1:1 with M. Palani Kumar

1. What is your earliest memory of how or what attracted you to photography?


During my school days, I used to write stories. This is my earliest memory of what I consider the beginning of my photographic practice. And then it eventually developed into this passion for filmmaking. I have vivid memories of when I bought a second-hand camera and tried to make a film. And during my engineering days, documenting the everyday activities of my mother helped me develop my photography. These were the very earliest events that shaped my path.


However, my professional photography career began at a death house – a funeral. I was introduced to Divya Bharathi by my friend Gunasekaran to be the cinematographer for her documentary Kakkoos (Latrine) – a film on manual scavenging. My first shoot was the funeral of a manual scavenger. That was the first time I heard the term manual scavenging. For the next one-and-a-half years, I shot photos and videos of dead manual scavengers and their families’ plight. Their unsung and illegal (because manual scavenging itself is illegal) deaths urged me to document it and show the world their social conditions. It was during this shoot that I realized the caste oppression I had myself faced until then, like how I was sent out of class, how often the local barber would refuse to put a cloth over me before a haircut, and many other such incidents. It felt like pieces of a puzzle falling in place. So, it was during the early days of my photography that I started looking up historical photos and the social impact they made. For example, the famous Napalm Girl photo during the Vietnam War. That photo of a crying, naked girl and how it changed hearts to change the war. This made me understand the power of photography.


2. Did you study photography formally in a college or university? What was your experience? How did you inform yourself about the medium – the techniques, the language and the aesthetics of it?


Until I started working on projects, I did not know of any photography courses or workshops. During the early days, I would shoot in auto mode, as I did not know how to shoot manually or anything about aperture or exposure. It was much later that I learned about all these technicalities. My first camera was a Nikon d5100. In the beginning, I would shoot and edit the way I understood, then print it through a lab that I realized was fleecing me. I would frame the print, literally cutting and polishing the wood all by myself. I did not have anyone to direct me to the right place to go, so I informed myself of everything on my own. Back then, I would simply put the photos in various frames, hang them in my house, look at them and be happy.


In 2019, I met Amirtharaj Stephen – Amir Anna to me. He introduced me to the photo edit app Lightroom, and that was the first time I saw the editing process. It was after this that I got into the National Geographic photography workshop. My photo story on Rita Akka, about her life as a contract laborer and sanitation worker living with disabilities, was made then, and was very well received. During this time, I came to know about editing, Lightroom, photography workshops, grants, and photo festivals. I started to understand aperture, ISO, shutter speed, focal length, and their relationship with each other. I took a lot of pictures and many photographers helped me. My portraits of Rita Akka were featured on the National Geographic website, and this gave me huge exposure. Later, my travels with photographer Ezhilan helped improve my image-making. Rita Akka’s photos are an example of how I photographed in the low light. It was the only light source in her house, and I wanted to document it. I would always focus on capturing life as it is, rather than a magnificence that isn’t there. I realized that an understanding of the relationship between ISO, shutter speed, and focal length would help me comprehend lighting, and I started observing light, practicing the techniques again and again, going over the photos taken that day with Ezhilan Anna, discussing the details of the subjects, and identifying the connection between me and the people I have photographed. I would travel along with the people to keep a conversation going, to get to know them better. These are the first-hand experiences that taught me photography, and all of it was learned in the field.


3. Do you think it is important to study photography?


I think it is important to study photography. In my case, I had long conversations with people, traveled with them, and believed that my interaction with the people would help my work. However, while I had established this connection with the people I wished to photograph, I had no communication or contact with other photographers. I did not know to whom I could take my photos or with whom I could network. I truly believe that if I had such an education, it would’ve helped me understand the process far sooner. So, in my opinion, it is essential for aspiring photographers to study photography at an institution where, besides an education, they are introduced to making connections with professionals in the field.


Then again, one should not be concerned only about education, as it is equally important to have experience in the field. To be able to connect with people and learn from them is as vital as learning the techniques and networking; they are different schools of learning, and an aspiring photographer needs both. It was during the National Geographic workshop that I was able to connect with various other photographers. They recommended festivals where I could send my photographs. I shared my work with them, learned about grants, and I started to write alongside my work. It helped me build a network, and this is so important to a photographer’s work. An institute facilitates all of this and helps in taking your photography far. I certainly lacked this support during the early years of my career.


4. If you were to design a photo program for young Indian photographers, what would it look like?


I see this trend among beginners, where they think that photography is all about going to slums and capturing the hardships of the poor. They ignore their own lived realities and try instead to shoot the pain of others. I believe that photographs can be made in any place. Pure photography is studying people for what they are and the end result must resonate with their lives. People are not objects; photos should capture people’s lives fully, with impact. We have a responsibility in what we are showing the world and we simply cannot be a part of a trend that shows slum dwellers in poor light. Only if we study people, understand their lives, and live like them will it truly reflect in our work. All this will help a photographer gain the trust of the people and, more importantly, not exploit them. Building trust with the people you photograph is the most important thing for any photographer. I think we need all of these to be taught, through degree courses, workshops, and mentorships. It will help young photographers to do photography, not just for other photographers to admire and applaud, but to connect with people. There will be some who disagree with me and argue that photography has a language or a process, but I differ. I believe photography expresses many languages of people, it reflects their lives, and it brings about social change.


5. Who or what has inspired you to pursue photography and/or continues to do so?


I always find inspiration from the people I have traveled with. My mother is my primary source of energy and inspiration. I have learned an enormous amount documenting her daily work. Even though my mother does not like being photographed to date, she never objects. Then it was Guna sir from whom I learned how to look at details. He has an amazing eye and capacity to admire the curve of a knee in a photo. He taught me how I cannot cut out parts while shooting. Ezhilan sir helped me realize the purpose of my work. He was the one who asked me to take printed photos back to the people and ask them what they thought of the photograph. This created a discipline in me. After them, of course, there is Amir Anna, Sudhakar sir, and Sainath sir who kept inspiring me and guiding me throughout this journey.


6. Is there a book, exhibition, or body of work that has really impressed you and maybe influenced your work / life?


As I have mentioned earlier, I had never looked at works or books of others at the beginning of my career. The experience I got from my exhibition and the constant conversation with people has influenced my life and work. It was much later that I got to know of the works of Sudharak Olwe, Amirtharaj Stephen, and Selvaprakash Lakshmanan, which have been a huge inspiration. It was Selva Anna who taught me the importance of honesty in my work and how it will prevail over everything. These are the people who have been there and supported me.


7. What draws / drew you to the subject matter you are pursuing in your current work? Does it come as a gut feeling, or after analysis or research? Memory? Something that bothers you?


It was during my cinematography work for the documentary film Kakoos that I got to know of manual scavenging and the deaths this work leads to. From then on, I have constantly worked on documenting the various social issues and concerns related to manual scavenging – this is what I work on daily. As mentioned earlier, my first day of the shoot was to cover the death of a manual scavenger. While photographing, I became aware of the pathetic and miserable living conditions of the people there. We were covering the deaths of two men, and one did not even have an appropriate living facility; he had built his house by pulling down a toilet. And the other person was running a music troupe; its survival is in question now. I remember that moment vividly. It felt like I had been pushed into hell. There was no toilet facility, drinking water was mixed with sewage, children living there had no basic amenities, their education had been disrupted due to caste discrimination, and many more dire conditions persisted. We filmed for this documentary for over a year and a half, during which I met scores of people. The script of the documentary film helped me understand the role of caste and politics that keeps manual scavenging alive, even though, by law, it is illegal. The question of what happens to the family of a manual scavenger after his death kept haunting me. So, after the filming was over, I started taking more photos of the work of manual scavengers. I would print the photos – they were invariably very expensive – and take them to schools. There, I would initiate a conversation on what students know about the work of manual scavengers or if they know anything at all about the sanitation workers in their campus – if they had been conditioned on how to interact with them – keeping a physical distance etc. These conversations created a deep impact on the minds of the children, it created a forum where they could reflect on how they were conditioned and what their perspective ought to be.


One of the most important milestones in the manual scavenging documentation is my first exhibition held at Lalit Kala Academy, Chennai. Prema Revathi, filmmaker, activist, and educator, who runs Vanavil school along with another friend, Nataraj, took me to meet the celebrated film director Pa. Ranjith. He helped me immensely in raising funds for the printing of the photographs for the show and booked the hall. It was the first of its kind for Lalit Kala Academy to exhibit this sort of work. Since Ranjith Anna’s Neelam platform engaged in similar work, there was a huge audience. Many people applauded the work, they appreciated details and shared the impact it had on them. I remember seeing a boy who would visit the exhibition every day to look at the photos. I saw the reception or the connection that the people made with the plight of the manual scavengers and how they understood the oppression. When Kavitha Muralidharan wrote an article about this exhibition, it later connected me with P. Sainath and PARI. It was a milestone event on various levels.


After consistently taking this work to schools and colleges, I also got to a point where I felt this was not enough, as it was not the solution to bring an end to manual scavenging. It was not a few days’ work. There is a huge social barricade and there is a larger section of the people who are not even aware of the existence of such oppression of one particular community. So, I took this up as my life’s purpose. I keep documenting their plight at every given opportunity, between all my other work. Once, I had to go to photograph a wedding, and on my way, I met a manual scavenger. I started connecting with him and photographing him due to which I got delayed in attending the wedding. However, this is my priority. I try to find all possible ways to take these photos to different forums, exhibitions, schools, colleges, to build a dialog on manual scavenging. This inequality and oppression drew me into this work and makes me work on it all the time. In the words of Sudharak Olwe, I will just “keep working” to break the barricades and create social awareness.


8. Do your projects typically run in parallel, or do you focus on one project at a time?


I focus on multiple projects at a time as there are so many social issues and I feel compelled to work on them. Like the recent caste-based violence incidents, continuing manual scavengers’ deaths, eviction of people, or even the CAA protests. As these issues keep occurring, I keep documenting them. Simultaneously, I am committed to documenting various stories for PARI, the People’s Archive of Rural India, as well. However, as I mentioned earlier, the documentation of manual scavengers is daily work for me, for which my camera is always ready to shoot. I keep managing other projects on the side. As a young person with an identity as a photographer, I believe that I can juggle various things with a conscious responsibility to bring about change.


9. How do you measure success or that a body of work is going well?


I measure the success of my work based on how it resonates with people and how they receive my work. I do all the work and put it in front of the people, and for me, they are the judge of my work. I measure my success from how well they connect with it. For example, when I did this one session with school students by showing them my photographs on manual scavengers, they began crying when they understood the oppression being played out. I initiated a dialog and questioned them on how well they know their cleaning lady, Akka, on the campus and the kind of labor she does. Post this conversation, the girls went and spoke to the Akka, who then explained how they have to pick up used sanitary napkins that are not properly disposed of. The girls apologized to her and promised not to do that again. I measure my success by incidents like this.


During the Lalit Kala Academy exhibition, Director Ranjith Anna became tearful while lauding my work. There were many people who cried after seeing that show. There was this stranger who held both of my hands and asked how I was able to cover these untold stories. I quantify the success of my work by these kinds of emotions that people express after seeing my work. The idea is to initiate such dialog among people and create an awareness that wasn’t imparted in their education.


10. Do you ever find yourself creatively ‘stuck?’ Is there something that is particularly helpful to you in overcoming this?


I don’t think I have time to get stuck. I have enough work and there are many issues that need my attention. In fact, I would say I don’t have enough time to work. I have been working on the issue of manual scavenging for over five years now. But what change have we seen? Why do we still see deaths caused by manual scavenging? I need to work on this constantly and show things from a new perspective. Even if these are images already seen, I will show them again and again, until there is change. This is an ongoing fight, along with all those on the streets fighting against this, with those in the courts fighting against this, photography is my own form of protest and struggles for change. In the words of Selva Anna, this is how I lend my support to those who are struggling in the field, like a fourth pillar that will take the issue back to the people, as it is.


11. How much effort do you put into getting your work shown? Is this important to you? Does showing your work feed your creative process, or does it distract you from it?


Having an exhibition is an important factor for any photographer, and I, too, put in adequate effort to exhibit my work. So far, with this work, I have created a dialogue among the people. However, what is now important is to create a space for criticism to grow in the industry. My work travels and grows more impactful with each show. For example, there is a work on the Kudangulam issue, and when it is exhibited in various parts of the country, people relate to it as an environmental issue that affects everybody and not just those from where it began. Exhibitions are not a distraction at all. It is a process that pushes any photographer to the next level in their career. I always ask my students to exhibit whatever photography they have done, even if the work is not up to the mark. The criticism and positive feedback will help them learn much more. The same thing applies to me. After my first exhibition, I started afresh – I ended up feeling that this work wasn’t my best and that my best is yet to come. I keep saying that to myself even today.


12. Do you feel that there are adequate opportunities and avenues to share / show your work in your home country, or do you always look for such opportunities abroad?


During the early days, it was difficult to find any opportunity; it was hard to get even a single photo of mine published. And it is impossible to find opportunities with just a single body of work. However, if one is consistent, then that creates opportunities. My work at some point finally started getting published – the Caravan article on my work, and the Netherland Foam Magazine work was made possible because of my being consistent in my work. Working on other socially relevant projects helped in finding new prospects. I guess one cannot be working only on one issue, as that would be termed as activism, and not photography, which I really don’t mind. Over time, I have developed the understanding and necessary means to publish or exhibit my work in India. But it is not the same case for prospects abroad, the main reason being the economics involved; it looks like a distant dream.


In the beginning, I would get the photos printed, buy materials, polish the wood myself, and even frame them on my own because of my financial limitations. There was, in fact, a time when my mother fell sick, and my father and I did not have enough money to spend on her hospitalization. As a budding photographer, I have always relied on the Amma Unavagam, a subsidized canteen run by the government. I can vouch that many artists have survived in Chennai thanks to Amma Unavagam and its affordable, quality food.


13. We know that fine art or documentary photography is not always enough to make a living. Some do commercial work, others teach. Are there other photography related areas that you work with in order to supplement your living? Some that you would recommend aspiring photographers to consider?


When one works for the welfare of society, economic difficulties are not unexpected. However, in order to survive, one must find other resources to manage. In my case, I photograph weddings and events. I did not do this in the beginning, and my life was very similar to those I was documenting. I would visit them with no money and, at times, they have helped me get back home. This developed a different, but intense relationship with them. I have always believed that your honest work will provide for you. Always. There was also a time when I had no money to buy anything to eat. I received a call from one of my friends saying he wanted to pay me for a photo I had shot earlier for him – so work will never disappoint you. It has never given up on me and I have not given up on it.


14. Digital technology has changed photography drastically over the last few decades. Do you believe the changes have been good for the medium or not?


In my opinion, change is part of growth. The digital medium is the current trend and is affordable. So going with changes in technology is not something one should ignore. Irrespective of media, what concerns me is who does this change favor? My entire work is based on that question. Digital is accessible to everyone now as a mobile phone is used to document events and post them on social platforms immediately. There used to be caste violence events in the past too, however, in those days it would never reach the mainstream media. And nowadays people record such events that are brought out in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. I see this as a valuable change.


15. You are an engineer by training. How did you get into cinematography and photography?


My interest in filmmaking began while I was in 10th grade. When I was doing my diploma, I was already writing scripts. I even bought a secondhand video camera for 5000 INR back then, which I still have. I made innumerable attempts to make a film with my friends. We started acting as well. The desire to make a film continued even when I was studying engineering. We made a short film and screened it at one of our college functions. That’s how my interest in filmmaking strengthened over time. And it was traveling and reading that led me towards photography.


16. What challenges have you faced as a photographer? How do you overcome them?


Every day is a challenge for me. Documenting a range of social issues and protests have their own challenges, even more so for a person coming from my background. After all these years, I know how to tackle these issues now, but initially it was very difficult for me. Also, everyone would tell me to take more photographs, but no one taught me how. I had to learn everything on my own to mark my identity as a photographer. Without challenges, one cannot make photographs. All my works are related to social issues and publishing them is even more challenging. Publications in Tamil Nadu are not interested in publishing my stories because of their social content. One might have to edit them or censor some images to get the story published, which at the end of the day does not show the entire picture. It is comparatively easy nowadays, as people are aware of my work and are willing to support me. However, one must understand that all these challenges are a part of the learning process, and the trick to overcoming these challenges is to continue making images and persevere. At least for me, I never allowed these challenges to stop me from work. Whether I liked it or not, I just kept making photographs and worked towards taking them to the people. Making that work brought me to where I am today.


17. Most of the stories that you have worked on are in or near Madurai. How do you find the story you want to work on? What are your motivations to work on a story?


My inspiration and motivation to work are to bring out the struggles of people. That’s my main motive. With the medium I know, I intend to take forward the struggles of people to initiate discussions. Finding people to bring out these stories is the major factor. My works are not just around Madurai. I have traveled extensively. Even the manual scavenging work covers workers from all parts of Tamil Nadu. There are enough issues to document with respect to manual scavenging that could take the whole of my life. If my work can be a part of bringing positive change in their lives, I will be satisfied. I want to document various struggles faced by people in a simple way. I read continuously to identify stories. There are so many Dalit issues that happen even now, and I document them extensively. Through my photographs, I want to document stories and struggles that we have been refusing to see and talk about. This is my key to finding stories.


18. What significance does it have for you that your work is published on a platform like PARI?


PARI has been a very important platform for me in my life. PARI was the first platform to recognize my work. For an emerging photographer, a platform like PARI is really important. I had the freedom to work, and this recognition has given me hope for my work. Also, when my work is published on a platform like PARI, a seed for change is sown with it. I believe that the platform leads my works towards the next step- impact. It also helps in taking my photographs to people from different backgrounds and identities who are willing to support or help people in need. Personally, PARI has supported me in many ways. PARI has helped me to continue my work.


19. With your years of experience, of the lessons you have learned, what is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?


There are many lessons that I wish someone had told me before, however, in a way, I think, learning them on my own gave me extensive experience. Even for an exhibition – from printing to finding wood for frames to putting everything together, I explored many options and identified what suited me. This learning was important for me and made me work continuously. I kept making photographs, traveling, experimenting and, till now, this process of searching is the fuel that keeps me going.


To identify me as a photographer, I had to take this journey of exploration, to figure out a flow. And I’m happy about how far I have come. I think these struggles are necessary for one to spark hope in people. Many trust me and my work on manual scavenging that a change might be created with the help of them. I have started conducting workshops for children recently. In my early days, I was not able to afford a DSLR, but now there are 10 DSLRs with which I can conduct workshops. I have been able to do many things with the support I get from people. PARI also has offered to buy cameras for the workshops. I’m planning to start my own practice next year. All of this is because of the quest that I have been following for more than a decade.


20. If you didn’t do photography, what other career might you have pursued?


It’s simple. I would have still been trying to become a photographer.




Copyright © 2022, PhotoSouthAsia. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright © M. Palani Kumar

Date Published

20 November