysteries as a self-sufficient community. They celebrate and mourn together.
I have to admit that while I was deeply pained by such levels of ostracisation due to decades of neglect and abuse, I was also overwhelmed by their quest for peace. They suffered and yet extended care, gentleness, love, warmth and kindness, the human values we cherish, but have lost most of them trapped in our urban conundrum. I started to see the Lisus not as victims but as living examples from whom the urban world could learn how to cohabit with peace and happiness. Gradually, my perspective started to shift.
But how have tribes and marginalised communities from the global south been documented? The colonial gaze has developed a very skewed repertoire dividing our worlds, adding to racial and cultural biases by documenting communities with the intention to control them and assert power. The People of India (1868-1875), an eight-volume photographic documentation of Indian and their classification on the basis of race, caste, tribe etc. is one classic example (refer here). Susan Goldberg, the Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Magazine in their 2018 ‘Race’ issue led a bold institutional admission that they were ‘racists’. Her admission has opened the floodgates for rectifying past mistakes and for healing. We have been handed down a troublesome and a deeply problematic legacy.
Over the years, my discomfort with the classic photographic approaches and its failing relevance in today’s communication models made me look elsewhere. I had the questions, but no answers. I am troubled by representational ethics— let us say that if the identity of the unrepresented Lisus are some day mediated through ‘Imagined Homeland’, how would they be perceived? Is a tribe (or a community) a homogeneous group solely meant to be represented through the skewed colonial-anthropological lens focussing on their body, rituals, costumes, tools etc. showing them as another exotic race? Or do we work towards building a new vocabulary in our visual language? Do we further add to the spectacle or do we strive to humanise them? Why can our gaze not be shifted towards their despair, grace, state of mind, dreams and aspirations (over their body), within the context of our own dreams, hopes, and imaginations?
These questions over the years led me on a path that has brought me to the present crossroad.
Eventually, I opted for poetic aesthetics and borrowed from symbolism and magic realism to evoke an aura of their mythical world by referencing archetypal interconnections between man, animal and nature (Carl Jung). But this shift did not happen overnight; gradually. Organically.
How do you build relationships with your subjects?
With time. The Lisus suffer from trust issues when it comes to outsiders as they have earlier been let down by outside representatives including the local forest department which from time to time try to forcibly evict them.
I am open about my approach, explain my intentions and ask for help. They take their time to open up. David Yobin of Agohomu village (photographed in the series), now a very dear friend and like an elder brother, was one of the first people to help me. I carry copies of the magazine stories I do about the Lisus and share with the tribal leaders, village elders, the local school teachers and the community in general. They would read and discuss at their own end; sometimes, they would object to something that I might have written and sometimes appreciations, but no matter what happens, I have always remained open and accountable to them and towards my work. I also do not lie or make false promises. Over the years, they have been watching me and now the word travels between them – my Lisu friends and supporters of the work vouch for me and help me at every step. This is a huge support and without this, I wouldn’t have been able to continue this work. Many of the Lisus have become friends, many others know about me and welcome me. But this is a relationship slowly being built over the years. There also exists degrees of opposition.
I am also very mindful of their culture and value systems. I would go with them to the Sunday mass at the church or socialize with them. Every year, I carry medicines for the villagers which I would hand over to David (he is also the local village doctor) but this aspect is not strategic for access etc. This year a couple of my friends have agreed to fund the education of a few children from their villages. These are personal human-human relationships and not strategies for access to my project locations. I hope I do not end up doing anything that will break their trust.
What was a typical day of shooting in the field like?
The terrain is incredibly difficult and a high fitness level is mandatory. I trek for hundreds of kilometers through an endless mud and slush pile track at times covering 23-28 km in a day in that kind of a terrain with your gear, camp inside the forest, cross the river Noah Dihing, getting drenched, bitten by mosquitoes, braving heavy winter and monsoons, but eventually reaching the last Indian village Vijoynagar on the India-Myanmar border. That is about 157km trek on the Miao-Vijoynagar road. In 2015-16 and 2018, I had trekked all the way to Vijoynagar (the last Indian village on India-Myanmar border) and back. It was painful having to drag oneself throughout the whole day with sore legs, swollen muscles, hurting toes, cuts and wounds and not even getting a soft bed to crash at the end of the day. Food was always modest and we had to constantly ration as provisions were restricted. But the images can never reflect that aspect. It’s personal behind the scenes.
After extensive research and field interviews were done and I knew what I wanted to shoot, I would make a sketch, colour the frame, mark where the lights would be placed, list out the props and set the shooting time. Then, I would spend days or weeks brooding over an idea while walking around or quietly sitting in some corner. But once, I had debated with myself and arrived at a clarity on what and why I had to make an image in a specific way, I would discuss it with the team which always included a local Lisu member. I would always explain my idea to the team especially the Lisu contact as he would have to do all the explanation to the community members who would volunteer as actors for the shoot. Personally, I try to explain the idea behind the image to the actors and explain why and what I am trying to communicate through the specific scene within the scope of language restrictions.
This time, I had a team of five people helping me (thanks to the funding support from Lucie Foundation and the India Foundation for the Arts), and that was quite a respite from having to do everything yourself. Location recce would follow next. Once the location was finalised, I would sit there making a finer sketch with positioning for lights, light shaping tools, props etc. The props would then be arranged by the team. Mostly, they would have to go and borrow ducks, rooster, horses, cane baskets, tables and chairs etc. depending on the requirement. Once, they had to go and borrow a wooden bed from Yumisa; then at the time of shooting, the bed was carried all the way to the other end of the village and placed in the middle of the river. With scenes involving the river, I would always go into the water first to check the current and safety issues before others went in, though Michael Yobin (Lisu assistant) was always faster and more efficient than me.
When it rained for days, work stopped. When heavily armed insurgents visited the village, work would be suspended and we had to go into hiding. Life in the forests has its own pace and we had to respect that.
Production on the shoot day took at least about 2-4 hours of preparation and another 2-3 hours for the shoot which would happen strictly at twilight only. If we were lucky, we made an average of three-four images in a week, usually lesser. It’s frustrating.
For example, a major part of my images that have happened in Imagined Homeland is a result of dreams I see while I’m inside the forest (the forests of Namdapha are very alive and affect me). But they never got made before the time was right. If I hadn’t brewed the idea enough in my head, no matter how many times I approached towards making that image, it just won’t come. My mind freezes, but I can’t tell that to the team. So, I procrastinate, and the team gets more and more upset with my whims and vacillations. They find me a terrible pain, I suppose.
How did your project develop and change between your start and end dates? What challenges did you face in the making of this project?
While documentary photography (or concerned photography) has shone light in some of our darkest times in history, it has also done a lot of damage. Allan Sekula, Susan Sontag, Victor Burgin, Roland Barthes, David Campany and many other theorists have spoken on it. There is a brilliant critique of Sebastiao Salgado’s documentary work by Julian Stallabrass titled ‘Sebastiao Salgado and Fine Art Photojournalism’ dealing with the beautification of suffering.
Many photographers have mindlessly adopted the classical approaches to tell any and every story, thereby over flooding the audience with a plethora of infinitely similar looking images — black & white, high contrast, gritty, at times blurry shots with flash thrown on water droplets etc. — the same old tropes mostly borrowed from the Japanese photographic traditions from the 1960s and the Western masters. This is herd walking. We need thinking photographers.
With representing the Lisus, without any premeditation on the aesthetics etc., I had also begun (in 2013) with a similar approach resorting to realism— made studio portraits of them in their traditional costume against a black backdrop. Over the years of my teaching photography, I have continuously spoken about the problems cited above and encouraged the lot of young storytellers in India to explore newer ways of storytelling. Then, how could I mindlessly follow the old rant? Besides, tribes have also been represented with a certain colonial gaze and I wanted to break that. I opted to look at the Lisus as humans, as a community comprising individuals, and not as ‘tribe’ in its classic sense. Further, rather than the body, I feel more drawn to the spirit of an individual and community, the intangible humane qualities. Thus the exploration of alternative aesthetics in the hope of finding a way out.
The project is cost intensive and as a teacher, I just don’t bring home enough to fund a project like this. Your support and that of IFA has been immensely helpful.
The terrain is exceptionally harsh, the logistics are a nightmare — we have to buy rice, lentils, spices, oil, and every other for provision for the duration of my trek and stay in the project locations. All of this has to be carried by porters, which again increases the cost. Further, there is no telecommunication network. You just fall off the world’s radar, and should something happen to me or one of my team mates, no one will get to know or provide an emergency evacuation. We would just be left at the mercy of nature and the Lisu friends. It can be pretty scary to go deep inside a jungle where life is surrounded by complete darkness barring the dim solar lamps and no connection with the outside world. It is also tough for the family and friends. This year, I was gone for four months. By the end of it, my parents and some friends had started to panic as I could not timely send word through someone. Even if something is to happen to one of my loved ones while I am inside Namdapha, there will be no way for me to know. All of this and further the burden of representing the story of the Lisus in an ethical and balanced manner wears heavily on my conscience.
What did you enjoy most about fulfilling this project?
The creative process. The life of the Lisus is nothing short of a blockbuster movie script, perhaps for someone like Ang Lee (imagine Life of Pi). Their life inside the forest is rife with mythical tales and surprising coincidences where logic helps make no sense. Its heroism lived on a daily basis, but without a sense of bravado. They are Christians by religion, but their belief system in nature and elements of nature go way deeper alongside Jesus. If you ask them about animism, they will refuse as they do not practice animism anymore. And yet, they believe in nature and its forces including spirits. They believe in dreams. All of this is a mythical world — to me — magic.
I have spent about the last 10-odd years working on finding my voice mostly away from the world’s gaze. It is only now that I am stepping out. With Imagined Homeland, there is a greater need and urgency to show this work widely. The Lisu tribe (of India) being represented through this work, might have a possibility to tell a few outsiders that they exist. They have lived, suffered and died in obscurity for decades, and one of my personal objectives with regard to this work is to take their word around.
My ultimate dream though this work is that it might some day motivate a group of anthropologists, researchers, journalists, poets, writers etc. to go live with them, and include them in formal scholarship. It is a dark space when you know that you are not ‘included’ into the fabric. They are a beautiful community from whom our urban world has a lot to learn, all the more given that we are headed for doomsday in this unsustainable world. We have to tell them that ‘they are not alone, and that we care’. We also have to find hope for us.
One day this project will come to an end, and I will have to move on. But I hope my friendship with the Lisus, with David and Avia and Michael and Yelidu and others will remain forever. I hope I will always have a home in their houses and they will have one when they come visiting Delhi. These friendships and their memories and my most cherished takeaways.
Has receiving a Lucie Scholarship impacted your career, and if yes, how?
The grant came to me at a very critical juncture in my project. I had another art research grant funding from the India Foundation for the Arts, but I was somehow falling short of resources. The Lucie Foundation grant came in as a saviour. Besides, the prestige and recognition that came with winning the scholarship has definitely boosted my profile. I am grateful for this support.
Note 1: Imagined Homeland is supported by a Lucie Foundation’s Photo Made Scholarship 2018 and an Art Research Grant (2017) from the India Foundation for the Arts (funded by Titan Company Limited). It won the Feature Shoot 2018 Emerging Photographer of the Year Award, was a Finalist LensCulture Visual Storytelling Awards 2019, and shortlisted for Lucie Foundation’s Emerging Artist of the Year 2018.