Nilofer Khan speaks to Padma Shri Sudharak Olwe about his empathic approach towards his subjects, his determination to find dignity and respect for those living on the fringes of society, and his unwavering resolve to use photography for change.
For Sudharak Olwe, photography happened by sheer chance. He had initially enrolled in an engineering college on his father’s insistence, but switched to studying fine art. A year and a half later, family finances saw him dropping out, in search of a job. Olwe was worried. His father, a draftsman in a government office, and a poet in his spare time, was the sole earning member of the family, and was gradually falling prey to alcoholism. As his father’s health deteriorated, being the oldest of his siblings, he realised that the responsibility of maintaining his family would soon fall on his shoulders.
Seeing his plight, Olwe’s professor advised him to take up photography as a way for an immediate income. With no mentor in the subject, the idea of working as a photojournalist with a newspaper occurred naturally to him, as a viable means of sustenance. Yet, belonging to the Dalit community and coming with a frugal upbringing had its own challenges in an environment where photographers generally came from educated, economically upward backgrounds.
Two decades later, in 2016, Olwe was bestowed with one of India’s highest civilian honours by the Government of India, the Padma Shri, for his continual effort to affect social change through photography. Coming full circle, 2016 also saw him beginning his documentation of the issues of atrocities committed against Dalits across India. “It was much later that I realised how influenced I was by my father’s poetry. A particular stanza comes to mind…
लुटूनी येऊ सोनं समतेचं ।
असे सखे ते भीम ममतेचं
प्रतिक ते गं जगी वैभवाचं ।
– किसन ओलवे
Let us return, reaping the gifts of equality.
This, my dear, is beloved
Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s message…
Through this, may the world attain prosperity.
– Kisan Olwe
While working as a photojournalist, Olwe began to understand the potential of the medium. His initial years were spent on learning about the genre. A decade later, apart from shooting news, he was given the assignment to photograph Bollywood celebrities. At this point, the realisation dawned that he needed to move beyond the mundane nature of his job.
One day, quite by chance, he stumbled across something that moved him deeply. “Conservancy workers in Mumbai were living a life of pure hell. They would clean the city’s filthiest sewers naked, without equipment or protective gear, consuming alcohol to numb their senses to the filth and smell. They had reduced life spans because of all this. After providing such a vital service to the city, these people were invisible to the city’s inhabitants, and until then, to me as well. I spoke to some of them to get to know them. They are people, like you and me. I wanted the common man to recognise this,” he said.
Olwe began to document their lives in 1999. However, he had no idea about how the project would progress. “I wanted to use my photography as a voice for others, using my camera as a weapon to capture and express the inequality of it. I wanted to seek acknowledgment and respect for them.” Olwe spent the next few days and nights making pictures of the workers, their families, their work, and living conditions. Days turned into months, and eventually years. Seventeen years later, the project reached Ratan Tata. Touched by the monochromatic images, the Tata Trust launched Mission Garima to eliminate unsafe practices of sanitation work, and to ensure that thousands of workers have proper healthcare facilities. Later, in 2005, Olwe was also recognised and awarded by the All Roads Photography Program by the National Geographic Society for his efforts.
The Unseen World
Olwe simultaneously began to take up assignments for NGOs as well. In 2007, he was approached to document two different stories—Thrice Oppressed, survivors of violence against women in Uttar Pradesh, and On the Threshold of Change, portraying the revolution of maternal and neonatal health in rural Jharkhand. A process for doing work of this nature began to emerge. After some basic research, Olwe would make several trips to assimilate the culture around him, and for stories to reveal itself. It would be at this point that he would start shooting. “In Jharkhand, I noticed that the villagers would spend most of their time near the doors of their homes. Their daily chores and activities would take place around it because most of the houses had no electricity and were in utter darkness. The doorway is an integral part of the narrative,” he explained.
The frequent visits also helped him interact with his subjects, allowing him to gradually build a bond. Sometimes, the way he would view their stories would change over time. For instance, when he initially met the women affected by violence, he called them victims. But when he saw their remarkable resilience, he began calling them survivors, because they faced grave tragedies, and did not give up in the face of it.
Olwe’s background as a photojournalist was a significant factor in paving the way as a documentary photographer. After shooting a wide variety of assignments, he began to recognise when and how one should approach a subject and photograph a situation. He said, “A lot depends on how you enter someone’s house—in the act of removing one’s shoes and entering their threshold with humility and respect. They know what kind of person you are by your behaviour in those first few moments of interaction. That’s your introduction.”
Once he gained access, on many occasions, Olwe faced ethical dilemmas, including whether to photograph or not. When he was documenting Thrice Oppressed, he had to rethink his approach before releasing the shutter, especially with rape survivors. He said, “I would consult with my photographer friends. I wanted to know if my approach in documenting them was correct. I needed to be sure that I wasn’t doing something that would hurt the subject, further victimising a survivor, or her family.”
When asked about how he decides whether a project is finally complete, Olwe explained that some stories just go on for years because the cases of violence constantly recur. He mentioned that making a few dozen images does not help the cause. Instead, it is important to keep following both old and new cases, to ensure that it gets out there for people to see. “This goes beyond the purview of celebrity photography and sensationalist news marketing. While I don’t condone how newspapers are run in India, in a country filled with problems, a singular issue is often lost and not pursued as aggressively as it should. Besides, people often read a newspaper out of habit, and forget too quickly. A powerful image, on the other hand, is not so easy to forget. But images need to reach people with some frequency so that they are spoken about again and again,” he opines.
Eventually, some stories do begin to take a toll. It becomes difficult to continue shooting. There would be points when projects had to stop midway. “I have felt helpless. At times like these, my family and friends become my strongest supporters. They ask me… If you don’t do it, then who will? Over time, and with some maturity, I began to rationalise. A good photographer takes up a cause because he is concerned. If it did not affect him mentally and emotionally, would he continue to be a good photographer?” Olwe asks.
The Cause and Effect Equation
Over the years of his practice, the importance of understanding root causes dawned on Olwe. It wasn’t enough to confront a situation just in the face of it. He realised in his documentation of atrocities against Dalits that there was a cyclical nature to the problem, and that it was one of the reasons why it continues to persist. The short-lived nature of news stories was not the only cause. “It is critical that images are made and shared with brutal honesty, especially in cases of extreme violence. The struggle for justice is long and painful. If you look at all the historic images that shocked people, societies, and governments to reform, many of these photographs are often horrifying. With the bombardment of images in today’s social network-driven world, one’s voice must get heard. Shouting out loud is not always the answer. Often, the truth must come to light so plainly, that it just can’t be ignored,” he said.
Documenting the Dalit situation threw up other invisible issues, caste-based prejudices being the foremost of them. In most of the cases that Olwe documented, victims were Buddhist Ambedkarites involved in either emancipatory work for their community or struggling to make their lives better. Despite all the wrongs done to them, families were scared to file FIRs with the police because they feared reprisals, or that they would not find jobs, or that they would be targeted on the streets. “It is almost as though justice is a double-edged sword,” says Olwe. “But one needs to also recognise why they live in such fear. It is easy enough to say that people have a right to live and expect justice. While this is what I am fighting for, I must also accept the whole story, with all its facets. My photography must reflect this. It is also the reason why I decided to call the series Justice Delayed is Justice Denied.”
In a bid to tell the story completely, Olwe has been extensively photographing crime sites, police reports, other photos owned by the victims’ next of kin, their belongings, homes, and their families.
Despite his efforts, there have been criticisms of choosing sides, and of favouring a community he belongs to. “Is there a ‘side’ in justice? I started this project because I know enough to empathise. I don’t claim to know everything about every issue. Shouldn’t all photographers first work on projects that move them? Should I have waited for a ‘politically correct’ project? How does politics get into all of this anyway? The next project I intend to start working on is connected with this one. It has to do with cases of Muslim lynchings. If people consider that as picking a side, so be it,” he said.
One Step at a Time
Earning recognition from Ratan Tata and National Geographic in 2005 strengthened Olwe’s resolve. That year, he decided to take a page from his own life in giving back to society. He started teaching photography to the children of sanitation workers, to offer them an alternative vocation. Over time, many of Olwe’s students have been employed by newspapers as photojournalists, or work as videographers. Teaching photography led to yet another realisation—that cameras in the hands of women and children can be just as effective an agent for social change. A camera pointed in the direction of an atrocity is as powerful a weapon in its prevention, as any law or legal system.
That year, with the help of four trustees—Ravi Nair, Ravi Shekar, Mamata Patil, and Anita Olwe—he established the Photography Promotion Trust. His family, friends and international photographers like Helena Schätzle, who supported his work from the very beginning, also decided to join the team. “The objective of the trust is to empower and enable photographers to take up social issues, and become catalysts of change for that cause,” he said.
Following its establishment, Olwe and his team initiated projects that included conducting photography workshops to help survivors of domestic violence, initiating the formation of a council to help victims of atrocities, and to offer support to other NGOs. The Trust plans to start a mobile photo studio in a van that will travel throughout the country to conduct photography workshops in smaller towns and villages.
For Sudharak Olwe, the journey has just begun. “The satisfaction I derive is unlike anything else. In fact, I don’t know how to do anything else but photography. The future ahead for me in taking the Photography Promotion Trust forward in collaboration with other like-minded volunteers, photographers, and writers. My own personal projects will continue, as before. The path may be long, but it is a clear one,” he says.
How You Can Contribute to the Photography Promotion Trust
You can donate money, as well as your new or old camera, laptops, bags, and projectors. The proceeds will help the Trust to fund the education of marginalised children, setting up workshops, and to create a national network for atrocity victims to fight for justice.
You can volunteer as a writer, a photographer (by conducting workshops), or a researcher for ongoing or upcoming projects. You can also use social media as a platform to raise awareness.
Provide Space for Work
The Trust is looking for places to conduct workshops, and run its projects and operations in Mumbai and Pune.
To contact the Trust and to know more about the projects, visit www.photographytrust.org
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Better Photography.