Samar Jodha: Between Two Worlds
Samar Singh Jodha speaks to Nilofer Khan about his practice based on inclusion and why it is critical to share the voices of the silent ones in the public art space.
Art, through its varied forms, has always stressed the significance of aesthetics, expression and its impact. Unlike most mediums, visual forms, including photography, tend to be more direct—impressions received in mere seconds. The beauty of visuals lie in its ability to arouse various emotions—wonder or despair, affection or bitterness, clarity or confusion, joy or horror. For some, these feelings evoke a sense of responsibility, urging them to engage, comment and support the artist’s cause. Samar Singh Jodha’s work reflects these qualities.
An End is Just Another Beginning
During a trip to Delhi in the early 1990s, Samar had arrived at the crossroads of his life. He was tired of commercial photography but he had to make a challenging decision—to continue his journey, that would bring more fortune; or, risk everything to pursue an unfamiliar trajectory. After weighing his odds, Samar chose the latter. Perhaps it was fate or coincidence that led him to Ashrafi, a 103-year old lady, who went to vote with her grandson. Their brief conversation became the genesis of his project, Ageless Mind and Spirit—Faces and Voices from India’s Elderly. “As a kid, I used to visit my grandparents every summer. By the time I was in my 20s, everything was rapidly changing in India. The economy was opening up, people were migrating to cities, and joint families were dissolving into nuclear households. I used to think, ‘What would happen to this world of the elderly? What do the older generations have to say about their lives?’ It was all disappearing so quickly,” he explains.
When the project was in its early stages, Samar’s brother, Vijay Jodha, a documentary filmmaker, came on board to collaborate with research and editing. Out of approximately a thousand people they spoke to, the brothers narrowed their selection down to four hundred individuals, to represent a different aspect of ageing. Over the next eight years, they travelled the length and breadth of the country to interview and photograph each individual. For Samar, the environment was a crucial addition to the portraits. It enabled him to consciously unveil an aspect of each of their personalities. “This was not some kind of documentary travel project with a 35mm camera, where one churns out hundreds of photographs. The idea was to celebrate portraiture in its true form, and yes, the magic of large format film cameras. So, how do you do this? Spending merely a few minutes to take your frame, and then leave, is the most insensitive approach. Each of these folks would give you so much of their time. They would open up to you about their lives. It is very important that you give them the respect that they deserve. Vijay and I would spend hours with each person, hearing their life stories, sharing tea and laughs. Our attempt was to develop a deeper connection with them,” he says.
A few years later, in 1999, the heartwarming project was first unveiled by the United Nations, to celebrate the International Day for Older Persons. Soon after, it began to travel globally, and the Jodha brothers also managed to self-publish a book with the same title, in the hope of preserving the stories. “While designing the book, Vijay and I tried to create paradoxes as a part of the storytelling. So it’s not just about one point of view, but to bring various contrasts and conflicts. For instance, there was a portrait of Dr. Karan Singh, an ex-ruler of Kashmir and a member of parliament. On the other hand, we have Ram Swarup, a Kashmiri pandit, who lost a part of his family and his belonging. He was sitting in a makeshift refugee camp in Delhi. Both men represent a part of Kashmir and its history. We were also attempting to document the disappearance of practices or pioneers of various professions such as the last Devadasi at the Puri temple or India’s first woman photojournalist.” Recently, Samar also spoke about the project on the Indian platform of TED Talks.
For more on Samar’s TED Talk on Ageless Mind and Spirit, visit https://bit.ly/3gHsb2S
Going Beyond the Obvious
Following his initial project, Samar began to realise how he would approach his stories. “I was not interested in going out there and documenting a situation for the sake of just doing a job (or money),” he says. In 2004, while he was at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal on a BBC documentary, he noticed the problems were far from over. The abandoned pesticide plant continued to poison the local environment and ground water, which left a lasting impression on Samar. It prompted him to begin his second series, Bhopal: A Silent Picture. Unlike others who had previously photographed the suffering victims in surrounding communities and hospitals, Samar decided to portray the repercussions in an unusual manner. “I am not a person who can deal with disaster pornography. It was important that my picture-making process went beyond,” Samar explains. He chronicled the state of the structure, or what was left of it. The images are subtle, yet efficacious to jolt people out of their comfort bubbles. One may even draw parallels to Chernobyl, an equally devastating nuclear accident.
Samar wanted his project to be provocative and striking, but it is not easy to build engaging layers with photography. With painting, an artist deals with multiple layers of narratives. Photography, on the other hand, is a medium that requires a lot of thought and planning. “Good photographs tell a story. You want to see it again and again. Otherwise, pictures become like posters, and then they die,” he says. During his research, the locals mentioned that some trains had passed the tracks that were closer to the plant. The gas leak had severely affected those on board. When the trains arrived in Bhopal that night, a lot of passengers had passed away. It was this information that helped Samar to showcase his work in the form of a unique exhibition. “We got a 40-foot container to recreate that night at the train station. The temperature inside the container was brought down to single digits of centigrade—what Bhopal was on that fateful night. A soundscape was specifically designed for it by Vijay. The windows were all 3D images of the plant. On the opposite side, we placed mannequins of different shapes and sizes, which were hidden behind stretched black fabric. Hundreds of names of the victims were printed on the fabric. Those names represent the silent masses who died that night.”
The project travelled to various cities across the globe. In India alone, it attracted over 15,00,000 visitors. “It is not about doing a show where you have a cocktail party and people come over to celebrate the artist,” he says. “It is about showcasing to a larger audience, in public spaces, schools, or college campuses, especially where people are not very aware, or have forgotten about the tragedy,” he elaborates. Moreover, he hopes that people recognise that corporates, too, have their ulterior agendas. The installation art was showcased by Amnesty International during the London Olympics in 2012, where Dow Chemicals was one of the key sponsors. Even then, they refused to take any responsibility of the Bhopal plant tragedy. On its U.S. tour, it has been shown at the Houston Photo Biennale, and once the pandemic is over, it will travel across university campuses in the country. Samar wants to eventually install this work in Bhopal, in memory of the victims.
For more on the public art installation of Bhopal: A Silent Picture, visit https://bit.ly/31GtkBC.
Holding Up a Mirror
In 2003, Samar started on a journey to follow the historic Stilwell road, built during World War II, in Southwest China into India’s cloistered Northeast. Little did he know this expedition would cement his role as an activist that would last for the rest of his life. Upon his arrival in Assam, Samar was introduced to the members of the Tai Phake community, a Buddhist tribe on the verge of extinction. “Due to various reasons, this tribe numbers a mere 1500 today. My role wasn’t to go and photograph a dying tribe, and then show them in London or Paris. These are all obvious boxes to tick, but that’s not the space I come from. Instead, I got the opportunity to be involved on a much deeper level. I began to set up an education project for children, help build the village monastery, revive the local textiles, set up an ecotourism project, all of which was owned and operated by the community. This has built local capacity as well as raised incomes,” he states.
Over the course of several years, his bond and trust with the Tai Phake community grew strong. Deeply affected by their struggle in the changing world, he decided to chronicle their portrait in a series called Phaneng. He set up a studio in one specific village, and created a portrait of every individual on his 4 x 5 format camera. The portraits poignantly put a face to the implications of global consumerism. His TEDx Vienna talk was on this project, where he highlighted an artist’s role towards sustainability and capacity building.
For more on the making of Phaneng’s exhibition, visit https://bit.ly/3fNJbDe.
Since Northeast is far removed from the mainstream Indian sensibility, the fascination for the region urged Samar to make numerous trips through other states such as Manipur and Mizoram. During his journey, he stumbled upon various mining towns, where the houses were constructed using scrap metal. They had the most unusual form and sense of craftsmanship. To Samar, each home began to resemble a piece of art. “The magnificent metal structures that jutted into the lush and uninhabited landscapes were an unreal testimony to a man’s will to survive,” he says. Out of sheer appreciation for their talents, he made several photographs. But they were soon forgotten. Years later, while visiting Mazgaon’s scrap metal shops, he had an epiphany. “I think a photographic series does not usually start with a purpose and neither do they end. What happens is that you continue working on it and something comes up in your head,” he says. He went back to the stored large format negatives, where he stripped off its colours to retain the shapes and forms of the images, which was the beginning of his creative process. In the meantime, the metal workers from Mazgaon collected scrap metal sheets of copper, brass, and mild steel. They had their own colour and oxidised finish due to Bombay’s salty and humid air. The final images were then digitally printed on these large metal sheets, where the shapes came from the original images from the Northeast mining habitats, and the colours from the weathered metal from Mumbai’s scrapyards. Some sheets were also made into colossal sculptures, to be hung from the ceiling using metal spines. The work, titled Outpost, was showcased at the Venice Biennale in 2013. “It is a metaphor for communities who work in mines. They are hung by their necks. They dig there, live there, produce there, and eventually, die there. We have no idea who they are, they remain faceless and nameless,” he explains.
For more on Outpost’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale 2013, visit https://bit.ly/2DO0DKG.
When one view Phaneng and Outpost, they will begin to notice how skewed the ideology of development is, and how it primarily benefits the privileged and the educated. “This idea arrives from the west, and see how it has affected marginalised communities. We are repeating this within our country too. It is not about being anti-development. My trouble is that the land belongs to the people. But what are we doing for them other than imposing our own mass culture of consumerism, wastage, and out of context popular culture imposition? We are practically destroying their time tested ways of living and disrespecting their environment. It has been seventy years post-independence, but people in the tribal regions still engage in bartering for a living. What development are we talking about? Unfortunately, the situation with these communities are much worse than ever before,” he says.
The Process of Vision and Editing
Samar has been working on both film and digital, and even on his iPhone. Although digital photography has made life easier for us, he believes that it has also created noise, especially in terms of the number and the quality of pictures that are created today. “I avoid digital carpet-bombing, where you just go out there and shoot so much that you burn your eyes while fixing your work. I prefer to shoot on large format film cameras, as they help me to slow down the process. Your picture-making process happens in the camera and not back in the office. One has a deeper and meaningful connection with themselves if they have a passion for making pictures,” he explains.
Since Samar interacts with young photographers regularly, he has a few suggestions to help them build their work. “I interact with a lot of young people and I continuously tell them that people are interested in their vision. How do you see a project? How do you grasp it? How do you communicate it? If those things come across, technology does not matter. It just becomes a tool. You are not hired for the gear, you are hired for what is between your eyes, what you think, how you engage, what life experiences you bring into this visual form,” he says.
With long-term projects, one is always too attached to the story. So how does one move beyond the challenges of editing? “The trouble with creativity is that one gets too close, too comfortable, leading to a sense of insecurity about what is being created. Sometimes one becomes so full of themselves of what they do, that letting go is very difficult. That is why good editors and curators are necessary. They have a larger sense of what would work out there and what the audience is like,” he explains.
Facing Failures for Success
For Samar, photography began at an early age. Since he lived in various countries due to his father’s job, the exposure began to shape his worldly views. “I got into photography when I was about 14, studying at a boarding school on the foothills of Kilimanjaro. From the day I received the camera, I loved photography. I was a disaster for many years. But I loved the pure sense of being a photographer,” he recalls. With his interest in the arts, he enrolled in multiple photography, film, and design schools, before dropping out. “I am such a huge example of failure whether it was school, college, or design school. But I feel talent is a very overrated idea. I think it’s the desire, the grit that makes a difference.”
After all these years Samar’s interactions with people from various walks of life, especially the marginalised, have completely changed his views. “There comes a point in life where you choose to stop suffering from a stressed-out work environment, toxic money chasing, indifferent people, suffering fools, putting on social masks. But one day, you discover your needs are simple,” he opines.
Through his extensive, long term engagements, Samar’s work has highlighted various facets of conflict issues, including how the arrival of modernity and urbanisation in the developing world has to lead to the marginalisation of communities and their way of life. His unconventional use of photography, documentaries and installation art have enabled dialogue for social change in public spaces. For Samar Singh Jodha, this is perhaps the beginning of a new journey. His ongoing project, Red Balloon, has been the biggest discourse of his life. He believes that one should take their creative ideas beyond the role of being an artist, which the project aims to do. It nurtures young leaders to become advocates for social change through creative experiences and mentorship. Here, young people join hands and minds with inspiring mentors to express freely and creatively and engage with issues affecting the world meaningfully. Red Balloon works with children and young adults from various socio-economic backgrounds to create “empathetic leaders of tomorrow”. The path in front of Samar is long and demanding, but certainly a clear one.
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Better Photography.
Samar Singh Jodha is the Founder of Red Balloon, a TED speaker, and a judge on Nat Geo Cover Shot. He has been comissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the United Nations. He continues to work on advisory panels for corporates on CSR and publishing projects. You can view his work on www.samarsinghjodha.com.