Vinit Gupta, an ethnographer and researcher has documented the ongoing struggle of the people of Mahan, Asia’s oldest sal-wood forest. In 2011, the Mahan Coal Block was allocated for mining, and over the past three years, indigenous people of Mahan have been locked in a struggle against the authorities and corporate players to regain their right over their land. According to Gupta, “Their struggle is not just for basic rights but is also a struggle to assert one’s identity and an attempt to gain respect and acknowledgement for it, to preserve a forest that defines who they are and where they belong.” Gupta has been awarded Neel Donger Grants for excellence in Photography, supported by the India Photo Archive Foundation in 2014 and 2013. Along with this, he was also graced with a Performance Award at the Humanity Photography Awards in 2013 and Canon-Better Photography Photographer of the Year Award in 2012.
Q. Tell us about your experiences with your latest project. How did you get to know that a place such as Mahan exists?
A. At first, I went there through an assignment which was commissioned to me. I was there to document the ongoing protests of indigenous people against acquisition of forest land for coal mining. Once there, I felt a need for a longer engagement in order to understand relationship these indigenous communities share with their forests. In the last two-and-a-half years, I extensively researched, interacted and interviewed the members of the community and got to know about the deep seated corruption, exploitation and insidious administrative policies that threaten the livelihood of people in at least 54 villages surrounding the forest. There were many accounts of fraudulent documentation, of villagers whose signatures were forged in Gram Sabha with active connivance of local officials, and acquisition of land by the local elite through questionable methods. The collusion between wealthy local leaders, local administration and private companies left the poor villagers helpless.
Q. How is the forest an integral part of these people’s lives?
A. The people of Mahan always obtained subsistence by harvesting wheat, collecting mahua, tendu, medicinal plants and firewood from the forest. This way of life is not meant merely for daily subsistence; these are religious acts and vehicles for social cohesion. They live with the cycle of nature and understand that it is bountiful. And they only take what is necessary for their sustenance.
Q. What were your objectives and methodology for this project?
A. I was working there as an ethnography researcher and was involved in qualitative studies. I extensively used photography as a tool for documentation for this project. I use this project as an advocacy tool for recognition of community forest rights for the indigenous communities. To address how these indigenous communities are facing social and cultural alienation, how these so-called development activities and strategies in India have increased the socio-economic gulf between the tribals and rest of the citizens of India and left the former worse off on many counts.
“For me photography is more about participation or an act of mutual engagement with the community. The most important thing in photography is “know your machine and know yourself.” One needs to be sure of the purpose of one’s assignment; one needs to constantly question oneself regarding the same.”
Q. How did the tribals react to you while you were shooting? Were you able to explain your purpose to them?
A. While conducting qualitative studies, I realised that the pictures I wanted to make were much more about permission. They could be very simple, non-declarative but the point was that, somehow, I wanted to be aligned with the people in them. So I started approaching the elders in village for photographs. I asked them to share their experiences, this approach really helped me to gain access into the communities.
Q. Why did you use sepia as a colour tone? What did that aesthetic choice add to the series?
A. To be honest, at the time of shooting I didn’t care about the colour but during editing, I decided to use sepia as I wanted to describe the feeling of nostalgia to the viewers: since the forests are dying. At the same time I do not want to show the people in a conflict and nor as victims, but just as human beings who seek respect and dignity on this planet.
Q. While leaving the place what understanding you took about their community?
A. The indigenous communities are too small in culture. They are too small in the essence of the world. Today the survival and integrity of the hemisphere’s remaining indigenous and tribal peoples require recognition of their rights to the resources found on their lands and territories on which they depend for their economic, spiritual, cultural, and physical well-being. So, I Believe this is not just a struggle for basic rights on the land but also struggle to assert one’s identity and an attempt to gain respect and acknowledgement for it — to preserve the forest that defines who they are and where they belong.
Q. Did you face any sort of challenges from authorities or corporations while shooting?
A. In May 2014, I got arrested twice with other environmental activists while working over there and spent three days in judicial custody. The local police framed some serious charges against us. I still go there for my hearing in court on a regular basis.
Q. Are you personally involved with the welfare of the community? If yes, how?
A. I am involved as a documentary photographer and as a researcher, and I try my best to do, whatever I can do in this role.
Q. Do you feel a sense of belonging to the community?
A. For me photography is more about participation or an act of mutual engagement. In that sense, I can relate to their struggle but I am trying to represent them or their struggle through my pictures.
Q. What tips/techniques you would like to share with budding photographers? Any mistakes you would like them to avoid?
A. The most important thing in photography is “know your machine and know yourself.” One needs to be sure about the purpose of one’s assignment; one needs to constantly question oneself regarding the same.
Q. How have the awards you’ve received helped you in your art ?
A. Awards and publications help you to work on long-term projects and provide you a platform to publicise your work.
Q. Do you remember any sort of adventure you had in the Mahan forest?
A. Yes, I had an encounter with a sloth bear at the forest. Once, while roaming the forest with the locals, a sloth bear came out; and the bear was in a rage. It ran towards me and I fell down, and it ran away from me only after coming very close. I stood up and started laughing.