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Swapan Nayak | Interview
Swapan Nayak in conversation with Souvik Sarkar and Bishan Samaddar
BISHAN 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 India.

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 personal work.

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 issues.

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 doubt.

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.
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