Sharbendu De makes a painstaking journey to capture images of a rare tribe

Ahead of World Photography Day, photographer Sharbendu De evokes emotions that go far deeper than a visual documentation of the Lisu community through near-surreal images.

by Rahul Kumar Published on : Aug 17, 2020

Being a ceramist, I am always asked how I am able to babysit a kiln while firing to high temperatures (1300 degree centigrade) in the dry heat of June when the maximum temperature outside sometimes goes as high as 45 degree centigrade. In turn, I tell my golfer dad that he must be crazy to hit the course, come hail-come storm! I guess one has to be paranoid to exert and go through immense discomfort in order to achieve a desired result. There are no shortcuts. But, will you take on a walk of about 125 kilometers, through thick forest that is infested with blood-sucking leeches, into muddy swamp, and carrying 90-100 kgs on person…all this just to take a few photographs? Think again!

I speak to Sharbendu De who did just that to make images for his series titled Imagined Homeland.

Behind the scene, Sharbendu De having a meal | Sharbendu De | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Behind the scene, Sharbendu De having a meal Image: Courtesy of Sharbendu De

Rahul Kumar (RK): What triggered you to pursue photographing the Lisu community of northeast India?

Sharbendu De (SD): Serendipity. My first trip happened in 2013, oblivious to the beginning of a long association. I witnessed that almost every house bore wounds caused from extreme hardships and yet they were at peace. I conversed with them and that interaction remained lodged in my mind. Long after I had returned, I revisited their stories. I struggled to comprehend that how an entire community endures so much loss and grief, yet not be enraged? From where did they find such grace and gentleness, I wondered? Was it the mere lack of an avenue to vent or are they like this? My curiosity drew me back into their alluring world. Thus followed multiple trips over these last eight years. My reasons, though, were not entirely altruistic. I have always struggled to blend in with the mainstream and inadvertently found myself on the fringes. For instance, I grew up in a secluded island in Indian Ocean, Andaman. Perhaps, I felt I could fit better into societies like that of the Lisus, away from the world’s gaze.

Three tea mugs, father and the child | Imagined Homeland | Sharbendu De | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Three tea mugs, father and the child Image: Sharbendu De

RK: While your audience may consider this to be works of aesthetic value (therefore art), is your quest to ‘document’ your subjects?

SD: Are we saying that ‘works of aesthetic value’ cannot be documents? By that logic only anti-aesthetic artworks can be considered as documents which might be problematic. In Imagined Homeland, I present documents, but in metaphors. I believe the audience is intelligent enough to discover meanings through the web of these allusions if they engage with them. Carl Jung had said, “Symbolism and mythology are the natural languages of the unconscious”. Every image alludes to their life — feelings of loss, wait, loneliness, togetherness and quest for a better world. Instead of focusing on their body and materials, the emphasis has been on their intangible culture and philosophy. I refuse to serve readymade answers, rather present occasions for interpretation. Perhaps, such an approach troubles those whose yardsticks of reality is limited by their imagination.

I refer to the alternate ending scene of the film Life of Pi (Directed by Ang Lee; 2012). The late actor Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi Patel asks the writer, “I have told you two stories about what happened out on the ocean. Neither explains what caused the sinking of the ship, and no one can prove which story is true and which is not. In both stories, the ship sinks, my family dies, and I suffer. So which story do you prefer?”

The writer replies, “The story with the tiger. That’s a better story,” to which Pi Patel quips, “Thank you. And so, it goes with God.”

10 mins watch Making of ‘Imagined Homeland’ – an interview with Sharbendu De | Imagined Homeland | Sharbendu De | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Making of Imagined Homeland – an interview with Sharbendu De Video: Courtesy of PhotoSouthAsia, Vikram Chaudhary, Bikki Yobin and Sharbendu De

RK: Walking over 100 miles on foot, in the thick of a jungle with no access to electricity or running water, doctors, or any of the basic urban infrastructure must have been daunting. Please share your experience, and how did you source inspiration for this kind of commitment?

SD: It was daunting to say the least. In 2015 and 2018, I trekked all the way to Vijoynagar (the last Indian village on the India -Myanmar border) and returned on foot, trekking about 240-odd km back and forth. With the help of a Lisu guide and Chakma porters, I carried my equipment and other essentials, lugging about 90-100 kg. We walked for days at a stretch, wading through knee-deep sticky mud, crossed the freezing winter river at multiple places, crawled uphill on all fours and descended through the slippery mountain terrain or skipped and hopped over lichen-filled boulders. One wrong step could have been fatal. Cellphones do not work there and there was no rescue or evacuation plan on site. Leeches suck your blood and insects bite like clockwork. After trekking from dawn to dusk with 15-20 kg load on-person, the entire body hurts. Nights were cold and spent moaning and in pain.

The terrain tests every grain of your worth. It was excruciatingly painful besides being financially unviable. There was no money in sight and this project was resource and time consuming. The media like usual remained indifferent to such stories. Every now and then I thought of giving up; I swore that if I get out of here alive, I will never return or undertake similar works. I berated myself for not doing commercial and fashion photography and making a comfortable life. The artistic challenges were an entirely different ballgame. For instance, there was no electricity so charging my fleet of batteries, camera, laptop etc. was another massive concern. I had to work with great precision and economy.

Children on a journey with their duck | Imagined Homeland | Sharbendu De | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Children on a journey with their duck Image: Sharbendu De

I have never shared this with anyone yet: In 2016, we were trekking back from Vijoyanagar. The target was to cover 130-odd km in five days, matching pace with the Lisus and the sturdy Chakmas. On day three, my team had surged ahead leaving me to lug myself alone. Sometimes, it is easier to carry another person’s burden than of one’s self. Caked from head to toe in mud, drenched and breathless with an aching back, I was dragging myself through knee-deep mud the entire day but at one point, I gave up. I threw myself on the ground struggling to breathe swearing to never return. I wanted to give up. I had no more strength left. I asked god (including forest-spirits) for a sign, for a reason for me to carry on if I should, but of course there was no one around. Shortly, I craned up at the twilight sky to witness two birds hovering right over my head circling in a rhythmic pattern and chirping. It was magical. I stared and stared, and eventually smiled.

I also survived because of the community’s support, their kindness and of course, providence. Before I enter the forest every time, I pray to its elements and spirit-forces for permission to enter as well as to be watched over. Some mystical energy does watch over and protects me while I am in there. I do not know why or how exactly I persevered, except that something wanted me to. Now come to think of it, it feels like home to me.

Waiting in the forest| Imagined Homeland | Sharbendu De | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Waiting in the forest Image: Sharbendu De

RK: Did you face hostility with the native/aboriginal tribes? Did you feel vulnerable, how did you gain their trust?

SD: I grew up in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. So, nature, its elements, indigenous communities and I were always entwined. At one point, I wanted to become an anthropologist or an environmental conservationist.

No, I faced no hostility. There were initial apprehensions within the Lisus about my presence, which is but natural. Geographical and cultural isolation is an intrinsic attribute of indigenous communities causing fear of the unknown. Over the years of living and engaging with them, things improved. My friends David Yobin and Avia Ngwazah (prominent Lisu leader) advocated for my presence in the community, thus leading to many doors opening up. The gram bura (village chief) and villagers also helped me. But not everything works out. Last year, I wanted to visit Musathi, but the permission was declined. They are still scared of outsiders. Such setbacks are part of community-centric work, which includes their right to reject me. Also, we assume that a tribe is a homogeneous group; that cannot be any further away from truth! Even they have diversity and difference in opinions and collective as well as individual aspirations.

Behind the scene at Imagined Homeland | Imagined Homeland | Sharbendu De | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Behind the scene at Imagined Homeland Image: Sharbendu De

So, how did I gain their trust? During my years working for NGOs (2005-09) with subaltern communities, I had learnt that an honest and transparent approach is imperative. People sense it. I carried copies of the stories I had done on them and shared with the tribal leaders and the villagers. I carried postcard size photos and gave to the people I had priorly photographed. In the evenings, I joined others around the fire place mostly listening to their stories over endless cups of lacha (Lisu tea). I participated in their weddings, church sessions, and funerals. There is always an acute shortage of medicines here. Wanting to help within my modest means, I always carried medicine kits for at least David’s village and handed them to him. When villagers heard I have medicines, they came asking for tablets and send eggs or fruits as a gesture of their friendship.

At times, someone would express dissatisfaction over my articles. In 2018, Sifujah Yobin, an elderly man from Shidi Kha complained to the village chiefs about my reference to the Lisus as a ‘Tibeto-Burman’ tribe saying that “they were not from Tibet”. A meeting was called and my presence was requested. I had to patiently explain that anthropologically the Lisu tribe is classified as ‘Tibeto-Burman’. On my request, Simeon (Secretary, Yobin Tribal Welfare Society) read the article aloud and translated for the attendees. Once this was done transparently, everyone appreciated and expressed their gratitude. When I was leaving from Shidi, Sifujah uncle (the old Lisu who had complained) gave me three oranges and wished me a safe journey. The cloak of doubt had been lifted. It takes time and there are no formulas.

Man with no road | Imagined Homeland | Sharbendu De | World Photography day | STIRworld
Man with no road Image: Sharbendu De

RK: Would you agree that you are interfering with the way the tribes have chosen to live? After all, it is your and our need to know more about them, photograph them and admire their way of living. But they chose to remain self-reliant and disconnected with the rest of the world. So why not respect the choice they made?

SD: I disagree. The Lisus have not chosen to live that way, it has been forced upon them. Historically hill tribes had fled to higher mountain passes to avoid paying taxes (extortive) to the monarchs and made their life there, also to maintain distance from other tribes, as close proximity often led to violent conflicts. But in this context, we need to understand their history first: The indigenous Lisu tribe (known as Yobin in India) used to live inside the dense jungles of Namdapha, which was a continuous forest spanning from India into Myanmar in Arunachal Pradesh (then NEFA). At that time, India-Myanmar international border also had not been drawn until 1972. In 1983, the Government of India, without consulting them, notified 1985 sq. km. of their native land into Namdapha National Park and Tiger Reserve (NNP) and eventually declared the Lisus as ‘poachers and encroachers’. The problems began then. The National Park was created in the middle of the terrain by cutting off the bordering villages on the park’s eastern periphery from the rest of the country — these villages got land locked with the park on the western side and the international border to the east. Since National Park rules do not permit permanent constructions within the park zone, a road meant to connect these villages to the nearest town (Miao) never got built beyond an endless mud-trail. It is another matter that a four-lane highway cuts through Kaziranga National Park in Assam. In the absence of this arterial road, the Lisus are forced to trek for two to six days to Miao for essential activities like buying groceries, medical care or occasional administrative needs, and return with at least 25-40 kg head load. A spiraling effect of this means that other constitutional entitlements like education, healthcare, electricity, police protection, telecommunications and every day essentials necessary for their survival and development do not reach their villages. Commodity costs are exorbitant as the cost of every commodity amplifies three-five folds; for example, a kilo of salt costs between INR 80-150. They want roads, schools, hospitals, electricity, telephone and other modern facilities like the rest of us, but without having to abandon their home. This jungle is their home. In these pursuits, we are all similar, if not the same. Ironically, they trek for days to their polling stations to vote for a pseudo-democracy that never cared for them.

Children explore the mythical forest | Imagined Homeland | Sharbendu De | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Children explore the mythical forest Image: Sharbendu De

RK: With your staged images, how are you keeping at bay the idea of ‘exoticising’ the people and environment of the tribe? Also, is the ‘act of staging’ an aid for you to bring out emotions that move beyond the body in the image?

SD: The colonial-anthropological style of photography emphasised on physiognomy, costumes, rituals, and materials, often against a studio backdrop away from their context. Another trope has been to show them as wild, hunter gathers, thus ‘othering’ them. The gaze seldom shifted to their feelings, philosophy and intangible heritage. This aesthetic is mindlessly aped even now failing to forge a better understanding of our worlds. In 2013, I had repeated this mistake. Now, I show those images as examples of ‘what not-to-do’.

Imagined Homeland is a result of facts, anecdotal accounts and Lisu folklores as well as the dreams I had while I lived inside the jungle. I worked with dream symbolism (refer Carl Jung’s theories of collective unconsciousness and archetypes) and treated these raw materials as sources for motifs. The central idea was to evoke an emotional response by disrupting delivery of the banal. The images reference archetypal interconnections between man, animal and nature (read Jung and Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think, 2013). It was in these dreams that many specific scenes were revealed to me. The jungles here are truly alive with the presence of mystical forces.

Lisangi and Dulusu Yobin wait indefinitely in the forests of Namdapha with their son | Imagined Homeland | Sharbendu De | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Lisangi and Dulusu Yobin wait indefinitely in the forests of Namdapha with their son Image: Sharbendu De

Let me break this down. In my representation, the Lisus are not performing any specific activity from the realm of realism — one family with their ducks (Waiting in the Forest) is watching television in the forest whereas Yibisa Yobin, in Man with no Road, is riding a bicycle in the river. Uncanny juxtapositions recur throughout, blurring the lines between private and public spaces. Every image is made in their environment; they are wearing regular T-shirts, shirts and pants. These decisions were consciously left to them. Some parents would dress up their children before sending them for a shoot and some women would come dressed in a plush winter jacket, indicating that the desire to appear pretty and presentable is not endemic to urban populations. Everyone wishes to look beautiful as they perceive it. Every material artefact in the frames from tea-pots to television belong to them. These act as social, cultural and economic markers including their aesthetic sensibilities. I strictly worked with local resources barring the lights in the frames, which are symbolic (refer paintings of Francisco de Goya). In many ways, is this work not anthropological? Of course, the visual treatment is cinematic.

Sharbendu De | Imagined Homeland | Sharbendu De | World Photography Day | STIRworld
Sharbendu De Image: Courtesy of Sharbendu De

The act of staging goes beyond extricating emotions. The gamut of each mise-en- scène includes location, props, costumes, selection of elements from nature, determining the shoot time for a specific tonality of ambient light, mixing artificial lights, colour and of course direction. I avoided instructing them to deliver specific emotions but gave a broad context of the scene. The expressions mostly come from within them revealing who they are at the core. Such expressions cannot easily be manufactured in the outside world.

Meticulous staging further helps in concisely telling the story with great economy. Who likes to read a loosely pieced together literary work? Amongst many ethical and aesthetic considerations, I made linguistic deliberations, like, do I want to make visual adjectives or verbs? Are the images ornamental embellishments in the narrative or do they allure us into their world? As a result of these moorings, what emerges is a recurrent sense of motion and repose. Signifiers in the images suggest tradition as well as present traces of modernity from a time-code point of view. I am not saying that our urban societies are modern; to the contrary, I have come to believe that the Lisus are far more humane and dignified worthy of being called humans.

(Imagined Homeland was made possible due to an art research grant from the India Foundation for the Arts and a conceptual photography grant from Lucie Foundation. No animals were hurt during its making. All images were made on location and not in post-production).

Click here to read more on the celebration of World Photography Day.

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