The camera is Sudharak Olwe’s identity, as is being a member of the Dalit community. Conjoining the two has led this award-winning photographer down a path that has come to define his work. Mr Olwe has made social documentary photography his forte, with a captivating canvas that captures the many-hued stories of those on the margins: a path-breaking series on conservancy workers; the realities of Kamathipura’s sex workers and their environment, the tragedies of women victims of domestic violence, and more.
Empathy is embedded in Mr Olwe’s images, the starkness and simplicity of which are enhanced by the black-and-white format he prefers. That’s a fair distance from the news photography that Mr Olwe began his “accidental” photography career with, and it reflects a distinctive style of rendering made all the more exceptional by the compelling nature of the subjects he seeks to explore and expose.
Mr Olwe, who was bestowed with the Padma Shri honour in 2016, speaks to Philip Chacko about his photography and his life, about looking down the barrel of poverty to finding his place in the world. Excerpts from the interview:
What got you interested in photography and how did it become a career choice for you?
It was not a choice. I was 22 and doing my fine arts course at the Sir JJ School of Art. My family situation was not very good; I didn’t have money even to buy the required course material. Now, I had opted out of a civil engineering course previously. Coming from a Marathi medium school, I found it very difficult to follow the English lectures there. Everything was too tough.
At JJ, one of my professors saw me struggling; he said, “You have to start earning something quickly.” He steered me to the photography class at the college and he made sure I finished that (I had dropped out of the arts course as well by then). I didn’t have a camera but I managed to clear the exams.
My father was an Ambedkarite [a follower of BR Ambedkar, the social reformer and political leader] and a poet too. There used to be a lot of gatherings in my house with talk about social justice, atrocities and such. My father was the first of his generation to get an education. The fight against untouchability was raging … there was so much happening. I certainly was influenced.
My family was more hard-pressed than ever after my father’s passing. I started assisting Pradeep Chandra, a senior photographer living in our housing colony. Then I began freelancing for the Free Press Journal [FPJ, the Mumbai newspaper]. This was 1988-89 and I got paid 12 for every published photograph.
My first proper job was also with FPJ. Photography was not a passion at that point. It was all very accidental; I just wanted to earn some money to support my family. I never thought I would be a press photographer (my professor reckoned I would become a wedding photographer).
You began as a news photographer and that was more than 30 years ago. What was photojournalism like back then and how has it changed in the years since?
It has changed a lot. Photographers and journalists were respected in those days. There was a distance between the subject and us. We were never overpowering; the human emotion was important. We were ethical and empathetic, especially in situations of distress.
A lot of that is missing now, I think; the relationship between news and newsmakers is blurred. The digital age of news photography has created chaos. The police often are in confrontation mode. Respect and sensitivity are finished at this juncture. Earlier, sources of information and communication were limited; now there’s too much of both and much of it is rubbish.
You said you had no particular passion for photography when you started…
There were no cameras around when I was growing up. I hail from rural Maharashtra and, settling in Mumbai, everything was new. This was the post-liberalisation era and there was plenty of change in the air. I had to survive and the camera provided me the way. I had tried engineering and fine arts; photography was the last call.
What drew you to social documentary photography and what made you pick the subjects that you did?
My years in journalism and my identity as a Dalit gave me an inside perspective on news and the space therein: who gets it and who doesn’t. The marginalised, mainly Dalits and tribals, are excluded from this space. I felt strongly about the discrimination and that fuelled the idea for my first social documentary series.
For a five-year period from 1995, I was photographing celebrities and the like constantly. That meant Bollywood parties, people walking in at midnight sporting dark glasses, lots of food and drinks, big cars and the heavy scent of perfume. I began wondering about the whole setup.
I was with the Times of India in Mumbai then and there was this sweeper at our office. I got talking to him. He was a Dalit, a member of my community, and he asked me to come to his place and see how he and his people lived. I visited his home and that was the spark for my first series, In Search of Dignity and Justice.
The series was on conservancy workers and for a year I went every morning and did my shooting. Nobody had photographed them like that before: cleaning drains, picking up sludge and slime, human excreta, garbage, medical waste … and with no protection. It was inhuman.
These workers died young because they drank so much. Many died — and continue to die — inside gutters and drains. There was no respect, no dignity to their job. People knew somebody was cleaning their filth, but nobody had ‘seen’ the conservancy worker. And there was so much of a caste angle to the whole thing.
I connected with my subjects and they with me. The celebrities I photographed could not have become my friends or invited me to their homes. It was different with the conservancy workers; I had full access, I could go to their humble houses, sit and eat with them, be friends with them.
The starkness of your social documentary images … what made you take this route in terms of style and rendering?
This is a method that I’ve developed over time. I choose black and white when the subject matter demands intensity and emotion. I do not want any colour to distract from that. I seek to convey the pain my subjects carry in them; I want their images to stay in the mind.
The difference between my work and those of others is, perhaps, that I identify with my subjects. As a journalist I was detached and neutral; as a social documentary photographer I take a stand. Whether it’s Dalits, women or anyone else who faces oppression, I feel I can understand their pain and misery because my community has been discriminated against for thousands of years. It hurts so much. Imagine a Dalit riding a horse being killed for that, or for keeping a moustache.
Did you alter this style with the Kamathipura series and the one of women forced to endure abusive relationships?
I altered it a little bit because I was covering women, not just Dalit women. Caste is less important in such a context. Women are discriminated against to a great extent in many parts of our country. We are ignorant as a society and that ignorance should go. My social documentary images are about getting people to at least look.
What kind of ethical issues should social documentary photographers — and news photographers as well — be conscious of? Are there boundaries that are best not crossed?
There is a very thin line here. When I started doing social documentation I used to call seniors like Raghu Rai and Pablo Bartholomew for advice on this and that, but then I learned my own ethics lessons. Everybody wants to tell their stories, but there has to be understanding, mutual respect and a connect.
Above all, there has to be trust between photographer and subject, most so in social documentation. You are an outsider, of course, and you need to see that barrier. The critical factor is the subject. You have been given access to their lives and their homes. How can you be insensitive?
Much of your work in social documentary photography is in black and white. Why not colour?
I believe black and white is more powerful when showing inequality and injustice. Black and white carries on for a longer time; it lingers. I wanted my message to be stark and clear. Also, I was shooting in black and white partly because I come from the monochrome era.
Oftentimes it’s the subject matter that defines the treatment. Conservancy workers in colour would be an abomination, I think. Colour takes away an important aspect of the emotional connect I try to forge. My photographs are not exotic; they are more realistic and immediate.
How has social documentary photography evolved in India and where do you see it going from here?
It’s coming up now in India. It has taken time to take root because of things like financial support, equipment and photography education. All of that is changing and a lot of photographers are doing personal stories and framing social subjects, but there’s still a long way to go.
The celebrities I photographed could not have become my friends or invited me to their homes. It was different with the conservancy workers ... I could go to their humble houses, sit and eat with them, be friends with them.”
What happened previously was that we had these photo essays, where the editor or the newspaper owner decided what was worth carrying. Then a few photographers started funding their own projects, telling their story the way they wanted to. That’s how the photographer’s point of view came into the picture.
Social documentary photography has become a valid and powerful tool the world over. It changes perspectives more potently than written narratives can. An image of a malnourished child, for example, can move the administration or a philanthropy in an instant.
The world learns from these images; it’s documentation, it’s archival. There are a vast number of issues in India that need such documentation; we don’t lack for subject matter. But you have to find them and make them visible for our governance structures, our courts and our police.
You have worked as a professional and an artist in two dissimilar, but similar, photographic formats, digital and film. The advantages of digital are obvious enough, but surely there is something to be said for film.
Beautiful images happen when you shoot with film. You shoot but you don’t know what you’re shooting unless you develop it. What you see and how you respond has to be smart. With digital you don’t have to be as focused. You keep shooting and you can get a 1,000 images, most of it crappy.
With film you only have the 35 frames. It’s your eye; it’s the man behind the camera and his seeing has to be intense; you have to be a thinking photographer. With digital that thinking has stopped because you shut your mind. You miss ‘the decisive moment’.
Photography Promotion Trust [PPT], the nonprofit you founded, has been working to make a difference in the lives of marginalised communities. How challenging has that been?
We started PPT for the children of conservancy workers because I wanted to give something back. I had worked with them, won awards and travelled the world as a result. We started with a batch of 20 conservancy children in 2007 and we ran the programme for 10 years. Seven of those kids are professional photographers today.
We wanted to break that chain of son following in father’s footsteps and becoming a conservancy worker. The purpose was not so much to make the children photographers, but to make them aware of their situation, their histories. And photography is a very strong language for that.
How do you view the idea of photography as an art form? What makes an image a work of art?
That’s an impossible question to answer but I’ll try. In my way of thinking, it’s art if it reaches people and makes a difference.