“All photographs are memento mori.” — Susan Sontag
When the nationwide lockdown was announced on 24 March 2020 in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, the contours of the crisis were still unknown. Isolation, fear and anxiety, social distancing, the deepening of inequities, humanitarian crises unfolded in quick succession, and the effects are being felt even a year later. Amid death and illness, however, some families had a chance to grow closer together, as everyone with digital privilege went online, new opportunities to learn and consume came one’s way.
Capturing this dichotomy in the form of images and voices, Firstpost brings you a snapshot of human experiences during this time. Photographers and photojournalists from across the subcontinent shared work they feel defined the year gone by. View and listen here —
In Jamshedpur, Abhishek Basu found himself stuck at home with his dog Nano. Talking about this particular picture, Basu says it depicts what the Hindi adage 'man oob jana' (being terribly bored) means, especially because of being locked down within the four walls of his home without much to do.
Aritra Bhattacharya shares his experience from Sulkuni island in the Sunderbans which he visited in the first week of June, right after Cyclone Amphan hit the eastern shores of India. The entire village on the island had been flooded, especially the houses where people from the lower castes lived. Most of them had built temporary establishments using tarpaulin sheets in an embankment, where they accumulated all that could be salvaged from the gushing waters.
"This picture essentially symbolises the loss and deprivation that 2020 caused to the lives of poor, marginalised communities. And on top of the pandemic, came the cyclone as a double blow. People are still recovering from it," says Bhattacharya.
"There may be a special story if you were one of those who 'got COVID'. For some of us, there may also be memories of acquaintances and friends lost in this battle," says Chirodeep Chaudhuri from Mumbai. Just like those memories, which stay with us for some time and then gradually begin to fade, the scribbled body temperatures (in the picture), too, in both Celsius and Fahrenheit on the wall would help the security guards to remember while taking readings of visitors on the infrared thermal scanners. What will happen to these markings once the pandemic is over? Only time will tell...
From her ancestral house in Rasoolpur village in Uttar Pradesh, Fatima Juned shares a diptych amalgamating various experiences one has felt, seen or heard during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the first image represents the eerie silence and sterility as a metaphor for the mass exodus of migrant labourers across India, the second image is a token of personal memories, forgotten in the hustle-bustle of our everyday lives, that were triggered and restored during the lockdown.
Gaurav Kumar, who runs an NGO in rural Bihar, talks about how the pandemic and the subsequent crisis brought to the fore conflicting realities of people. "Food is such a huge privilege we often don't pay heed to," says Kumar, adding that the pandemic redefined what poverty meant in India and how that helped him and his colleagues change their perspective towards their NGO's work and approach.
From Kashmir's Baramullah district, Hashim Maqbool shares images from the funeral of the nearly 70-year-old Sunaullah Bhat, father of the famous Kashmiri comedian Qayoom Badshah. According to his family members and son, Bhat had a normal cough, but the medical officers referred him to Sher-i-Kashmir Medical Institute at Srinagar from where he was brought dead after two days. This naturally came as a huge shock to the family who got drawn into a fight with the doctors and later even lodged an FIR against them.
"While so much was happening outside, the dead man had no clue who was burying him," says Maqbool, observing that Bhat's funeral had few family members, rather it was mostly medical staff and locals who prayed for him before the burial, dug a grave and also laid him to rest.
The last year has been about a mostly invisible entity that we have had little control over, a virus. However, Delhi-based Ishan Tankha feels there's even a far bigger problem: The State prioritising the lives of some citizens over others. "Both the pictures in the diptych bear testimony to that selective attention of the establishment, a problem no amount of masking can fix and for which no vaccine exists," stresses Tankha.
Kaushik Ghosh is a full-time health science photographer by profession, and is the official photographer of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout programme, commissioned by the Govt of India. He has been actively documenting the Routine Immunisation (RI) programme for the last four years, and now especially since it has been restored post-lockdown.
With this picture, Ghosh pays tribute to the brave frontline ANM, ASHA and Aanganwadi workers who, amid the tumult of the pandemic, ensure the outreach sessions continue even in the most far-off corners of the country.
From Dhubulia village in West Bengal's Nadia district, Labani Jangi documents how the migrant crisis has played out for children in rural corners of the country. Ever since the countrywide lockdown was imposed, schools have remained shut in these villages. This school in Dhubulia was converted into an isolation centre for the incoming migrant workers.
Jangi explains how while the fathers were quarantined in the school premises, the children remained glued to the mobile phones of their fathers. From games to videos, these gadgets opened up a whole new world for these young minds — whether it is for good or bad is yet to be seen.
Manoej Paateel from Mumbai shares this image he shot on 14 May last year. Police personnel wielded lathis to disperse a crowd flouting social distancing norms outside Mumbai's Bandra railway terminus. Scores of migrant workers had gathered there to board a special train that was arranged for them to go back home during the lockdown.
For Nilofer Khan, the pandemic was a close encounter. After she tested positive for coronavirus, she had to remain locked inside her room. Much to her dismay and against her wishes, her family members would keep coming in and going out of her room.
"I don't know what can one do when one lives in such compact spaces," Khan says.
It was one of those days when her mother just wouldn't listen and barged inside the room; Khan decided to go out in the balcony and lock herself there until her mother finished her work inside the room. "At that moment, I realised how strange were the times we were living in. It was just not the story of my house, but many houses in the city — grappling with the pandemic in our own ways."
Despite being born and brought up in Delhi, Parul Sharma could never imagine that one day, she would witness her hometown come to a sudden halt — a "horror show" that the photographer would then go on to chronicle in her book Dialects of Silence.
"I was crushed by the horror of deaths — in crematoriums, burial grounds, and cemeteries," Sharma says. Plastic-wrapped bodies came, day in and day out, at the Nigambodh Electric Crematorium (above), the Muslim Burial Ground and the Christian Cemetery, making June the cruellest month.
Noted Chennai-based wedding photographer Pon Prabakaran never imagined that a wedding would happen with people wearing masks. Usually, the minimum number of guests at Indian weddings is around 400-500, but in 2020 it was limited to just 50-odd people.
"Those relatives and friends who couldn't attend the wedding in person would get dressed up and mark their presence through Zoom. The newly-wed couple would take a group picture with the laptop," mentions Prabakaran adding how while entering the wedding venue the guests would be welcomed by showering rose water, but last year sanitiser also became an integral part of the ritual.
From Nepal's Janakpur, Prabhat Jha recollects his experience upon meeting 27-year old Savita Gurmaita who lost her husband in the pandemic. Birendra, Savita's life partner, had just moved to Surat in search of a job. His economic condition was extremely poor after he lost his job in a month because of the lockdown. He struggled for his everyday meals and decided to come back to Nepal with some of his friends.
He started an excruciating journey on foot from Surat and on the way, he fell sick. He succumbed to his deteriorating health after reaching the Nepal border as he could not find an ambulance on time.
"Since that day, Savita has not been able to speak. Savita, a mother of two, continues to mourn. The debts are still outstanding and she will have to take the entire responsibility to raise her kids. Whatever I tried to ask her, she had one answer: her tears. I could not ask anything after," Jha says.
On 5 April 2020, people across the country lit candles, earthen lamps, and even mobile phone torches in support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's show of solidarity in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
Srienivas Akella from Mumbai captured a snippet of that collective display when people in India observed a lights-off vigil.
Kolkata's Suvomoy Mitra documented what he calls the most poignant and defining picture from his collection in the year 2020. The City of Joy and Durga Puja go hand in hand. The biggest festival of Kolkata seemed rather bland last year because of the pandemic. While there were the extravagant pandals that the city is known for, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, the footfalls in these pandals were limited or in some cases prohibited.
But can faith be diminished in the face of a crisis? Mitra's picture is the answer to it. "This old man stood about 100 metres away from the main entrance of the pandal and kept praying to the goddess and wept profusely. I still have no idea why. I stood very close to the man but in that intimate moment with 'Maa' he never paid heed to my presence," Mitra says.
From Old Lucknow's Agha Meer Deorhi locality, Taha Ahmad talks about how during the lockdown, families in the neighbourhood found extended kith and kin in their neighbours and continued the spirit of festivities by meeting each other.
Ahmad says it is especially during these festivals that one could feel the love and unity among family members and neighbours in a locality. From offering prayers to breaking the Eid-ul-Fitr fast, there was a palpable spirit of togetherness, something one could never realise in the struggles of everyday life.
For Zahra Amiruddin, while the pandemic marred her rituals of going out on photo walks in and around Mumbai with one of her closest friends, it opened up avenues for her to explore and experiment with the virtual medium and innovate new forms of art.
"We decided to collaborate virtually and we photographed one another within the four walls of our home. It was the first time that I was exploring her home in Nashik while she was exploring mine here in Mumbai," says Amiruddin, who has incorporated a snippet of that collaboration in the picture above.
Bleed image: A group of migrant workers walking towards their hometown in Uttar Pradesh from Mumbai on the Eastern Express Highway on 6 April 2020. With no money left for food and paying rent, they would walk approximately 1,400 kilometres. Photo courtesy of Srienivas Akella.