SAMADDAR: There are two series
of photographs that you are exhibiting—one
on the people who live on the temporary islands
or char on the Brahmaputra in Assam, and the other
on people from the different states of North-East
SWAPAN NAYAK: Yes, that’s
on the five states, and the conflict in those
states—ethnic conflict—which is a
very regular thing in the North East. In October
2005, there was a serious conflict in Karbi Along
district. It was something like Nellie massacre-
BS: Which was a long time ago . . .
SN: Yes, but this is
a regular occurrence in the North East. Every
two or three years, something really serious happens.
The conflict is always on. On various fronts.
Like between the Bodos and the Santhals, between
the Karbis and the Kukis in Assam. Similarly,
in Arunachal Pradesh, the Arunachalis and Chakmas
are perpetually entangled in strife. But these
things, these conflicts, carry on. So many people
are still in refugee camps in west Tripura—tribal
people forced out of Mizoram, the Reang tribe.
Manipur too has had problems between the Nagas
and the Kukis. This goes on. Like a flowing river.
When something big happens, it becomes visible.
It is then that people get to know about it.
BS: How did you land up here? From what
I know, you have been based mostly in West Bengal
. . .
SN: This opportunity
came after I joined Outlook. This is my 12th year
in Outlook. The Calcutta office of Outlook is
the eastern zonal office. So automatically that
includes Orissa and Bihar, plus the whole of the
North East, including Sikkim. And I am the only
photographer in this zone. That’s how I
got opportunity to travel to these places. For
the last 11 or 12 years I’ve been going
to the North East quite regularly.
BS: So, did this portfolio come up over
such a long period?
SN: No, this took two
years. From 2003/4 to 2005/6. I travelled to the
North East about five or six times. Each time
for about two weeks. That’s all the time
I’d get off work.
BS: Oh, so this is not for Outlook? Is
this your personal work?
SN: Yes, this is my
BS: But it started through work assignments
. . .
SN: Yes, when I went
on official assignments, I learnt about the people,
about the socio-economic structure and the issues
in this region of the country.
SOUVIK SARKAR: You mentioned ‘issues’.
What made you decide that you would want to talk
about these issues through photographs?
SN: I wouldn’t
say it was something particular. I have been travelling
to the region. I came in touch with local people
there. With local journalists. This increased
my interest in the issues of the region. And soon
I realized the need to do something about these
SS: I can see that in your photographs
depicting common people, there’s a sense
of despair, of helplessness. How has the common
man responded to this conflict?
SN: There is despair.
Owing to the conflict, everybody has had to move
away from his or her home. It’s not that
they’ve had to move far away, to a totally
different country. That’s where the pathos
lies. If I leave my country completely, in a strange
way that is comforting. But here you are left
stranded just a few hours away from your own home,
your own land. You can even see your own land,
but can’t go there . . .
BS: They are torn from their homes, and
left hanging, as if . . .
SN: They have lost everything
really—their farmland, their homes, any
kind of comfort they might have had—and
they are having to survive in another place as
refugees. What makes things worse is that in this
new place there’s no scope for employment.
You can barely conceive how they survive from
day to day. You can understand a little bit of
it only if you spend your days with them.
SS: Your photographs depict a lot of poverty.
SN: Poverty is prevalent, no
SS: Yes, but there’s also a lot
of hopelessness, there is death . . . for instance,
the photo of the girl holding a picture in her
hand of someone who is evidently dead . . .
SN: That’s in the last
conflict at Karbi Along. The father was killed.
He was working in the field. They came as a gang.
The rival tribe. And they shot the man dead in
broad daylight. And this is a photo of his family.
The youngest daughter’s holding the photo.
The other girl’s unmarried too. The boys
are also rather young.
SS: When something as terrible happens
to a family and as a photographer, when you go
and meet them, to document this tragedy, how does
the family respond to that? Is your photograph
a voice for their anger or protest as well? Do
they think that the final photograph would achieve
something, do something for them?
SN: Yes, of course. They do want
things to be known, to be published. They want
stories of such atrocities to come to the surface.
That is a sort of protest. I went there as part
of the Press. And they knew that. So I never faced
any antagonism from these people. In fact, they
eagerly tell their story. Because they have lost
so much. And they know that the North East has
always been neglected. It’s not part of
the mainstream. It’s amazing how, when you
are in other parts of the country, many don’t
even consider Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and
the rest of the North East to be part of India.
And some people in these big Indian cities still
think, ridiculously, that the people of the North
East walk around naked in forests, as if they
are savage and uncivilized.