by Shaunak MahbubaniJul 27, 2021
On May 25, 2020, photographer and filmmaker Ronny Sen posted a photograph on Instagram from his then ongoing National Geographic assignment documenting the violent aftermath of Cyclone Amphan in the Sundarbans of West Bengal. The photograph shows a 50-year-old Rahimul Khan on the day of Eid as he offers Namaz in front of his broken home in Ghoramara Island, Sundarbans. While the photograph illustrates the extent of the damage caused by the cyclone, Khan’s resilience emanates a sense of hope that underscores the overarching tragedy.
As Sen narrates the details from his week-long assignment, we both admit how 2020 has been a tough year, especially within the Indian context. From the anti-CAA protests and Delhi pogrom earlier this year, to the global pandemic and its mismanagement now, there is an urgent need to re-evaluate and reconsider what we call ‘normal’. “While there have been wars and famines in the past, the interesting thing about the COVID-19 pandemic is that the virus does not discriminate on the basis of caste or class,” says Sen as he explains how the suffering caused by the lockdown in India supersedes the impact of the virus itself. “How does someone, living in a 100 sq ft area with 10-12 other people, observe social-distancing?”
A staunch critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government, Sen played an instrumental role in raising awareness during the country-wide protests against CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and NRC (National Register for Citizens) that erupted in December last year. “The CAA and NRC are not about somebody else. If I was on the streets, I was there for myself. Those who think that they are fighting for the Muslims alone are fooling themselves. In Assam, nearly 19 lakh people were left out of the final list of NRC of which many were Hindus,” explains Sen, adding how “the state has turned its people against its Muslim population”.
Belonging to a family of political activists, Sen, who does not identify himself as one, recounts candidly his days from childhood when he would accompany his parents to communist rallies. “When I was 3 or 4, my parents would take me to these rallies and hand me the mic. I could barely speak or understand what I was saying but I remember the excitement that I experienced when thousands of people repeated after me and that feeling was incredible!” remarks Sen, as he is reminded of the videos of children sloganeering at the Shaheen Bagh protests in Delhi.
Despite growing up in times that romanticised the idea of the Left and the USSR, Sen does not mince words when he expresses his disdain for the communist era in West Bengal. “I have learnt a lot from the ideology of the Left,” Sen reminisces, “but the way socialist systems have functioned in India, is an example of why they should not be repeated again, unless we find new ways”. This corrosive quality of a communist past is a recurrent theme that Sen explores quite frequently. In the photo-series New World Chronicles of an Old World Colour (2015), subtle familiarities emerge between the port city of Gdańsk in Poland and his own hometown of Kolkata, over a bleak winter, as Sen finds remnants of their shared socialist past in everyday instances. Fragments of the same notion are also present in his debut feature film Cat Sticks (2019) that follows seemingly disparate accounts of several heroin-users over the course of one rainy night in Kolkata.
Speaking about his pre-occupation with images, Sen outlines the integral quality of photography that attracted him in the first place. “When I was studying journalism and became fascinated with photography, I slowly understood the power of images. A lot of artists maintain that a photograph does not have the power to change anything. But I have always believed that images can change the world. Photographs act like a catalyst in changing the course of history. Take the video of George Floyd’s murder for instance,” says Sen, as he brings to notice the nine-minute-long video that revealed the killing of the 46-year-old Black American man by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020, which sparked off protests across the United States and the world.
While the context and content of an image play an integral role in Sen’s photography, he also emphasises the importance of aesthetics. “Making sense of all this chaos, political or otherwise, and giving it shape, a form or an aesthetic, is only possible through poetry. A certain poetics is required for image-making, which has a language of its own. I am trying to respond to whatever is happening around me, but then at the same time I am also consumed by beauty and mystery,” states Sen.
In the photo series Fire Continuum (2016), Sen documents the shifting landscape of Jharia in Jharkhand, a coal mining town ravaged by a coal fire that has been burning for over a century now. While the impending nature of an ecological calamity looms over the entire series, what unfolds instead is a poetic rendition of a ravaged geography. Sen, who won the Instagram-Getty awards (2016) for the work, refers to it as his only ‘proper work’ in photography. He credits the series for teaching him the art of colour photography, besides helping him establish a relationship with the medium itself.
Towards the end of our conversation, Sen emphasises on his need to continuously evolve and not stagnate, as he refuses to be boxed in any one category. “The week before the National Geographic assignment, I shot an advertisement for Royal Enfield and prior to that I worked on something for my gallery (TARQ). Today, I am working on a fiction-series for a mainstream OTT platform. I do not have any trouble in assuming different roles and I keep ‘changing shoes’ all the time,” says Sen, adding “If through photography or film, I am able to contribute or learn or simply lead a life, then that’s fine with me. And as I grow older, I try to lie less to myself and I hope that will take me to freedom”. When I ask him what he means by freedom, a long pause punctuates our conversation as Sen replies, “Not a freedom from…not that I am not free now, but I guess what I am saying is that I am trying to bullshit less, to myself.”