Today, living as we are through a pandemic, it's important to focus on the contemporary representation of a historically oppressed region like the North East and its peoples. In the archives being created there today, one must be certain that voices from within the community are being heard and that people are being active participants in shaping the narrative about themselves.
Being a platform for such first-hand narratives has been the focus of Through Her Lens: Reframing the Domestic (THL:RtD). An online photo exhibition and visual research project, its aim has been to record the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on women and marginalised communities in the eight northeastern states (Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura) and the Darjeeling Hills; and engage with visual storytelling as a form of research and archiving.
With Through Her Lens: Conversations on Reframing the Domestic, the webinar series that ran parallel to the exhibition, the project also considers how the concepts of photography and archiving are changing in a COVID and post-COVID world. The conversations especially discuss how feminist photographers, academics, and related practitioners engage with visual research, which become especially important, tangible archives in cultures that rely largely on oral narratives.
In collaboration with feminist publishing house Zubaan, the project is supported by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation under the Fragrance of Peace Project, which aims to build and strengthen cultural networks and facilitate cultural exchange in the northeastern states. "The THL exhibition is a natural addition and direction to the work Zubaan does — foregrounding voices of women and gender minorities and documenting and archiving them," says Zubaan's projects manager Bidisha Mahanta.
Photo by Phulmoni Das. This photo is part of a series which documents how despite the COVID-19 lockdown, many women remain busy with housework like they would on any ordinary day.
Curated by Mridu Rai and Anushya Pradhan, the exhibition’s theme Reframing the Domestic not only acknowledges the importance of domestic objects and personal stories as archives, but also focuses on the concept of home as it evolves during the lockdown. The project considers the specific challenges the lockdown has brought about, including the collapse of distinction between private and public spaces, the merging of paid and unpaid work and women’s invisible labour, changing family dynamics during the extended confinement, its impact on mental health, and the resulting assertions of individuality, among others. While questions about how the domestic sphere affects one’s experiences as a human being have always been around, “[the] lockdown has really made you question things that hadn’t manifested before,” says Rai.
The submissions, which were open to women, queer and trans communities from the region, together work to create an alternate archive that focuses on women’s and marginalised voices from the region during the COVID-19 lockdown, recording this time in their own voice. Even as they set about building this archive, Rai is aware that they have "left a huge section of the society out because they have no access to the digital. [We] make no claims to have represented the entire spectrum of marginalised experiences in the North East.” But of the voices they are recording, focusing on individuality has been especially important for the curators. “The North East is always homogenised. But since everybody is different, individuals will have their own unique experiences, despite the groups they belong to,” says Rai.
Photos by Laden Gensapa. These images are part of a series which observes the monotony and complexity of women's unpaid labour. The photographer says: "The patriarchal patterns laced in the ‘everydayness’ of a woman’s routine often go unnoticed... This lockdown has allowed me to pause, pay attention and peel the layers of social and cultural habits of a woman inside the house, regardless of her function outside of it. Can she have and represent both worlds equally?"
Besides focusing on individuality and intersectionality, another important aspect when setting up the exhibit was practising equality in their approach to submissions. “Since historic times it’s been that one narrative has been privileged over another,” says Rai. So important for them was making sure they are not rejecting any entries and not altering any captions except for the tiniest grammatical changes. “More than aesthetic appreciation, we just want people to be able to tell their stories without having gatekeepers. Where else will photos of ASHA workers find a place? Will it find a place in an art gallery? There’s already that space for art. Here we’re trying to create an alternate space,” adds Rai.
Besides being an assertion of identity, such a project is also a response to historic modes of representation. Focus has often been afforded to ethnographic studies which are set to western standards of academia, even as much of the lived experience of the North East is rooted in oral literature. It is therefore important "to engage with a non-homogenised form of research, frameworks that are developed through local knowledge and systems rather than attempt to force our stories into a limited understanding," says Mahanta. "By using our platforms to center these conversations, while acknowledging that peripheries exist within the periphery, and being careful of these complicated, and often painful relationships as a remainder of the colonial and now neo-colonial project, we want to build these solidarities while acknowledging these issues but also finding common ground on building resistance through the often simple yet powerful act of photographing," she adds.
“Representation really matters. Especially for communities who have been marginalised or communities whose histories have been distorted or misrepresented,” says Dipti Tamang, who was also a speaker at one of the webinars.
Long-standing stereotypical narratives and misrepresentation
Being a platform where historically oppressed voices can now shape their own narratives is especially important, given the long-standing colonial and postcolonial gaze the region is subjected to.
Photo part of the Women’s Leadership Training Centre (WLTC) Photo Stories. WLTC is an Assam-based feminist organisation working toward gender and social equality. It focuses on enhancing women’s capacities and creating space and opportunity for women (cis and trans) to take decision-making and leadership positions within families, communities, in governance and politics.
When thinking about the Darjeeling Hills for instance, the images that first come to mind for most people revolve around the romanticised tropes of mountains, tea gardens, and mysticism. Mainstream voices peddle the image of the smiling tea garden worker, exoticising them and erasing, in the public consciousness, their poverty and harsh working conditions. “The representation has always been of a peaceful place,” says Tamang. “But the identity issue, questions of belonging, it’s all so central to this place. Conflict has been a part of this place.” Tamang adds that to understand how important identity has always been, one need only look at the region’s tumultuous history where “questions of contested identities” are aplenty. “So the idea of it as a peaceful place, a beautiful hill station is constantly put through and the real story is kept behind.”
Photo by Minket Lepcha. The photographer lives in Kathmandu, Nepal and in this series, has documented life around the tourist hub Boudha Stupa during the lockdown. In this photo are grandmother and grandson Khangjum Lama and Nawang Lama. Because of the lockdown, since clinics and hospitals are not easily accessible, the grandmother is employing a traditional method of relieving headaches by dabbing hot mustard oil with cotton on her grandson’s forehead.
Such stereotypes about the region and its people are furthered not just by official government channels but also much of the mainstream media. “The focus on Nagaland-related syndicated news reports are on the representation of Nagas in their colourful clothes. These are reproduced as stock images. These stock images reproduce the image of Nagas as cultural motifs of themselves devoid of political capacities or the context of the news stories,” points out Naga feminist anthropologist Dolly Kikon, a researcher and teacher at the University of Melbourne, and another webinar panellist. Such a careless representation encourages the harmful notion that a whole group of people can be generalised under one tag. “You can’t really generalise a whole group as Khasi women. We have our own ideals, backgrounds, and cultures,” says Junisha Khongwir, assistant professor of mass media at St Anthony’s College, Shillong, also a webinar panellist. “The way journalists write about tribals and non-tribals, things like that affect people. We are not like what they describe. It’s always been very challenging,” adds Khongwir.
Photo by Neeraj Chhetri. This photo is part of a series that looks at the tea gardens workers of Dooras, West Bengal. Since the lockdown was announced, women tea garden workers — entirely dependent on daily wages — face uncertain futures. Working without preventative gear, they start each day at 7 am, come home for lunch, and then head back to the plantations until 6 pm. The photographer's father is also an employee of a tea garden in Dooras who has been going to work each day.
Also aiding the spread of such ideas is the tourism industry. “In tourism brochures or festivals like [the state-sponsored cultural festival] Hornbill, you’ll see girls wearing ethnic outfits and all. Our ethnicity is very commercialised,” says Rai. Kikon also emphasises this visual exploitation. “I feel quite disturbed that forums like Incredible India Nagaland and other tourism websites use colonial images of Adivasi and tribal communities to promote tourism,” she says. “The camera in this context has been used to capture colonialism and conquest, but those images are used to attract tourists. Ironically, these developments tell us how colonisation is an ongoing project. The seamless transition of colonial images into a twenty-first century tourism brochure/web portal speaks volumes about the conditioning of colonisation,” adds Kikon.
These dominant colonial narratives go beyond just affecting people’s perception of the North East. They have become lived realities for the people of the region, as such mainstream ideas dictate policy decisions and development projects on the ground.
Rai, for instance, talks about the land appropriation in her home town. “In Sikkim, dams are being constructed on very fragile lands. Usually, the government says they want to bring development to these tribal areas. Land appropriation really ties into the colonial visual narrative. There’s always this need to educate or bring development.”
Photo by Pratishtha Chhetri. This photo is part of a series which engages which the idea of the 'modesty of a woman' — even in the domestic sphere, the presence of male members or helpers afflicts women's freedom, resulting in a restricted domestic experience. Chhetri says: "Through a series of self-portraits, I have tried to explore what it means to be a woman in an unrestricted domestic realm (that I share with my husband)... I find that the absence of over-sexualisation of women is an integral part in liberating oneself and stepping outside of tightly structured gendered expectations, where there is no “right” way or an appropriate manner in which I choose to lounge in the comforts of my house. This freedom has helped me reclaim a space of my own in the domestic that empowers me, where I can battle my depression without being called lethargic; freely photograph anomalies in the house and not be looked upon as an oddball or a disgrace to womanhood."
There’s also the dismissing of history when the state sets about creating policies or projects for the region. An important example is the research of Kikon, who looks at food against the backdrop of Indo-Naga armed conflict (and has recently released the documentary Seasons of Life — which launched on the Zubaan platform — about women foraging bamboo shoot during the Naga ceasefire to make ends meet). During the height of the conflict, families escaped and lived in forests. Village granaries were burnt down. “The period of the conflict invokes trauma and fear amongst the older generations when we prod them to tell us about those times,” says Kikon. Today, as one talks about the vibrant Naga food culture, its vital to remember the violence and suffering that is inherent in their food history. But “livelihood projects in northeast India have a peculiar character of training entrepreneurs while overlooking how violence has transformed the very foundation of these societies,” she adds.
Photos by Pranami Rajbangshi. She says: "Menstruation is a biological cycle and yet it is used as capital to further patriarchal gains... In most parts of India, when a woman hits puberty, this ‘event’ is marked by a forced social exclusion... I experienced such a period in my life at the age of 12. During the initial years, I lived with the idea of a menstruating body as being impure... The COVID-19 lockdown has stirred certain emotions and memories that I experienced as a girl during my first menstruation... The performative element in the photographs tries to explore these associations and disruptions in the emotional realm and how this complexity affects relationships with loved ones, especially the mother."
Kikon elaborates on the incongruousness of the Indian state’s actions and northeastern history. “The Indian state, while ignoring its own agenda of violence, dons the garb of salvaging the savages for progress. The archive of the state constantly expands the narrative of violence while devising and drafting government projects. Therefore, most of them aim at primordial modes of economy without acknowledging village economies that were destroyed under Indian militarisation.”
Setting about challenging these long-standing narratives, the photographer, curator, viewer, archivist, and every other involved entity have a responsibility, an idea repeatedly stressed during the THL:RtD webinars.
Photo by Anuradha Konwar. In the image is 38-year-old Janaobi Duarah preparing pork sticks while singing 'O bohag'r bota' to welcome the Assamese new year (Rongali Bihu) 2020. The photographer reflects on how women of the household are hardly acknowledged for the services they provide, especially in the kitchen. As Duarah told Konwar about her lockdown experience: "I'm an unpaid worker (laughs). Lockdown or no lockdown, I've to wake up at 4 am every day."
A responsible engagement
Today, when documenting the private lives of women and other marginalised communities, as the photographer goes about creating an alternate identity, they must ensure that their representation is respectful instead of causing more harm to the subject. To do this, questions like ‘How does one toe the line between appreciation and appropriation?’ and ‘What are the boundaries one can cross, and when and where does one stop documenting?’ must be tackled. Answers to these are largely subjective, depending on the photographer’s intent and willingness to constantly question oneself.
And in as much as the answer lies in being intuitive, the subjectivity of photography comes to the fore, as each aspect of an image is minutely influenced by the photographer’s own identity and beliefs. The photographer decides how collaborative they want to be with their subject, and based on that, certain hierarchies play out in the photographer-subject dynamic. Tamang recounts some basic ethics of photography: “Just telling the other person why or how that thing [photograph] is going to be used or [discussing] how they can contribute [goes a long way]. That level of trust can be developed.”
Photos by Chingrimi A Shimray. These are part of a series that document the photographer's aunt's choice of clothing, influenced by her taste and activities. The idea behind the series is to present a less romanticised representation of the 'indigenous' woman.
The idea is to recognise and be aware of one’s privilege so that out on the field, a new hierarchy doesn’t end up being created where the photographer is in a position of power again.
These decisions together create a photograph which they must then subject to more questions before deciding to release: What is this captured stillness telling us? Historically, socially, politically, and culturally, what am I freezing in this moment? What type of conversations are the photos encouraging? And in doing so, what kind of world-building am I involved in?
Photo by Thingnam Anjulika Samom. Women form the backbone of social and economic institutions in Manipur. This photo is part of a series about Nupi Keithel in Imphal, where women sit selling various items. Ahead of the nationwide lockdown in March, the women themselves decided to close down this market. However, the spirit of Nupi Keithel is the innumerable women vendors and their relationships, which is still thriving. All over, in the nooks and corners of small lanes, new keithels are emerging — from the housewife selling vegetables at her gate to the young woman exploring online sales.
Similar questions must be raised by the viewer, who is also an active participant in deconstructing mainstream narratives. This begins by looking beyond popular ideas of the place and asking questions like ‘Who is taking this photograph?’ and ‘Why are certain peoples, places, and communities being reproduced a certain way in a particular image?’, essentially focusing on the photographer and questioning their intent.
And although a viewer may not have context when first viewing the photo, active engagement also means that like Tamang, after that initial viewing, one can go back and put in the effort of doing some research and really understanding what the photo is showing. This curiosity stems from not just looking at, but empathising with the subject. “Maybe read up more. Try and see the North East through a different perspective. Connect with people,” says Rai.
Such an active and respectful engagement is essential, especially for viewers outside the North East, since "the experiences and stories of marginalised communities don't exist to serve as 'learning experiences' for others," says Zubaan's Projects Associate Karuna Menon. "We must engage with these narratives respectfully — looking at these images and reading the anecdotes of the contributors is not where the process should end. This also means consciously endeavouring to unlearn all the stereotypes you've internalised, and confronting your privilege. We must not expect people from these communities to perform the labour of having to explain their marginalisation and oppression to us, rather we should centre their narratives and voices the best we can, and truly listen when they speak."
“An image is an image, but what we do with it is perhaps a journey. It takes a lifetime, for both interacting and processing,” says Kikon.
Photos by Ikla Subba. These photos are part of a series that meditate on how injustice, violence, disappointment, love, joy, and success are all part of a woman's life. Something as simple as having more conversations around everyday lived experiences of women can go a long way toward understanding ourselves and encouraging solidarity across gender.
“With RtD, we have attempted to disrupt hegemonic accounts and selective storytelling, to find a place for a range of experiences, in order to understand our collective experiences and not be reduced to myopic narratives,” says Pradhan.
Photo by Women at Work: Healthcare Workers Assam. This photo is part of a series from healthcare professionals in Guwahati, Assam. It foregrounds different constructions of the question of documenting from within.
Through THL:RtD, a community has started to grow, especially among female artists and researchers in the North East. And like any responsible archivist, Rai is aware of the importance of carrying forward the dialogue that it has ignited. “I feel that our job doesn’t end with the exhibition and getting these stories out. We have to continue this conversation,” she says.
And the conversation is continuing, as more platforms emerge for alternate narratives and histories. Khongwir, for instance, is part of the North East India Archive team, and Rai and Tamang are members of the Confluence Collective.
Above all, such alternate archives stress the importance of not homogenising or simplifying the North East, but attempting to understand the region in all its individuality, complexity and diversity.
— All photos part of the Through Her Lens: Reframing the Domestic online photo exhibition, courtesy Mridu Rai. See the full exhibition here.