On a call in March, four photographers — Guannan Li in Germany, Samuel Beech in London, Sigga Marrow in Iceland, and Verity Fitzgerald in South Africa— sat discussing the spread of the novel coronavirus, especially its impact on India’s migrant workers, daily wage earners, and other vulnerable groups.
The four had met in January in Delhi, at a photography workshop with Magnum’s Martin Parr, and wondered how they could help, as harrowing news poured in, from migrants attempting to walk thousands of kilometres to get home to vulnerable peoples starving, and even dying. “When I read about the lockdown regulations introduced by the Modi government within mere hours, I was shocked. The sheer number of people affected by this lockdown was bewildering and disproportionate to any other nation,” Li recalls.
They struck upon the idea of selling prints of their photographs to fundraise, also calling upon the global photography community to donate their work. They consider each image an investment, when weighing the generosity of the contribution, as photographers often spend weeks, months, or even years on a single project. “Considering the full circle that every single image has taken from its first conception as a vague idea to final print or publication is important to bear in mind,” Li says.
©Zishaan A Latif/Prints for India. All photos courtesy Prints for India
Their call for contributions was met with a staggering response. “People who were previously just names on spines on my bookshelf have got in touch and willingly requested to donate work,” says Beech. Among their contributors are Martin Parr, Susan Meiselas, Cristina de Middel, Matilde Gattoni, Soham Gupta, Sohrab Hura, Ed Kashi, Sanjit Das, Andrea Bruce, and Laura McPhee.
With the works of over 60 contributors and a total of 70 images, their prints reflect different voices of photography, from abstract to photojournalism, and from fine art to portraiture. Armed with the prints, they launched Prints for India on 24 April, selling each at £80 (Rs 7,700). The sale will run until 22 May, and all funds will be donated to the Indian non-profit Goonj’s Rahat COVID-19 program.
©Sohrab Hura/Prints for India
While being a response to the alarming situation India’s most vulnerable find themselves in, Prints for India also stems from the bond each of the photographers formed with Delhi while photographing it earlier this year.
Each had a different immediate response to the city. Fitzgerald, having grown up in Botswana, found the city felt familiar. Li’s first impression was “a piercing, glistering light” followed by an immediate excitement, and the discovery that “outside of pockets of chaos, there is always calm.” Marrow, having arrived from the cold and less populous Iceland, had a complete culture shock and stayed in the hotel all the first day wondering “what I was getting myself into.” And Beech, who had already visited and experienced Delhi before, particularly looked forward to Hauz Khaz Village and Meena Bazaar.
©Soham Gupta/Prints for India
Responding to the vibrancy and chaos long associated with the streets of Delhi is what made the city such a fascinating subject for these photographers.
There is, on the one hand, a sense of fulfilment in honing in on an individual perspective through the chaos, connecting on a personal level, and capturing a portrait against the crowd. As an assignment during the workshop, for instance, Marrow’s interpretation of Delhi resulted in a short series of men reading newspapers. “That is Delhi to my mind; a quiet bastion of calm, surrounded by the chaos of the streets.”
On the other hand is the thrill of making sense of the chaos, or giving in to it, in the face of the colour, noise, congestion, an overwhelming number of subjects, and an overall sensory overload. Like Beech’s way of processing the chaos, which resulted in the project Motorcycles in Small Alleyways. “The concept of riding a motorcycle at high speed down a tiny alleyway seems ludicrous to me from my perspective as a motorcyclist, a photographer, and someone walking down the small alleyway in question. However, like much of the chaos in India, it seemed to just work!”
©Parth Gupta/Prints for India
It’s these contradictions — the logic driving the chaos — that have long attracted photographers to the country, and inspired them in different ways. “India is simply a place where all is possible and that is always a good place to be in,” says Li. While Fitzgerald recalls that hitting the streets as a woman certainly has its challenges, for her, it’s a particular “feeling” that photographers want to capture. “It seems to be an infinite melting pot of stories to tell, and India’s unexpectedness will always be alluring,” she says. For Beech, the allure lies in the people, and all the life that is lived out in the open. “For me, the people have always been so warm, kind, open, and positive, as well as incredibly photogenic!” says Beech. And Marrow simply finds it a “photogenic country.”
©Ole Witt/Prints for India
Even as photography allowed each to express their own perspective, the art form is also a way of opening one’s eyes to unusual, underrated, or otherwise inaccessible places, and makes one aware of the lives, triumphs, and struggles of the people inhabiting those spaces.
©Matilde Gattoni/Prints for India
And as the four now use photographs to raise funds for India’s most vulnerable, they also consider the larger role of pictures, especially documentary photography, in society. Not only does it raise awareness, but it also nudges feeling and care for the subject, which results in a viewer taking action.
“From my perspective,” says Beech, “documentary photography records things prior to them changing. This is becoming increasingly important in a fast-moving world where unfounded and reactive claims are made at an alarming rate.” And while no individual’s work can be entirely objective, “to have a range of voices from across the spectrum starts to make some sense of situations and bring some order to the chaos,” he adds.
The overwhelming response they have received to Prints for India thus far speaks of the power of a photograph, and of the empathy and solidarity that images and visual narratives can evoke.
“Beyond this,” says Li, “my hope is that our initiative, and the many photo fundraisers around the world, could begin joining forces in having a larger conversation about the relevance and impact of visual storytelling, and especially documentary photography, in times like these.”
©Marc Ressang/Prints for India
©Ed Kashi/Prints for India
©Carlo Bevilacqua/Prints for India
©Anurag Banerjee/Prints for India
Prints for India sales are open till 22 May. Find more information here.