From Zoom to Wide: Life lessons from photographer Palani Kumar
by Pradeep Elangovan
The black and white image is still floating in my mind. Whether it had colour or not, I am not able to clearly remember. The girl child in this image, with tears welling up in her eyes, watching her father’s corpse lying beside the glass dead body freezer box, still haunts me. Her father worked as a manual scavenger. The photo of the wailing woman kissing her husband’s corpse has a similar effect on me. Those two moments were given a voice by photographer Palani Kumar. Palani constantly keeps rotating his camera’s eye searching for millions of yet unspoken marginalized people and objects, presenting their hidden worlds and dreams to the world.
I had a chance to meet Palani through a photography workshop I planned through our organisation Dakshin Foundation and with our partner SNEHA. Together, both organisations are working to create a cadre of Coastal Grassroots Fellows comprising wholly of women from small-scale marine fishing communities in Nagapattinam district on the east coast of Tamil Nadu. The idea behind the fellowship is to enable these young leaders to give a form and voice to the challenges faced by coastal communities and ecosystems such as environmental degradation and forced migration. We wondered, maybe the fellows could easily use a simple smartphone to document and share images and stories of life in coastal India, but worried about its value in a world already flooded with images. We knew we needed that most important element – a perspective. With this clarity also came our choice of who could pull this off – and that is how I encountered photographer Palanikumar.
Nearly nothing is known about daily life in a fishing community. To me, it is remarkable that even though fishers’ livelihoods were completely devastated by two major natural disasters, the 2004 tsunami, and the 2019 Gaja Cyclone, they have been able to struggle back. Is it willpower, resilience, or something else? The rich details of these struggles, the cultural worlds, the social, economic, and environmental problems are very poorly documented or presented to the non-fishing world. To this day, I am yet to see a good local news article from Nagapattinam about its migrant fishers. Aside from a cursory article on Tsunami Condolence Day on December 26 and reports of Nagai fishermen attacked by the Sri Lankan Navy, virtually no compelling detail emerges from coastal Nagapattinam. This coast thereby becomes silenced.
In such an environment, Palani’s art and training are deeply meaningful to the fisher community. My colleague Aarthi had worked with Palani before on an online art exhibition titled ‘Imagining Asian Non-Humans’ and I have been fascinated by all his work so far. However, I did not think of him as a kind of saviour, but rather as someone whose art and training could create community photographers who think critically. We excitedly met him in January this year.
Sitting under a tree in his home in Madurai, he listened quietly to our stream of questions over a poor internet connection. How would he like to conduct this training? What aspects of photography could be focused on? How to use a normal phone like a camera? We designed the outline of the workshop and Palani readily agreed to online interaction with our first batch of grassroots fellows. Still, doubts lingered in my mind. How would his training to take a photo on a normal phone help the community? Also, whether the training workshop would have any effect at all on fishers’ lives in the long run? Anyhow, we decided to go ahead and have the first training workshop anyway and fixed the date on 6th March.
Palani had said that he would arrive in Nagapattinam on the evening of 5th March. I was afraid all along and wondered, what if he could not come at the last moment – he was too busy. One day he would be in Chennai and the next day in some other place, always responding to some request, issue, call, or workshop. I was soon surrounded by the fear of any trouble happening at the last moment. Almost all the days before the 6th March, I had been calling him under some pretext but to reassure myself and confirm his arrival. When I called him at 10 a.m on the 5th and found that his phone was switched off, my fear escalated. I could not contact him even in the evening. I was tired of calling and began to think of postponing the workshop. A message from customer care appeared on my phone that he was available, shaking me out of despair. Palani calmly answered that he was in Madurai and would leave for Nagai at four in the morning. I slept, relieved.
He arrived at 7 am and I picked him up on my bike. To my shock, all rooms in the otherwise idle lodges were completely booked. I took Palani with me to my room which also serves as Dakshin’s modest field station. I was a bit nervous. A World Press-nominated photographer, and a PARI Fellow staying in a room with few amenities. Palani was simply getting ready for the training.
When we left my room, he was carrying two large bags with his camera and laptop in one. But, what’s in the other heavy bag? I was reluctant to ask. Were they extra cameras? Did he not share our enthusiasm for phone-based photography? Balancing the heavy extra luggage, somehow, we reached Kalangarai, Nagapattinam.
I introduced him to the fellows and the SNEHA cluster coordinators and chief coordinator S. Rajandran who we had invited for the workshop. Palani then told me to put a table in the middle of the training room. He spread a cloth on the table and one-by-one, from that mysterious big bag, he brought out large extremely heavy books and placed them on the table. They were excellent books on photography by the world’s best! I marvelled at how he carried these everywhere he went. Following that, he sat down like a teacher on one side of the table and began conversing easily with the workshop participants.
What is photography? How do the participants of the workshop feel when they think of it? How one should see things as a photographer? He asked, what would we see in a tree on the side of a road, for example. What imagination takes shape in our minds. The shadow of the tree; some flowers fall from the branches; who planted this big tree; the tree during fall; several images begin to form within the mind, but only if we observe the tree very well. It’s the same thing with people. He made it clear that we need to get used to seeing the world around us very patiently and in balance. We need to treat the people we photograph like the members of our own families, with no barriers or distance of caste, religion, race, or class. When photographing them, don’t focus only on beautiful things but learn to enjoy taking photographs for your own pleasure and happiness, not to please others. His method of training impressed me the most. He emphasised paying attention to mood.
Next, he shared his own work with everyone. The manual scavenger, his mother (herself a fisherwoman), seaweed collectors, and diverse other subjects. Following this, he divided everyone into groups and distributed among them his precious photography books. He discussed with us the photographs of the Great Famine of Bengal, the riots during the partition of Bengal, human rights abuses in Kashmir, the lives of sex-workers, and various photograph collections by other renowned artists. He dwelt on the books of his favourite photographer – the Brazilian, Sebastião Ribeiro Salgado. How were his photos taken? The incredible amount of time Salgado spent taking just one photograph. The result is that some of his photographs are indistinguishable from paintings. They are all grayscale toned images, but one begins to see different layers of lights and colour in one’s imagination. The images reveal the artists’ dedication and hard work.
He talked about the purpose of sharing photos and adding the appropriate text to go with them, like captions or titles. How each photo was taken, what was its purpose, and what kind of actions to take when taking a photo on the phone. He explained to us ideas of framing, composition, and the ‘rule of thirds’ with simple easily understood examples. He taught simple ways to handle one’s phone while taking photographs with it.
Finally, Palani spoke about how to use light to enhance photography. He taught participants how to take photographs of groups of people slowly and deliberately. Where a person was slow to understand a concept, he himself slowed down, to pay individual attention and rectify the mistake. A well-taken photo was immediately appreciated. My admiration for Palani has grown, in the way he became accustomed to our participants, with such ease and without airs. In our times, when the powerful appear to only wanting to deceive the marginalised, here was a famous artist wholly dedicated to working for the poorest of people. As the workshop came to an end, I noticed that the fellows and other participants, all women, appeared so much more confident. Many expressed that they had not been able to document their life in the past. They are now inspired, and for me, the interaction between Palani and the participants was a measure of the success of this workshop. Any lingering doubts I had about the utility of such training for fishers soon vanished. That this was the first workshop that I had organised made me all the happier.
We returned to my room. Palani had wanted to stay on in Pazhaiyar and interact with the Irular tribe people who fish there but the rough weather prevented this meeting from taking place. He planned to return to Chennai that night, but the buses were too crowded, with no available seats. Palani returned with me to my room. He isn’t fazed by anything it seems! He missed his bus; the weather turned his plans upside down, but he showed no frustration. He simply asked about other options and solutions. Could we go to another village? Every time he is ready to learn something from others. No hurdle seems to linger on in his head. All along he attended several calls, including an interview with the BBC by phone. When our field plans folded up, he showed no dejection. That is either patience or something else I am yet to understand!
The next day he joined me to visit Seruthur, Vanavan Mahadevi, and to talk to young people there. He talked about education; they discussed fishing videos. They also spoke about migration. The youth explained that after graduation they were not able to get a job for several years locally. They attempted to clear multiple government exams but the whole process took too long and they are unable to pay for extensive coaching classes. After several years of unemployment and deteriorating economic conditions of their families, they went back to their traditional occupation – fishing, within the state and sometimes also outside. Palani was interested in their stories and wants to return to document these accounts. Some youth showed Palani a few video stories that they made and he appreciated and encouraged them. We spent the whole day there. On the way back to my room in the evening, he spent a long time looking at birds in the nearby swamps and mangrove forests and had remarked about the un-ending shrimp ponds in the area. We discussed the aquaculture issues in this area at length and how deeply it impacted the marginalised people’s lives.
At night I dropped him off at the bus station. We talked for a few more minutes while drinking juice at a small shop. I shyly expressed my own interest in photography and documentary film-making and showed him a few of my videos. “I will give you a camera. Just keep filming; film people also”. I was deeply touched and overwhelmed for a while.
Waiting for the Chennai bus, I asked about the price of his camera, which he said was around Rs 2 lakhs. Seeing my astonished expression, he said a friend had given him the camera after seeing Palani’s work, adding, “Everything will come looking for us, once we decide to whom we dedicate our hard work.” He then boarded and left. I interpreted this as meaning that he placed his hope with the masses, that they would guide him even in his own life.
My mobile phone is now filled with the photos shared with me by the participants after the workshop, testimony to his quiet inspiration. During the training, Palani continuously discouraged participants from choosing the ‘zoom’ option on a camera, while taking photographs of subjects at a distance. “Go closer. Take photos by moving closer to the people, using the wide-angle lens. Go close to the heart of people.” The tension between ‘zoom’ and ‘wide’ is where you can find Palani’s art. In the meantime, he continues moving closer and closer to more people and places, unheard and unseen.