In Conversation: Amirtharaj Stephen

by Bhumika Popli



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Indian photographer Stephen Amirtharaj is interviewed by Bhumika Popli on his work and his project ‘Koodankulam: In My Backyard’ which was showcased at the Delhi Photo Festival 2013.

Coast guard aeroplane was flown too low over the protesting villagers who ventured into the sea as a part of their Jal Sathyagraha.

Coast guard aeroplane was flown too low over the protesting villagers who ventured into the sea as a part of their Jal Sathyagraha.

Bhumika Popli: When did it all begin? How did you start?
Amirtharaj Stephen:
I started photographing when in Std. 9. I once borrowed the camera from the priest in our town and tried to capture the beautiful sunset at the port city of Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu. I gave the prints for developing and the results were shocking to me. I tried to find out why my images were so bad. This got me highly interested in photography. Also, I am fortunate that I belong to a family which is quite fond of travelling; during our trips I used to borrow the camera from my father’s friend and was one happy child capturing the scenic beauty all around. But my participation in the Angkor photo workshop in Cambodia drew me out of my limitations as a photographer and infused in me a spirit which in turn helped me in exploring myself far and wide.

Villagers from the Koothankuli, prevented from going to Idinthakarai by the imposition of a curfew, gather in front of the church and shout anti-government slogans.

Villagers from the Koothankuli, prevented from going to Idinthakarai by the imposition of a curfew, gather in front of the church and shout anti-government slogans.


BP: How would you describe your work in terms of aesthetics, creativity, and naturalism?
AS:
The employment of various experiments while shooting Koodankulam was an uphill task. If I would have paid much thought to the aesthetic parameter no one would have liked the photographs a bit. Here I needed to show the peoples’ struggle. I felt the urge to show nothing but the truth. Hence I decided to keep the story as simple as it is. I conveyed the story in black and white to provide a uniform gaze for the viewer. As far as composition goes, there might be some images which are technically lacking, but I tried to convey the moments in the simplest possible way. I used only 35mm to shoot the images. So while keeping the sole fact in mind that photography is a visual language, I tried to convey the story of Koodankulam.

Fishermen lay siege to Tuticorin Port and block passage of ships to protest the attack on villagers in Koodankulam by police forces.

Fishermen lay siege to Tuticorin Port and block passage of ships to protest the attack on villagers in Koodankulam by police forces.


BP: What were your childhood observations of your surroundings, situations and people?
AS:
As a child, I enjoyed moving around natural surroundings. Rapturous scenic beauty was a vital part of my growing up. Climbing huge trees, paying regular visits to the beaches without telling my parents and admiring the quails flying about defined my childhood.

BP: Have you displayed these to the people in Koodankulam? Can you recount their reactions?
AS:
The first exhibition took place in the New Year of 2013 and we were fortunate enough to have Binayak Sen. The exhibition took place at the street in the village. The villagers saw themselves in the photographs… in the course of events that formed their new reality. By and large, the pictures displayed them, their struggle which was quite an exhilarating experience for them.

Children from Idinthakarai with the post cards they have written to the Russian Ambassador requesting Russia to stop providing technical support to the project.

Children from Idinthakarai with the post cards they have written to the Russian Ambassador requesting Russia to stop providing technical support to the project.

BP: Has your visual imagery enabled change in their lives? How?
AS:
The images have done good things for the local people. First and foremost, they have witnessed solidarity from all over the world. People from Germany, Japan, Australia and from a few other countries have written solidarity messages for them. The messages are used in the campaign as slogans and as time goes by, I have found that the numbers of people noticing the struggle have only increased.

Xavieramma, a resident of Idinthakarai, cries out for help after being chased into the sea with no place to run. She was later helped out and arrested by the security forces. She has been charged with 16 cases including serious charges like sedition and waging war against the nation.

Xavieramma, a resident of Idinthakarai, cries out for help after being chased into the sea with no place to run. She was later helped out and arrested by the security forces. She has been charged with 16 cases including serious charges like sedition and waging war against the nation.

BP: Influencing a change – Your feelings on being part of it?
AS:
Photography is a visual language. I think the Koodankulam photographs have justified their purpose. As the images are informational in nature and have evoked emotions in the people, I feel quite happy and satisfied being part of this struggle.

Women weep and pray to Mother Mary at the church after the police attacked villagers during the siege. September 11, 2012.

Women weep and pray to Mother Mary at the church after the police attacked villagers during the siege. September 11, 2012.


BP: What is that one defining thing that crosses your mind as you capture a moment?
AS:
I think that my photograph should be a honest depiction of reality. Alternatively, I do not like to interpret my photos.

Villagers cry and pray during a cleansing ceremony which was performed after police forces broke the idols of the Mother Mary and urinated in the church.

Villagers cry and pray during a cleansing ceremony which was performed after police forces broke the idols of the Mother Mary and urinated in the church.

BP: The Indian photography scenario: your take?
AS:
India is doing really great in terms of photography. The country right now is viewing variety of works by quite a number of good photographers. I feel happy to acknowledge that different organisations which are promoting many projects are creating a brand new scene enabling faster growth for this art form and this is happening all over the country, which makes it all the more promising.


BP: The photographers whom you admire most and why?
AS:
From India, I have a high regard for Pablo Bartholomew for the intimacy he creates with the subject. He gives you an inward glance at his photographs without telling you that you are an outsider. His photographs are simple and yet powerful. I also like the work of Raghubir Singh for his experiments with colour at a time when every photographer was shooting black and white images. In my opinion he brought people closer to the real India. I also like the striking portraits by Ketaki Sheth.

Internationally, I am in awe with the work of William Eugene Smith for his vivid images of common people. I also admire Czech photographer Josef Koudelka for his aesthetic sense. I really love the expression of subtleness I get from his work. I greatly respect, Nikos Economopoulos whom I had the pleasure of assisting. I especially love his ‘In the Balkans’ work. I revere Sebastian Salgado for histhe humanistic approach in his work. His work depicts the anger and sympathy towards humans. Last but not the least I am a fan of Antoine D’Agata, he is so true to himself, clear and honest.


BP: Any dream project?
AS:
I am still working at Koodankulam; I plan to work on the Sri Lankan refugee issue in Tamil Nadu. But I think I can do justice in my region as I know the people and am familiar with the culture and the issues are somehow directly related to me.

BP: As a photo-artist, your one sincerest wish?
AS:
I want to be very honest with life. I strongly believe in honesty and you should be caring towards people. According to me, it is hard to be a good artist with that selfish streak claiming you. For a true artist tangible things like fame and money should not be the priority. Apart from this I think that if my photographs bring some sort of change in the society, my aim of being a photographer will be fulfilled. I will be very happy. I will be satisfied.

If I am able to do the Sri Lankan refugee project I will be very content. I think a photographer can do justice to four or five projects in his or her lifetime. Some people claim to finish a project in a week which is beyond my understanding. I will be always interested in a long term project.

BP: Given an opportunity, which would be the one photogenic place that you would love visiting?
AS:
Being in my village makes me very happy. My home, my street, the people, community bonding and the natural surroundings are the best things to shoot.

BP: Rounding up, can you narrate your personal experience with the Koodankulam struggle: your association with the place, the leaders of the movement and your personal take? Do you plan to further capture poignant moments of this continuing struggle?
AS:
I had a feeling that this is a peoples’ struggle and it will take time. It is not a one day event, the natives are scared and the scenario is depressing. The residents are poor and their story needs to be told. I wanted to do my share for the people. I learnt a lot from the leaders and the people involved in the struggle. Initially, I was not a big fan of Gandhi but after I got involved with the cause I have explored Gandhian ways to learn and deal with problems. Our leaders at Koodankulum believe that if our government follows the Gandhian way of dealing with this problem and many others for that matter our problems will end soon.

The struggle becomes all the more important because these people are protesting in an honest way just for the benefit of the future generations but the Government refuses to behave like a leader, a leader thinks forward, taking people along with him/her.

I just want peace and simple living where the villager gets everything in the village. Everyone is looking forward to development but it is required that the citizens should be able to welcome development in their own state without having to migrate. After all, growth should be inclusive.

The ‘In Conversation’ feature is an attempt to know more about the motivations and thought processes of photographers featured on Aksgar as well as other photographers undertaking narrative photography projects.

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About Bhumika Popli
Bhumika Popli, an alumnus of ACJ is a free-spirited writer, poet and independent researcher hailing from the misty desert sands of Bikaner, Rajasthan who also loves singing and playing with children, but generally otherwise busies herself shooting fascinating subjects through a myriad of lenses. Bhumika Photo: Akshay Mahajan

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