In Conversation with Joydip Mitra
Team Cocoon: After being a photographer for so many years, if you can tell us something about your journey as a photographer!
Joydip Mitra: Photography used to attract me basically because I love streets. That means I am an outdoor person.
When I was young I used to see photographers, though in my family no one pursued photography, however, a brother of mine owned a camera. He was not the kind of person who would go out in the streets for taking photographs. He was rather a business person, who preferred to buy expensive cameras, like polaroid. Talking about the early 80s, when I saw his polaroid camera. His journey was never as a photographer and it lasted till he has a passion for the gadget. After 3 years he even lost his interest. But the camera thing becomes my attraction, after looking at his cameras. After that, I saw many people taking pictures at the roadside. People taking pictures at the roadside, wandering around like a strange vagabond, mingling with anyone anywhere. Observing this slowly, I got more attracted to photography. And after that for the first time, I started seeing photographs. I was still a college student studying physics. Yet there is no camera at home. Practically can’t even afford to buy a camera.
While doing this, I suddenly saw some pictures taken by Raghubir Singh. In fact, that book strands straight in my bookshelf, “The Grand Trunk Road”. Even before, the photograph was taken by him that fascinated me was a rainy day image. You guys have already used it in the journal written by Santasil, on your website. It’s a photograph that strikes me so deep that I was simply swept away by that single photograph. It has such a lyricism in that I felt. Say the whole country or say people or say civilisation or say nature, each and everything I could see in that frame. Right after seeing that photograph, I saw Raghubir Singh in various shades. I saw his work in the Grand Trunk Road. Imagine a person from Kolkata travelling up to Punjab, Pakistan border in an ambassador taking photographs all along the GT road. Practically that book, back then since it was unaffordable for me, I probably went to the British Council to find that book. After going through the book I realised that the person I was before reading the book and the person I became after reading the book is altogether two different people. Such lyrical photographs by Raghubir Singh seemed like a glimpse of the whole country. Sometimes stark, sometimes bold, again very poetic at times. It was a great journey for me. I saw a glimpse of my country in a span of two hours. And after that, I realised that photography is the only thing perhaps that I would really like to do.
So, this has been my inspiration. Back then there were no such schools for learning photography. So, at a very young age, I completed my part two and just before getting into the MSC degree, I appeared for a job exam. Very half-heartedly though, but I end up getting the job. It was a government service. Also, I felt, it’s very important to be a little independent because in case I really have to do photography, it’s very hard to financially depend on the family to become a vagabond photographer. To be very honest, it was almost impossible to earn from photography. Particularly the genre of photography I thought of pursuing makes it literally impossible to earn a living. I did not know back then, how to get your work published or how to create a portfolio. The pre-internet era you see had no idea of such things.
Anyway, I took the job and I got posted at Baharampur. A few months later I was able to save some money and got myself a net Zenit SLR camera. It was a Russian Model. Along with the camera, I and some of my friends used to roam around on bicycle during the weekends in the Baharampur area. I used to venture various places, with my camera, sometimes in the villages of my colleagues, sometimes in the old abandoned burned terracotta temples of Baranagar. That Murshidabad district is a mine for the photographers. Like heaven. Many times, I kept my bicycle in a colleague’s place at Murshidabad and then travelled barefooted all day along and visited many broken consecrated mosques of Nawabi period. Took photographs and returned back. Like this slowly my journey began. Naturally, after that it felt like since photography is a gadget related art form, it needs to be learned in a proper way. So after a year or two, when I was transferred to Kolkata, I saw an exhibition by “Chayapoth” club in the Academy of Fine Arts gallery. Their members and students have exhibited their works. I really liked it. Because practically speaking, I knew nothing back then. Taking photographs at my own whims. Seeing some good photographs.
Team Cocoon: How old were you, sir?
Joydip Mitra: I was 23 plus by then because I got into the service when I was 21.
Then I got myself enrolled for the one year’s basic course. Though they have an extended two years’ diploma course. Because I felt the need to learn these technical parts. So, I completed the diploma in 1996-97. I could feel my increasing confidence by then. However, what I saw there was mainly Salon oriented photography, which I too did for two years. In this genre of photography, everything looks very beautiful again somewhat devoid of reality. But one thing those photographs made me more perfect technically, i.e. to understand the probable background at a glance or to get a smooth background. I feel these practices have shaped me well for my work. What should be the angle for taking the photographs and how to arrange the lighting. So, these basic things I have learned well in those 3 years course. Which I later on, probably happen to a lot of photographers as well, is to develop the style or type of photography a person wants to do. What exactly to take as a photograph needs to be figured out. Now like I said, I kept seeing one after another. Continued seeing the works of Raghubir Singh, in fact for me he was just next to God. Dragging me into photography and carrying on for so long wouldn’t be possible without Raghubir Singh. Then I saw the works of Raghu Rai, another huge figure.
After that, when the internet came slowly, the first person who drowned me completely was Josef Koudelka. After seeing Koudelka’s work I realised that it is a different world altogether. Till now I use to see my country as a subject of my work. Then I started going deep into the people of the country and their emotions. Till then my inspiration was Grand Trunk Road. Old Nawab Era. Ordinary people, truck drivers, Dhabas, street workers. Right after the big picture of the world was open in front of my eyes.
Team Cocoon: Through Koudelka’s work you mean…
Joydip Mitra: Yes through Koudelka’s work first. Then I figured out that “The whole world is actually a single World”. There is no such different place like India as such, rather just a whole world. And the only human exists and the world finds its meaning through humans.
This was clear for me after I saw Koudelka’s work on the Czechoslovakia protest in 1956, strangely I realised the stark similarity between the people’s reaction to this protest and people’s reaction during our emergency period and various protests of our country. What never happened in our country is that army tanks were never used till date to defend the student protests in the streets. But in Czechoslovakia, tanks have been used in student protests. I don’t know maybe there could be army tanks in India as well to defend the student protests looking at the current situations of the country. That’s the only difference. Then I understood it’s the people after all Photography is the history of mankind to be specific rather than the history of nation or time. It tracks the history of humanity over a period of time. After this huge horizon of perspective was open for me, I decided that I will try to do as much as I can to interpret the stories of mankind. Because there are clearly two distinct divisions in society based on the economy. And to be honest, everyone mixes with different people while working overtime and develops a politics of their own. These politics become associated with the identities of every single person. And that depends on what that person is seeing or what he is reading or hearing, seeing in fact is a long process. And slowly with time, it will be natural for a conscious person to support one political side. Similarly, with me as well, there was a political outlook that got nurtured over time and the stories of people I want to talk about was clear for me by then. Though it’s quite impossible for any photographer to bring about a revolution. Probably I think that’s not even the work of a photographer. However, support you know. At least a photographer can support, within his limits of course. Hence I decided that with my limited capabilities I will try to tell their stories.
That’s it. This is how it has been. Basically, as a photographer, I never had any high ambitions. as a photographer, I never had any high hopes or planning in life.
Team Cocoon: Especially talking about the time when you have started photography or even these days as well there have been photographers who love to work in black and white. But you decided to work in colour!! Is it because of Raghubir Singh as an inspiration?
Joydip Mitra: Absolutely 100 per cent because of Raghubir Singh. Satyajit Ray once said something. He never uses to say anything that’s flowery or abstract as such. If you read him in detail, you will understand that whatever he used to say was very realistic. He was once asked, that why did he make coloured cinema? He said two things, the first thing he said which I cannot agree with now because today in fact it is the exact opposite, however, according to him coloured cinema gets popular easily. Secondly, he said something which is really important. You see what exactly is a photograph! Photograph carries information. So he says if you try to portray a face of a Bengali woman, then just by showing her vermilion which is red will carry the information that the woman is married. That means just by the use of colour you can inform a lot. Hence rather than black and white, coloured images carry more information for sure.
Secondly, What I felt like initially for a long period I was a travel photographer because that happened to be the only source from where I could have earned some money or at least there was a demand for me as a photographer. I could publish my works basically as a travel photographer. In that way, I realised that if I had to work in my country then it very important that I tell stories in colour. Because it’s such a colourful panorama that if I happened to sacrifice the colour then the vivid texture of our country will be lost by at least 60 per cent. Suppose if I am photographing a wall in Jaipur and then taking another wall in Kolkata. Suppose you capture the painted walls of the warehouse outside the strand road and also photographed a wall in Jaipur. Now if you analyse both the photographs then looking at the texture and the colour of the wall you can suggest which was in Jaipur and which was in Kolkata. So this way to convey information colour has been of vital importance to me.
Team Cocoon: You started travel photography at which age approximately?
Joydip Mitra: I was nearly 27 or 28. You see I love to travel actually. Usually, Bengali photographers who do travel photography mostly started with trekking in the mountains. Initially, they trekked the mountains and then slowly gets involved with travel and photography together. So in my case I and my friends loved trekking. We use to trek mountains twice a year. By the year 2000, I got myself involved in travel photography and naturally the trekking to mountains on a daily basis was put to an end by 1998-99. Not that I completely stopped trekking mountains. I went on a few good treks as well after that but taking photographs in the mountains was coming to an end. Now I started going to various festivals. In fact, I visited the famous festival in Pushkar 8 times. And consecutively 6 times I went. I loved it so much. Then after 8 years when I went recently I realised that I has changed completely. And now I plan to not go there anymore. Because I want to hold on to my beautiful memory of Pushkar. Let the old photographs stay.
Like this, we use to travel to lots of festivals. And every month 20 or 22 days apart me and a few of my friends who are also good photographers and loves photography, used to hang out. In between interesting communities, interesting festivals and interesting places with peculiar planning like spending the whole night in the middle of Ganga in a place like Banaras taking photographs. There used to be these kinds of weird adventurous plantings. However, I don’t consider myself to be enough focused at that time. Taking photographs just for the sake of taking. But in the year 2000 people like Subhamoy Mitra and Anirban Ganguly came up with a Bengali magazine named “Jara Parijayee”. Right after the publication of the magazine, since Subhamoy da was very dear to me, he told me that we are thinking of publishing this Bengali travel bi-monthly magazine entirely dedicated to photography. He said, “I want you to join”. Then I realised that I became completely involved with the magazine. We ran it for 17 years. We completed 100 issues of the magazine publication then intentionally decided to put an end to it because we realised that there is a high chance of degrading the quality of the magazine. Also, the magazine was the first of its kind that ran completely without taking any donations from anyone till the end. So this “Parijayee” magazine first pushed me towards travel photography because it was a travel magazine. Those days we were more into travel narrative.
Basically, what does travel mean? Does it mean only to see a new country…!! Absolutely not so. It is beyond that. Seeing a new political sphere, a new society, new history, how much of politics is involved with their history. So, with a lot deeper dimensions an ethnicity grows in culture. So, we usually went to such depths to make each article. And to be very honest for the first time, working for “Parijayee”, though we were unpaid but the magazine being our soul, we learned to work on in-depth storytelling. Also, there was complete freedom in the workflow because I am the one to frame the story and edit the story as well. This is how I got totally involved. Then by 2004-05, I found that basically there is a cost of making it happen. Though before that since I had a job I didn’t think of money as such but in order to travel on daily basis money becomes a priority at times as well. Then I thought of making a list of all the travel magazines of that time. Famous once were ‘India Today travel plus’. And Jet Airways onboard magazine named ‘Jet Wings’ which at that point of time ranked 2 in the world. Apart from ‘Realtor’ magazine. And as per I know India never published such a high standard travel magazine before.
So probably during 2004-05, I gave it a shot like come on what else will happen!! I wrote to Jet wings editor; I think the email just came by then. So I mailed them. Mentioning myself as a travel photographer and shared the list of destinations I covered in the last 4 to 5 years of travel experience. I also have the colour transparency and let me know if interested. They replied very soon mentioning two destinations which have been covered by me. And asked for the photographs. And wanted to know if I can write. Then write about these places in 600 words along with 20 transparent sheet photos. I was doubting if I send via post and if it gets damaged, I will be ruined. It’s not the digital media you know. However, I did send it. Anyway, it happened to be my first proposal and my first acceptance and both the stories got published in the next month’s publication, which helped me to earn money double my job salary. It was a first time experience for me I must say.
However, I figured out that this is a potent way to earn something you know. Whatever little possible. Because I didn’t need a lot of money. After that, I worked for Jet Wings consecutively for 10 years till it closed down. Even I collaborated with India Today Travel Plus till it was closed. They had to close at a certain point in time.
After that, I worked for several magazines. Then Reserved bank worked on Kolkata as soon as it completed 150 years of service as Imperial Bank in 2012. They wanted to portray Kolkata from various angles since they started in Kolkata. So I worked on the historical archives of the project. Then I worked on an interesting book with Outlook ‘Driving Holidays’. They invited me to Hyderabad. Without any brief, they asked me to travel by car for about 1700km, and I am supposed to photograph the entire journey for 8 days. It was a dream assignment I must say. It was breathtaking, like 8 days imagine I have never seen any tiger reserve before. Riding in car and tigers are coming out. It’s a unique experience. So far it has been like this. So, it’s never like I dedicated my life to it deeply with proper planning. Rather with travelling, I got a good exposure I must agree. Mingled around with a lot of people. And I have this one thing. If I really like a place, I keep returning and going back to that place again and again.
So this way I just kept travelling till 2012-13. In fact, I was known as a travel photographer, even today also may be.
Team Cocoon: So you said that you were involved with the ‘JARA PARIJAYI’ travel magazine for almost 17 years. Then after all this time why did you step aside from travel photography?
Joydip Mitra: You have asked a very important question. It happened around 2011-12 when ‘Jara Parijayi’ was at its peak. Actually, travelling exposed me a lot to different people, different societies from different parts of the country. We used to go and work in very remote locations. So around 2011-12, I worked as a travel photographer in each and every state in our country many times. So suddenly a question hit me: what does a travel magazine do? They promote a destination. But they have an urge behind, a business side works behind that and it is very normal. This promotional process, involves their circulations, advertisements and rates, how many advertisements they will get. Everything (income) is involved there. Now I am talking about travel magazines which are published in English for everyone in India. They only want pictorial photography so that they can attract people to visit that place and it is their only priority. So it hit me like I captured this kind of photograph a lot. I know how to take photographs beautifully and make things look good, I know the basic grammar but this is not everything. In August of 2009-10, in the middle of monsoon season, I went to Cherrapunji (northeast India known as the wettest place on earth) to take photographs. Rain was coming down like crazy and in that ‘Hut’ (a small market which opens on a specific day of a week for a specific time in villages in India) had started, people were coming. I realised I came to Cherrapunji before and I only did photo stories on the ‘rain’. One day I saw ‘Hut’ had ended and people were returning home drenched in rain. I was coming back with them taking photographs continuously and I was communicating with a person who knew little Hindi but mostly with hand gestures as I don’t know the local language. Just after Cherrapunji, I saw them going down through a beautiful green grass mountain and there was a cemetery with so many tombs. Then I remembered reading a book which attracted me to visit Cherrapunji, “Chasing the monsoon”. In that book, the author told that before the independence of India when British men came to India for jobs, they got their first posting in Cherrapunji, northeast part of India and whoever joined the jobs in this part always committed suicide in one and half years. The reason was they went into depression because of this heavy downpour of rain all the time and there was a saying that their (British people) lifespan was only two monsoons. They would not live more than that. In that book, there is also a part written where the author’s grandfather, who was a meteorologist (weather forecaster), was posted as a teacher on some island in the Pacific Ocean and one of his grandfather’s friends was posted in Cherrapunji as a father of a chapel. The father used to write letters to his friend and in one of his letters, he told that there was a custom in Cherrapunji after someone’s death local people cover that person’s dead body with orange jelly. The reason was there was so much rain there that if they buried a dead body the rain might wash the soil and coffin and the dead body will be exposed to rain it will decompose the body. They used orange jelly as a preservative and waited for the day when the sun would come up and they could bury the body. So the line of that letter was nailed in my head that ‘Cherrapunji is a place where they soak their dead with honey.’ I thought there can’t be anything that can describe Cherrapunji like this single sentence. When I thought of telling the story from this angle, I got rejected everywhere because travel magazines do not care about these deaths or the connections between rain and death rather they want images of heavy rain or images of rain socked church glasses or the figure of Christ in some church. Then I decided to go deeper inside those stories on my own and realized that I somehow started drifting slowly and I liked doing these things.
Joydip Mitra: Without just telling the stories of a place using a series of photographs I leaned towards showing ‘the face of the soul’ of that place. I don’t know what would be the end result of it but I found myself enjoying only that. So it was a very conscious decision. Soon, around 2013-14, I gradually stopped working for travel magazine.
Another incident occurred, umm, in 2013-14, time was uneasy, just before this, from 2011-12, all travel magazines were slowly transforming into lifestyle magazine. Meaning, now they will not tell you to meet with the Adivasis (tribal people) in Bastar. Rather, the Dokra, made by the Adivasis and currently being displayed at some well-lit fancy showroom, they will say you to bring the close-up shots. Because now everything was being represented in such a way that would solely target the power elite class who will go to Bastar and visit that specific showroom and buy those things from them. To attract them, I now have to click photographs. So this was against my principles… because I never depended on photography for survival. Whatever I earned from photography I spent on photography, on travel, on equipment or spent them with buy friends while having fun in the travel.
So¸ when this situation arose I decided to leave and began studying in depth documentary photography. Obviously¸ the decision was indeed conscious, but, umm, how I will execute document photography, on what I will work or what the concept of documentary photography is, all of these were slowly becoming apparent by seeing Magnum Magazines and works of Joseph Koudelka, Salgado, Bruce Gilden. Roughly from those ideas and including my very own thought into it, I thought about now working, differently and this time more seriously.
Team Cocoon: From the time you started document photography, there are many inspirations behind it undoubtedly, a long time has passed. You started in an era and now a new contemporary era has also come. Now, people like Sohrab Hura, Ronny Sen, Arko Datto, Soumya Sankar, from our neighbouring country Sarker Protick, their generation came after yours, present generation rather, how do you see them?
Joydip Mitra: I take inspiration from them. Honestly, I take inspiration. This is about growing up, about our generation in the 80s, back then not every house owned a telephone, television. If some great match was going on, we used to go to the relative’s house (who owned a T.V) and enjoyed. We were brought up in this time. In 1991 we witnessed a globalised economy, gradually empowerment of the middle class happened, economically and socially, politically also.
So, to us these events made us realise ‘world beyond the abstraction’ was extremely raw and very much real. Even if we think of spiralling out the reality to the extreme, we just can’t, because, our upbringing has been rooted deep within the ground of reality. But when I saw their works, you know they all have been born after the 90s, one or two years before or after, the time they are growing up in, is strangely very much blank. Growing up in that time their childhood did a number of works on them, which didn’t do with us. I think we were lucky. Say, the loneliness of a child, frankly we never experienced that. Today’s generation, who were brought up around that time, has experienced this thing. It is very much reality. We didn’t face that. Secondly, having no friends is very much vivid nowadays.
When they were growing up, suppose, in a family, there are Mom, Dad, a dog and I, if father has died then mom and a dog and I; so, they are being detached from the real world, they have no idea about it. So subconsciously, in their head the image of the world keeps on expanding. So, when they finally step outside, he faces a conflict between the real world and the world in his subconscious mind. That gives rise to a strange kind of abstraction. For this one has to be extremely sensitive. One has to be respectful to the world that is growing up in his subconscious, which is very much difficult. Seclusion in the childhood, lack of friends, we would have wanted to suppress them (these feelings), but they, they let them come out, they do not hesitate, that’s why they can do it, they can thoroughly exploit this conflict and reflect them through their works. I sincerely feel this when I see their works. In fact, since the beginning, I very much respect them, their courage, stylization, breaking of rules of the traditional structure of photography, challenging everything and producing a completely new visual idiom, practically a new visual medium that they are doing, giving birth to such thing, it is revolutionary.
Team Cocoon: You also have done a lot of community-based work. Like working at Bhagoria, Hola mohalla etc. But for us or our friends or seniors of us, are mostly working on their personal photo story, telling the stories of themselves, their mother, close relatives, relatives, or somebody they know. What is your opinion on this kind of works?
Joydip Mitra: To me, this is new. Because I have mostly done travel photography, so to me the whole nation was like a blank canvas, and to that outlook, I am thoroughly exposed, so naturally instinctively we tend to prefer working outside, we all are outdoor persons. When they are starting out, going through certain visual stylization to tell a new story, whatever the story may be, they are not all exposed to the totality of India, so they reflect on themselves, on the people living in their houses, on relatives. I easily can meet Nihang Sikh If I want, because of travelling I know where they live, how to interact with them, they know me well. I can visit the Ramnami community, I know them well, that’s why my reach is well extended all over the country, so my instinct is, as I have done it in the past, brought up like that, instinct is to work around them. Now who are sensing this craving from the inside to do photography, tell a story, they try to do it out of craving, but they don’t know the outside world, we only know their house or their inside, so always look into them for finding potential subjects. That’s why photography is much more personal now. Another reason, senior photographers are also doing this, because, obviously they are trying to adopt this new stylization, for any reason, whatever the reason I don’t know, they are trying and that’s very good, another thing is, this new visual grammar is hard for them to learn them because the schooling it needs, they didn’t go through the schooling themselves, suddenly if they wish to take photographs like Sarker Protick working with exposed Central elements or burnt out Central elements, they simply cannot. Somewhere they will face an art block. So already the natural flow, within me, that wants to come out, you should let it out. That why there is no conflict, as we grew up by doing photography outside, so basically we are outdoor persons, we go out to find potential subjects, we go to community, or too various people, and they grew up although, with the same driving force, they grew up without knowing outside world, they don’t need to, using their driving force they search their inside, the result of that search is personal photography.
Soumya Sankar’s ‘Marichjhapi’, on a very interesting story, no one really knows how many people died in Marichjhapi, it is impossible to fathom because there isn’t much information.
Just before lockdown I started working, just before that I read a book called Deep Halder’s ” Blood Island” on Marichjhapi, Soumya Sankar started his project from a different standpoint, look here, he knows a few people inside their houses, through them they arrived at a totally new visualization and made a completely different photo-story.
My instinct was to go straight into Bastar, I have been there many times, reaching, Dandakaranya, previously called as camps, now villages, started asking people about the survivor of Marichjhapi, Because, The Survivor who went to Marichjhapi and after a great struggle returned to Dandakaranya, nobody can be a bigger witness than him, why would he like, he has no profit in it.
For two consecutive time, I went to Dandakaranya, Kondagaon, then camps situated across Kondagaon and began staying in them, so like him, I found right more survivors. The story that conjured up from that was altogether a different story. So when he (Soumya Sankar) was dealing with the subject, he is visualising something within himself, because he was not acquainted with those people, as a community, relocated Bengali refugee in Dandakaranya, He doesn’t know them as a community, he might know some of the people in person, He carry the forms of their faces inside him, that can contribute to a brilliant visual depiction as well. And my basic instinct should always carry me to the people who are the real eye-witness. I will take their photographs, record their statements, in fact just after commencing this project, lockdown started, and I got stuck. The truth is now a day they feel discomfort talking about Marichjhapi. Because, somehow they know Marichjhapi is a hot topic in Bengal election every year and this government said they have a list of ten thousand people ready to release, in fact, if you look for the real story, who are these ten thousand people? The should be a believable range. Where Kanti Ganguly is saying 7 people and here one party is saying ten thousand, the difference is night and day, so to really find out, you have to go there. Secondly, a massacre happened, obviously, but that’s not everything. what’s the story to me is, refugees, came long after the independence of India, the lower cast Hindu Dalit Bengalis who remained in Bangladesh, they depend on lands, they didn’t own any, they were contract farmers or agricultural labourers when partition occurred, Bangladesh (East Pakistan) was designated for the muslims, this head no impact on them. Because if you consider the economic niche they belong to, had no diversification between Hindu-Muslim, they were all in the same strata. So why would they desert their lands because the fields they work on, although they don’t own them themselves, generation after generation they know the Muslim zamindar who lends them the land, they only know that person, they don’t know about the country. So naturally, they attach themselves with that person, now when the situation worsens, around the end of the ’50s or in ’64 when at Hazratbal in Kashmir an incident occurred where the hair of Hazrat, a holy relic was stolen. Around this incident a riot broke out in Khulna, imagine where’s Kashmir and where’s khulna and persecution on lower cast Bengali Hindus began. But even before that situation was getting gradually worse during 1958 -1959; so they came to this country, they were given shelter at Dandakaranya, so if I do the photo story, my story will be completely different, these people who were forced to flee, they are Bengali nonetheless, we are Bengali so at they, so, they don’t know the world outside their agricultural land, they arrived this side of the border, fled to Dandakaranya, a part of them, when Dandakaranya was slowly getting habitable, liveable, some of them again fled to Marichjhapi, again got persecuted and again, a portion of them got lost and the other settled in Dandakaranya.
Standing today when I asked someone, ” Will you be eager to go Marichjhapi again?”, they don’t call it Marichjhapi, they call it ‘ Sodorbon’ (Sundarban); they say ” No! Why would I go there? We are good here.” This is a real incident that the Bengali refugees living in Chhattisgarh are doing exceptionally well. Now if I told them “Come to Bengal.” They will reply, ” We won’t. You Bengal isn’t that good, we are good in here.
There was a time when without the Adivasi people of ‘Muria’ they had no other neighbours. Who don’t know anything about farming and agriculture. They taught them everything and made the whole area so ‘green’ that now it’s being hailed as ‘Granary of Chhattisgarh’. That area Bastar, itself provides rice all over Chhattisgarh. So, my story will be executed like this because political or whatever reason that be, I am a hopeful person. So even after facing a massacre, how they turned things around for them, will be my take on the story. So the basic structure of both the stories aren’t that different, both are stories of a community, their generation will present it that way, and someone from our generation will present it this way.
Team Cocoon: The new generation or you or a person from your generation, they all have different ways of telling a story, so do you think documentary photography, the term, itself has undergone through evolution, the term itself may have shifted its territory, or still shifting gradually, can we say that?
Joydip Mitra: Certainly. Documentary photography, with time, has become more subjective, before, basically, it was very objective. Suppose this man is a survivor of the Dandakaranya massacre. My approach will be, a person who wishes to document the whole story, as a documentary photographer, to make things believable, I would want photos where he is still wearing a dhoti, or, in green paddy fields surrounded by red coloured soul, he is sitting there in a chair, behind him a concrete house having two small rooms, which has concrete roof not made of tin, showing this, I would want to establish his today’s financial status or position. I would use many small clippings as well, where he would be directly telling me his story. So, this would be our approach. Because by nature, we like to tell the story in a very objective way, it becomes well documented, because, I still today, where I work, say ‘People’s Archive Of Rural India’, if I submit a story there, say in 1500 words, so in their initial edit, they would send me at least seventy questions, asking me, for the words I have written, if there’s any proof for that, they like to know this, so naturally, so the whole thing has to be full-proof, I can’t do what I wish. So, this photography arose from the drive of establishing something, so this is one kind of thing, one can say, something blunt but you have to do it and a great photographer will not go through the whole process of documentation for the sake of proof.
Because as I said it’s subjective, it’s his own story now, however, he understands or interprets the incident, he is likely more likely to show that. He doesn’t need to record the whole thing thoroughly to tell the story. So, however, he makes of it, suppose through an abstract dead tree he could establish his truth. That is all, no other differences.
Team Cocoon: Can we say that photojournalism has been slightly modified into Documentary Photography; like you said in the beginning after that Documentary Photography has progressively switched towards Self-orientation, became a new entity.
Joydip Mitra: Exactly, it became more personal. Look, we can’t deform the history, but we can explain history in a various way, we can judge history as we please, suppress I can definitely say about Singhu. When I was taking pictures in Singhu, I noticed a dilemma in them. one group believes that they can reside there forever, they can go till the end, others think they need to be tactical, this is not rational to think that they can occupy Delhi forever, it is not possible, they need to be tactical, and being tactical they ought to extract favourable something.
This conflict always existed with the same goal and two different interpretation. So, this interpretation is vital, how I judge the situation, that can be true or not, may have occurred or not, but what I observed, rather my understanding, showing that broadly is today’s Documentary photography.
Team Cocoon: There was a time, the documentary was purely photography oriented. Now, the documentary contains films, audio recording, clippings, everything culminated into mixed media, do you think this is progressive or the impact of photography is weakening? Even photographers are coming out as visual artists.
Joydip Mitra: Exactly, they call themselves visual artists because they don’t depict reality as it is. They do it, in some way artistically or whatever, they show us an extract of the reality as they please. They change the reality. Like a few days ago I read a book by Daido Moriyama, ‘How I shoot a picture’; in that he states clearly that showing reality as it is, is not my job, suppose a poster, when I saw it I sensed violence hidden in it, a red coloured poster containing many faces, so if the violence struck with me, in my photograph the whole thing would have a blood-red overcast, behind all this there would a petrified deformed face. I may end up omitting the rest of the picture. That hidden violence, cannot be depicted by shooting the whole poster. So artistically, if I select that particular part only, my frame will show violence in a more concentrated form. Because I saw violence in that poster and I want to show only that. So, visual, although possible for artists only, because they have a particular philosophy of seeing. So, this philosophy gave rise to this. That’s why they call themselves visual artists.
Team Cocoon: So nowadays someone can’t be called a pure photographer per se.
Joydip Mitra: Can’t. Day by day the possibility becoming thin. It’s also true, the movie carries information much more. A person directly standing in front of me, telling the story of Dandakaranya eviction, we are hearing that from his mouth in movie format, this is much more believable than) a still picture of that same person standing in his veranda with a written caption of his statements. Naturally, what has happened, when a witness speaks, using his own words and own colours, is more believable than photography.
That’s why, photographers now, punch these two aspects, he/she captures what he sees visually in still format. You will see, those, who works in mixed media. What they do, is their still frame is mostly devoid of reality, reality is not shown. What is real is in my clipping, no further need to show that, the proof is there, now how I see it. I will show you my still images, taking photos as I deem correct. Surrealism. That’s why they mix these two.
Team Cocoon: Basically they categories themselves,
Joydip Mitra: When a photographer holds the camera, primarily he is a photographer, now the outcome is journalism or documentary, any sub-genre, he should not be bothered by that.
I am a photographer I used a camera to take a picture, now if he announced himself as a visual artist, this is very pathetic. Because, whether it can have considered as ‘art’, how I could be the judge of that? the viewer has no role left then. Actually, the term ‘art’, I always felt that the question regarding it is very absurd. Because Art has no particular definition, secondly, whether it’s an art or not, um, nobody can tell, neither can time.
If I mustered 5000 experts from all around the world, and show them a picture and ask ”is this art or not”. 2500 would say it is an art and 2500 would say It is not. So, there will always be a contradiction. And I think for a photographer, whether they are producing art or not, this question should be eliminated from their heads.
Team Cocoon: We have seen one of your photo stories which is on people who migrated from Tibet to India and we had seen that you documented the ‘Long March’, the 11 km walk started from Dharamshala. So I have a lot of questions regarding this work of yours. Firstly, If you share your experience when you were doing this work. Next question is after observing this work it made us realise that the idea behind your work can also be compared to what is happening right now, the whole CAA, NRC implementation. You were also talking about ‘Bastar’; the same idea was also there. So does this work somehow represent that you are against CAA, NRC implementation? In addition, we have seen you have worked on colour until now. Then why did you choose black and white for this particular project?
Joydip Mitra: Yes, this is a very interesting question. Actually, I have studied a lot about Tibetan refugees. In-fact the subject ‘refuge’ is very important to me. We are also kind of refugees we came from Bangladesh. We came here just before the partition. So particularly not refuge, my interest lies in migration and I have studied on this subject a lot. There is an economic theory on migration. There is a German economist named Ernst Georg Ravenstein. He showed us why people migrate. Now migration as a subject is at the core of world politics, like in the USA the immigration or NRC, CAA in India. So, he (Ernst Ravenstein) talked about three things why people migrate. There are traditionally three divisions of production in the economy ‘land, labour & capital’. Ravenstein was saying that if any of these three behave abnormally, people would migrate. At first people migrated because of finding a new land. At that, time people depended on farming. Even the whole civilization survived on farming. The ‘Aryan’, who migrated to India to find fertile land, so this is the first one, land based migration and it happened for a long time. After that came ‘Labour’. It started after the industrial revolution people from Africa started migrating. Because in England they needed labour for things like coalmines, factories or to run a steam engine etc. The third one ‘capital’ came after globalization in the 1990s because no one knows where capital will go. So migration will be there where the capital will be. Our Bengali boys and girls are going to Bangalore because of the capital; people from our country are going to the USA because of the capital. Then we saw an increase of capital in China but they were not allowing people because they have enough manpower. Therefore, migration depends on these three factors mainly. For Tibetan refugees, their main factor is also land. China annexed Tibet in the 1950s, because China has many people and they want to distribute their people equally in Tibet, Uygur and 19 other provinces where population is minimal. They saw a huge land mass that was almost empty, as they wanted to spread their population. Therefore, they annexed these regions. In Tibet, people follow Buddhist religion and naturally, communist China tried to crush their religious beliefs. In Tibet the elites and have nots gap is very noticeable, even more noticeable than India before. Naturally, the elites started migrating more and this migration happened in 1959. Tibetans migrated to India and started living here. There are many areas in India, which they call camps; if you go there, you will think you are in Tibet. One of them is in Bylakuppe, Karnataka another one is Dharamshala but the characteristics of Dharamshala are a bit different from Bylakuppe because Dalai Lama lives there, another one in Ratnagiri, Odisha, even in Chhattisgarh there is a huge camp. I went to every one of these camps. Tibetan refugee attracts me because I do not believe in neither religion nor god and why did they leave their country. After migrating to another country, why did they build mini Tibet in those remote areas that they got from the government because the Buddhist religion is not religion to them, it is their identity. Even after 4 generations, they do not want to leave their idea of religion. In their mind, they are still living in Tibet. You can call it imagination or reality but they are still living in that idea. This thing affected me a lot. I used to go to their camps in Bylakuppe, Mundgod, which are in Karnataka, in the Chhattisgarh camp, Ratnagiri, which is in Odisha many times. In there I saw they are living in their own world like Buddhist monasteries, little kid Lamas, Buddha statues in front of every home. Therefore, in those places religion does not work like that because we know religion as a habit. To them Buddhism is not only a religion but also an integrated part of their society. I say that Buddha was the world’s first communist because he did not believe in God and detached himself from the Hindu religion. He created those monasteries to help the people in the society and created Lamas for social welfare. In Lamas, there were doctors and volunteers to fulfil the work properly and it was totally monastery oriented. Actually this union and the ideology of Marx go hand to hand. After Atis Dīpankara it involved many rituals, black magic, and tantrism because he was a Bengali from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Therefore, the whole thing started after him. Tibetan are the only community after Bangladeshi Bengali refugees who flourished after leaving their own country as well as going through these difficult journeys. If you see stocks of any shop in those camps, you will realise those people’s purchasing capacity. If you compare the stocks of any shop in a village of West Bengal and a shop in a village of Goa, you will see that in Goa the shops are very well stocked. If you go to a camp, you will see the difference between purchasing power of the villages surrounding the camp and purchasing power of the people in those camps. Therefore, you will see those Tibetan people adopted a different economic system, which is monastery oriented and much more flourished than others are. They are tremendously hard-working people and very migrant. You know the Bhutia people who come here to sell sweaters, most of them do not come from Bhutan, and they are mostly from Tibetans refugee camps. Every time they come here I go to Bow Bazar (a place in Kolkata) to meet them. They are mostly from Amarkot or from Bylakuppe so they are going everywhere in the country for business. I have read a lot about this migration of Tibetan refugees. In 1959 after the migration, they had gone through a lot. They used to make roads in high altitudes only for Rs. 1 per day. Doing so, later on, I developed an interest, in some other writings, I discovered a strange incident, that, in the 1962 China war we were basically decimated, it was found that in higher altitude Indian soldiers can’t fight that well. At that time, something strange happened which one of the most well-kept secrets. The Tibetans already came in 1962, 63, 64, then from their camp, boys with good physic had chosen and through Dhaka and CIA because America had good connections at that time as Dhaka was in East Pakistan. It was said that without Nehru’s knowledge they were sent to the USA. There, they were trained in guerrilla warfare and brought back to China through Mustang in Nepal to make pressure on the Communist Government and it was a long process, which later stopped when the Chinese seal those areas.
I found such people in those camps who fought in high altitude, I saw an old man in Mundgod camp, he was in his 90s, he clearly said that in 71 during the Bangladesh war, occupying the Rangamati area strategically was a major success of the Indian Army. He told that we grab the Rangamati because Indians used a group of Tibetans who can fight at high altitudes they were not enrolled in the Indian Army they cannot join the Indian Army as they are not Indian citizens but there was always a task force who fought. After talking to these people basically I met the first generation, who migrated in 59, they walked with Dalai Lama when I started the work many of them were still alive and slowly decaying all of them are 80+ now. If we listen to their stories we would get goosebumps how can a man experience so many things in a single life. From a complete mountain area, no connection with the outside world became refugees and came to this country, I thought a long story with this. My full work has not completed yet still doing it. In 2019, on the 60th year, they decided to march from Dharamshala. It was only three hours march, all my images clicked within those three hours and some of them clicked on the day before, in front of Dalai Lama’s house. Suddenly I saw this total thing is an exception. I was observing their physic, their dress-up has affluence but they are refugees. They are not marching in their own country but marching in a different country. They want to earn their independence. This is a huge contradiction. This whole thing everything looks so unreal, if I rethink the whole matter, it looks so unreal. So I realised, here I have to escape from the reality that’s why I thought of excluding the colour to make at least one story in my life in black and white.
Secondly, there is another very small story behind this. Black and white became a sort of a craze now. Everyone is trying to shoot in black and white. I never felt that kind of urge that is why I have never done it. Someone asked me why I never shoot in black and white as if then I thought of publishing at least one black and white story but basically the thing is, the political contradiction was so unreal that I thought of escaping from the reality. That is why the story was made like this in “Dodho” Magazine.
Team Cocoon: You said you are very optimistic, is it the reason you chose the long march, Is it so that after coming to this country they are celebrating their life in their way?
Joydip Mitra: They are celebrating and they still desire freedom. Secondly, what Communist China had done in Tibet cannot be supported because they grabbed a different country, someone else’s land and destroyed their ethnic and religious lifestyle. Naturally, it is a clear invasion. On other hand an 85 years old woman after leaving her country 60 years back, walking 6-8 km holding the flag of freedom and those who are walking behind her, 50 years less old. They do not know, what Tibet is or never seen on maps, those born here also walking with the same intensity for freedom. I found it very interesting who spent 4th generation in India, the child who was born in 2012, why he is holding the same flag! What did he know about Tibet? Who is 16 or 18 years old, why they are showing protest for Tibet? That means the spirit, somehow survived inside them. This is very interesting. I don’t know what is the secret behind it, let’s see maybe I would find something in near future.
Team Cocoon: Yes, I had a realisation that you chose some subjects to work with, like the Ramnami community or the Ram Katha of Ayodhya, with some works you tried to give the essence of contemporary political issues. If I think about Ramkatha, some people rise on the stage in the middle of the performance and start delivering some political slogans. With these stories are you trying to indicate towards aggression of power politics and are you clarifying your stand against the slogan “MANDIR WOHI BANAYANGE” through the work “Ramkatha”?
Joydip Mitra: Exactly, I always kept the story of the boy in parallel. The boy Akshay who used to play the role of Sita in Ramkatha. On one side the huge bracing, the team was taken everywhere to perform Ramkatha and there making slogans like “MUSALMAN LOG BHARAT CHOR DO” or “DAR PE NA MARENGE, MANDIR WOHI BANAYANGE”. On another side, the boy was acting in the Ramkatha team, performing Sita because he is thin, studying in class 7. His father is poor but force him not to eat the midday meal in school because they are Brahmins and would lose his caste if eat meal touched by other castes. Naturally, that child will drop out one day. He is performing Sita in Ramkatha for 200 Rs daily and by using the Ramkatha group some people are emphasising the idea of Rammandir to take some political advantage, running a political polarization. Therefore, this huge contrast, when I shoot the Ramkatha, I kept some extreme yellow light which produced while lit a bulb, in every frame. I could have correct the colour and could make it natural but I didn’t because that yellow tungsten light when throw at night seems to be very ferocious. So I used the daylight setting for the whole story to mention that yellow cast. I deliberately ensured the presence of violence in the work. Because, after all the work was born out of these violent times.
Team Cocoon: We have seen your work on ‘ Hola Mohalla’ or ‘Bhaguriya’, When analysing these works we found that you have a distinct political ideology…
Joydip Mitra: Yes! Sure.
Team Cocoon: …This I, we believe that, without a political ideology, nothing is possible in this world. So, what is your political observation behind these kinds of works?
Joydip Mitra: Umm, I always try to understand the underlying economics in play in everything, Say the works I have done with the Nihang Sikhs or on Hola Mohalla or in later works, Who are these Nihang Sikh? This is very important. So Punjab is a highly prosperous state, when Guru Nanak came, so did Sikhism, Sikhism was like Chaitanya Dev, beliefs in giving, no class separation everybody is equal, whole Punjab accepted Sikhism, Punjab still has, the highest percentage, 32% Dalits, in India. Imagine that then I thought who are the Dalits? Basically, when the partition took place, the landholders became the elite Sikhs, they are basically Aryans, just look at their features, on the other hands’ many outsiders used to work in their fields, they are whom we call Dalits, the outsiders, they also converted to Sikhism. The religion says everybody is equal but they became Mashabi Sikhs, meaning they are Dalits converted into Sikhs. Both these groups have different economic status and social status; some of them are so economically weak that day keeps their children at Gurudwara. They are being brought up in gurudwara like in the old days, growing up in a prehistoric world of Guru Gobind Singh, the person who died in 1708, as if the whole world is like that, always preparing for religious wars; they are being kept inside a frightening outlook of this world. they are obsessed with horses always riding them, basically, they migrate, basically, they are mercenaries, they work for those who have a better political and economic advantage. You can see this in the crisis of Punjab in ’84, and even if you see, any recent incident, the massive movement currently happening in Singhu, there are so many Nihangs and some groups basically Mashabi Sikhs, group of Nihangs, and whenever you see chaos and the movement feels like stumbling, you will find there are Nihangs behind it, basically, they don’t know anything but this (violence). They think they are just the saviours of Sikhism, and their living because of the Sikh religion, they are unaware of economics and politics, they know nothing. From this narrow outlook, with this limited outlook (on the world) they are brought up. This thing caught my interest, that’s why I went to Hola mohalla, and other places, among the Nihang Sikhs.
I have some friends among them, and I noticed what is the outcome of growing up in a shallow small world. Today I don’t blame them I sympathize with them because they don’t know about broader perspectives because no such situation came in their lives to help them understand that. If that situation comes, I worked with Nihang on that hope. They are extremely light-hearted joyous people, exotic pictures can be formed, riding on horses, galloping along with their two legs on two different horses, always carrying guns, these things are important handling them is also very difficult. To seize these opportunities, I went to Hola mohalla, I always was interested in economics about why this community is like this. religion is not a big thing, religion is basically a by-product of economics. However, the economy builds a society, society becomes just like that, and to run the society some subcourse is formed which are call religions. Religion is secondary if the economy falls religion comes forward. As if this is the main thing which it’s not. So I always think like this, even when working at Ramnami, so did you when working at hola mohalla, when I was attracted towards Tibetan refugee or Bengali refugee, then this model of economics, that makes today’s present economic situation, my interest is on that model. So nothing else is there no religion nothing. There is a weird concept of equilibrium on which they flourished. That concept of equilibrium carries forward history.
Team Cocoon: When doing these projects like Ramnami, Hola mohalla or Ayodhya, did it ever occur to you that photography is a weapon for you?
Joydip Mitra: Weapon yes, but a blunt weapon. Because what more can I do with photography, might just strike a few times that’s it. But my weapon is not that sharp that could cut society into two parts. By knocking it a few times I could show you, look this is the reality. This is what is happening, I could just spread the news, through my lens I have recorded this process. Through my lens, I am just trying to give a sense of what is what. Photography can do just this much. Whether he is a renowned photographer or a fresher, their powers are the same. His artistic skill may be superior liquid frame magnificently, the Fresher who is starting today, his frame is not that solid, but if I try to measure the power of changing the society I’d find, in both the cases, they are equally limited. Spot news or a single image can rattle a few things, like, like the picture I remember, probably named ‘Alan Kurdi’ by a Turkish Journalist, where a Syrian refugee boy washed up dead on the shore, trying to reach Europe. After the image was published the whole of Europe Wasn’t still ready to accept them, but German chancellor Merkel, after the publishing of the image, gave them shelter. So, this was a huge development. Photographer can do this. News photographers also have the ability to instigate pig development through their images. However, in the long run, photography cannot change a pre-existing system. That has been going on for a long time. Only humans can do this. What photographic can do, is to give us updates time after time. This and that is happening, you beware wake your consciousness photography can provide you with this consciousness.
Team Cocoon: There are many photographers who like to show the output of their works through ooh exhibition or through book publication or by a multimedia presentation. So, what do you prefer about showing the output of your works?
Joydip Mitra: Mostly as, what should I say, published story. Because that’s how I could reach a range of people. That could be a digital story on the website or a digital magazine even better because that has an even broader reach. It would be better if it’s a digital magazine than a printed magazine. The magazine can reach a broader range of people than I personally could have. The magazine has a wider range so it reaches more people. I am not that much affectionate towards showing my works at galleries because they will be shown to a limited number of people. Basically, there are some other reasons, from a photography standpoint I haven’t taken that extraordinarily spectacular images so that I have to show that to other people. Because honestly, I am a very free and independent judge of my own work, that I have taken some extraordinary groundbreaking photographs, it’s not like that. But the subject I dealt with, the stories I managed to convey, those subjects were really important content of the image is more important than the image itself. So I wished for the distribution of the content, like Ramnami, which I recorded for 7 to 8 years, such a tremendous community, without caring about oppression, any class discrimination going on in India, they survived for so long. A community of atheists, cover their bodies with the tattoos of Rama and announced Rama is a symbol of equality. We believe in equality that’s why we used tattoos of Rama, we don’t believe in god. We are not Hindu, nor Muslim we are atheists. Show this community and the people in it, when I began this project in 2013, there were only 9 people left who stood in the forefront. Body covered with tattoos. When I recently visited them, I found six of them have passed away. Just two of them are alive one of them is suffering from a mental breakdown. If I didn’t commence this project, had I not captured these people in my pictures, in that case, we would not have any record of these people. We would not know what impossible things they have achieved, being in the dangerous society of today, which is getting even uglier as we speak, being there, they talk about equality, talk about equilibrium, announcing that we don’t believe in religion, we are true atheist, we believe Rama is a symbol of equality of good governance, stating the qualities that Tulsidas presented Ram with, we believe this society, although its a utopian thought, this society is governed by lord Rama and we the same essence of Rama on our bodies. So this is a tremendous thing. Search societal revolution on this large scale didn’t happen in India for a long time after ‘Bhakti Andolan’.
So this subject is very important. If the subject matter is highlighted through my works, many people could know about them, then some of them might believe that even in the barbaric time with the philosophy of extreme atheism and humanity some quint outnumbered group of people can survive, they can emphasize on that. If this much could happen, I am happy.
Team Cocoon: So your work whatever the medium be, in the form of books or exhibition or on a website, whichever reaches people fast, you are going to use that.
Joydip Mitra: Yes. And if people, after viewing get inspired, and think, yes, now I am aware of this fact, I will feel even better. But reaching the people is important. I try to do that to the best of my ability.
Team Cocoon: Now the next question is, this huge amount of community-based documentary, after executing this, Joydip Mitra, as a person, has he ever wished to make a personal story?
Joydip Mitra: Umm, as a person I am not a very interesting fellow. I think I am rather a dull one.
Team Cocoon: or known people much alike…
Joydip Mitra: Yes. That happened, that happened quite a lot. Because I have seen some incredible people around me. What happens is, I think to make a story; a boundary of not knowing should be much far apart from the boundary of knowing. Because I need some space to explore. A story is born through exploration. A person whom I know to the bone, making a story of him is really difficult.
So many people I have come across get to know them, and I realised that he or she is an excellent subject for making a story. But then I discovered, this isn’t going to happen. Suppose any person, like recently I was talking about Bastar with somebody, that person went to Marichjhapi, then in that night when the massacre took place, He fleed, and somehow he was taken to Basirhat in a little boat, then he was loaded on an Army CRPF truck, and he was returned.
So he stays in Dandakaranya, in a village 6 km away from Bargaon. He owns a lot of property. He is digging a pond. Single person digging the earth little by little every day. Whenever I visit there I notice the pond got a little bigger. His son teaches in a school, near Raipur. The old man, his daughter-in-law, his grandson and his wife these four people live in his house. So they even the grandson lends a hand and dig the earth. Once I asked him ”when will your digging for a pond be completed?” Surrounding this pond there is a Jungle and behind that are hills. The pond is situated right in the centre of what we call a red corridor. He is over 70 years old. I asked him why are you digging this pond, He said just wait a little longer, this will get bigger, in the rainy season water will fill it up. I will release some fishes. My grandson doesn’t know which one is Topse or Tangra. It’s his dream that he will dig up a pond that he used to have in Bangladesh, in its water, Topse and Tangra would swim and his grandson gets to identify them. So this person, he himself is, what can I say, is a living history of Bengali. Any East Bengal refugee’s perfect, ideal representative. I often wondered a story could be made on this person alone. I found a thousand such people because I spread and explore broadly. Show this African community with whom I am currently working on a big scale, those group of people who were brought here as slaves, who are called siddhi…
Team Cocoon: you showed us
Joydip Mitra: I think, if you pick any single individual out of them, is a part of a great epic story. How being a slave from Africa, through Oman, being smuggled, arriving at a non-British port Diu and Goa, after that working for a local king, then again after the independence of India losing everything, they are still surviving but they haven’t let go of their community identity. In India, in the pockets of Gujarat and Karnataka, they are residing forming mini Africa. So each and everyone has an epic story. This is what happens when I go there, the total community come together in my images, each person is unique, any specific person or any specific time, the story going on for a long time, to make a story on one person, a single individual, you have to invest a lot of time. If I have the time I will definitely do it. I really wish to.
Team Cocoon: The person who is digging a pond, those who are walking in the long-march, out of the many women, many children, that gentleman are there, the spirit in their heart, and that old gentleman who is digging a pond for his grandson, his spirit. In those people can you see Joydip Mitra? That Jaydeep Mitra who went out one day carrying a camera.
Joydip Mitra: Yes. Certainly. Certainly, I see myself in them. Because to me, this spirit, are you could say the positiveness in their characters, which attracts me the most, I go to them because of this attraction and when I record them, it appears, that person is me. Because photography is like mirror images, whatever you click, however, you click a photograph; you are being reflected in that photograph. That photograph is obviously of some other people, different faces different attire, a shirt or dhuti, but in that (photograph), you are also vastly integrated. You chose to click it this way but you could have done it in other ways also, you decided to click it this way because you are incorporating yourself to a great extent. Therefore, I am very much present, in all my characters, all characters of my photograph. Almost in everyone, I see myself.
Team Cocoon: Which Jaydeep Mitra that you miss the most?
Joydip Mitra: A little, I miss that (me) greatly is not the case. Because the question of missing somebody arises when the person changes. Twenty years ago, I had a different life, today I don’t, then you have a situation of missing someone because I used to be someone now I am someone else. But I didn’t change much. What is used to do a long time ago practically I still do it. Even, daily engagement, or busyness, that hasn’t changed much either.
One thing I may miss now, is, in the past when I used to walk on the mountain, then whether I wished for it or not, generally didn’t, I used to get separated to be alone, Trekking the mountain on my own. The mountain, the trees amongst their grandeur presence a minute simple, a single human is walking, and then you get the realisation that you feel a strange feeling of humbleness, your head bows down automatically. Because who are you in this vast greatness and when I get back in here, I come back with this realisation that I am no superior individual because everything seems so small. That feeling of bowing down for some time or being charmed to bow down, it’s a great feeling. I think I miss that. I don’t walk in the mountains alone now.
Team Cocoon: As a teacher or a photographer, which one do you love more?
Joydip Mitra: Obviously as a photographer. Teaching is alright I love teaching immensely, you know that yourself already, When I teach, as I see myself in the character of an image, and when I teach, suppose there are 50 students, I see myself in those 50 individuals.
Team Cocoon: When you were, say, showing a picture of The Beatles, taken in that period, when Kennedy was shot, A and B roll a writing a song after that when you came in the class and showing us the image, in the classroom we feel like ok you are transported in the situation they had been in, we were not just sitting in the classroom.
Joydip Mitra: Exactly. What I love the most is to share. What, what excites me, that, which I want to spread as much as possible. This excitement! Feeling this push after viewing something, being influenced by it, I believe this is the most important aspect of teaching. Taking the push, and standing up after being stunned. When I get excited after seeing something I want to share that among the students in such a way that show that they also get excited. So that they also think and also stand up again being stunned. For doing that, I started teaching. Basically, I don’t follow any script, nothing like this. I just look at the images and the parts, which I am assigned to teach, those parts, which fall under the curriculum of discussion, for that class, I contemplate in how many ways I could teach that. I don’t teach rather I discuss, or share. I just share. Doing so if someone feels the excitement, I feel this student is also me. Simply I am enjoying something with other fifty me.
Team Cocoon: I heard some poet saying that he has written only one poem throughout his lifetime. It is a journey for everyone…
Joydip Mitra: Obviously. Yes, yes, very much.
Team Cocoon: This long journey, you still want to do more, so how has the path been to you?
Joydip Mitra: Which one?
Team Cocoon: The path of your journey.
Joydip Mitra: Extremely well. To say it simply, it’s the best journey that I could ever have.
If I did something else in life, I couldn’t have walked on such incredible roads. In the beginning, I said I am an outdoor person and I love the company of people. There is no definition of people are not defined. People, countless people, countless types of people. This journey has made me walk amongst these people. So many people, the number of situations they have been in, so many beliefs, I can’t recollect them all to sum it up.
Say a few days ago another tribe, I was taking photographs in the community, They are ‘Nishi’, a tribe from upper Arunachal Pradesh, their history begins in 1911, imagine that, they are residing in that hill for a thousand years, in 1911 this is their history, that’s interlinked with the death of a British. Possibly a surveyor, nobody knows for sure, named Nowell Williamson, a British, in 1911 he was assassinated by the Nishi. He was travelling through that area. Why he was killed nobody knows. There are many versions. When I was living with the Nishi, the ghost of Williamson is their god. And Nishi are divided into two groups, some believe that the killing was not a murder but it’s their resistance against the British, so they did the right thing, Some believe it was an injustice, a helpless person who came into my province I cannot simply kill him, So thus The Ghost of Nowell Williamson has become a cult. He has a grave, and the sword, which was used to kill him, is kept in a temple. The tribe, the total community, their thoughts, philosophy, the whole conflict, their religion, ritual everything is based around the ghost of Nowell Williamson.
Such a strange community, committed a murder in 1911, their society is functioning on the basis of that still today. I would have never known that if I didn’t choose this profession. I am no anthropologist, I had no need to reach that part of Arunachal Pradesh otherwise. Ramnami communities, Sindhis, Afro-Indians, I wouldn’t have known them. So no other journey can be better than this. I couldn’t have any better journey than this If I weren’t a photographer.
I believe this wholeheartedly.