Art & Voices Matter: Nirvair Singh Rai on documenting the Rohingya refugees

Indian photographer Nirvair Singh Rai talks about the ethical and aesthetical responsibility of depicting a humanistic representation of refugee communities.

by Girinandini SinghPublished on : Jul 05, 2021

As a young visual storyteller, Nirvair Singh Rai has already won critical acclaim for his work covering the Rohingya refugees, which not only raises questions of representation but delves deeper into the layered question, analysing what exactly is being represented. Is the story that we are telling a crude chronicling of 'captivating theatrics' or are we taking the time to explore beyond the surface, revealing a picture that is whole, all-encompassing, and provokes the urgency of viewing the Rohingya people as humans first. Rai's work moves beyond that abstract image of a humanitarian issue that has been made of the Rohingya refugee camps by popular media. His images are perceptive, documenting the emotive range of his subject with remarkable uncanny, weaving their stories into a distinct imagery. Perhaps the intimacy of his work stems from the fact that each photo series transforms into a personal journey, an investigation of the internal landscape of the one behind the lens intersecting with the psyche of those being captured and represented on film.

Tree in the Sun | Nirvair Singh Rai | STIRworld
Tree in the Sun Image: Nirvair Singh Rai

1. Please talk about your general practice.

I am an independent visual artist from Punjab, living in Mumbai now. My practice is extremely dynamic, moving between genres; I have consciously dabbled at the intersections of documentary, journalism, fashion, performance, nature, and wildlife. My interest in the medium itself comes from my father, who is an avid photographer and observer, among other things. I am grateful to him for introducing me to the camera very early on in my life, and eventually letting me pursue my studies on the subject from The Pathshala Institute in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

In Play | Nirvair Rai Singh| STIRworld
In Play Image: Nirvair Singh Rai

2. What are the key concerns that you aspire to address through your work? What prompted you to make this your area of focus?

I find my work gravitating to subjects relating to communities, collective emotions, and cultures studies. I find that I inevitably start inhabiting the stories I document, leaning on them as one leans on the walls of their house, in a becoming of sorts. The people whose stories I tell, matter more than the photograph itself. I just like to be present, to connect, to listen. The act of making an image comes much later for me, and often doesn’t come up consciously at all. From documenting folk festivals like the making of Phad paintings in Rajasthan, or Holla Mohalla in Punjab, I have also experienced the Nepal Earthquake of 2015, the cyclones in Orissa, on ground with the people I was photographing and documenting. And no one can equate or articulate those realities as they really were through images, for there is so much else beyond what we see at first glimpse and in between the layers of what’s present and absent. What I do, therefore, is simply find stories and then I tell them as earnestly as I possibly can. Hopefully these evoke some kindness and compassion through my work. I am currently working on a photo book that describes the close relationship between people and trees, and the rituals that surround this relationship. The project will commence as soon as it is safe to travel again.

Looking Out | Nirvair Rai Singh| STIRworld
Looking Out Image: Nirvair Singh Rai

3. How does art interventions aid the process to voice anxieties of the subaltern and question the normative order? Do you think art helps its audience to think and experience about matters that are otherwise considered of a lesser-importance?

Well, I think as long as art is thought of as expression, or communication, then we will agree that it plays the most vital role in helping to bring the “deliberately muted and neglected” voices to light, as (Arundhati) Roy says, and I agree that some voices have been systematically marginalised and need intervention. But what we should be careful about is to not let the idea of an aesthetic supersede the idea of human relations. As long as the art in question is ethical, and not fetish-ised as a lot of art sometimes tends to be, then it can bring about a drastically positive change and it is incumbent upon us all to responsibly do our bit. When I was documenting the Rohingya crisis in Burma, even though I spent many long and recurring visits with the community to make sure I was being authentic with my storytelling, I felt that it wasn’t enough. I eventually decided to train a few locals including my guide Abul Kalam, in making images so that they could continue telling their own story in their own words or images. Many years later today, it makes me most happy to say that Abul Kalam has done a credible amount of work and is finally getting acknowledged for this. Now that may not be a big change, but it is a hopeful ripple.

Rohingya Refugee Camp| Nirvair Rai Singh| STIRworld
Rohingya refugee camp Image: Nirvair Singh Rai

4. What kind of artistic liberties do you take to reflect (your version of) the reality of the community? 

I take artistic liberties that don’t portray the story differently than what it is, and the aim is to take as few liberties as possible to provide an honest narrative. Maybe that’s why I like jumping between various streams of photography, it’s because while I hold back and try to not control the elements in my journalistic work, I have the liberty to design and compose and orchestrate my images when I am doing work related to fashion or performance.

Refugee Camp| Nirvair Rai Singh| STIRworld
Refugee camp Image: Nirvair Singh Rai

5. How do you involve artistic sensitivity to capture the fragility of the people already relegated to the margins? How do you balance the aspects of sensitivity and solidarity?

I think because I don’t approach with the intention of “capturing” anything, I am already being consciously sensitive. I am extremely comfortable with the idea of not making a single image after spending a day or two or a week with a community. There is no haste in my process. And there is no one way of being sensitive either, I think what is required from all of us is to constantly question our own privileges and biases and try to overcome them. To ask ourselves repeatedly if we are being ethical. It comes with learning, apologising, and then learning some more, I guess. And the notions of what constitutes as fragile, and strong are also subjective. There is a way to tell the same story without showing images of people grieving, hurting, but instead finding a more respectful way to express the same lament. I think a kind gaze, a patient and responsible gaze, should be the most basic gear a documentary photographer should carry with them.

Women in Refugee Camp| Nirvair Rai Singh| STIRworld
Women in refugee camp Image: Nirvair Singh Rai

6. Lastly, how far have things changed in past years and what do you aspire as an outcome in medium to long term through your work?

I think things are changing every day, we live in a strangely political time where fundamental shifts are happening within hours. And there hasn’t been a more urgent need for art and journalism to provide not just truthful depictions of these times but also a form of solace and nourishment. The long-term aim of my work has always been to bridge and reduce the gap between art and the masses, to do more public art projects, and to make art more accessible, so it can unify against systematic divides.

Young boys in a refugee camp| Nirvair Rai Singh| STIRworld
Young boys in a refugee camp Image: Nirvair Singh Rai
02 mins watch Nirvair Singh| STIRworld
Nirvair Singh Rai on his work Video: Nirvair Singh Rai

Art & Voices Matter
Co-curated by Rahul Kumar and Dilpreet Bhullar, Art & Voices Matter is a STIR original series of interviews with global creative practitioners who bring to the core the issues of communities that may be seen at the periphery.

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