My work has focused on the lives and relationships of people in communities that face both economic and social hardships in India. My photography documents the daily lives of manual laborers, from the ship-breaking yards of Bombay to the coal mining villages of Dhanbad. The Dhanbad series in particular highlights labor and living conditions when extreme industrial pollution from mining transforms the workers’ ancestral lands from fertile fields to a barren landscape.
Since 2001, my work has expanded upon this theme by exploring the impact of disease- in this case the AIDS epidemic-on the living and working conditions of people in India. I began photographing patients and staff at Freedom Foundation HIV/AIDS clinics in Bangalore and Hyderabad, one of the few free private run facilities where HIV+ people can seek treatment. I have documented through photographs how the virus spreads through the inter-connected communities, including a series on high risk groups such as truck drivers, eunuchs and male sex workers.
This effort evolved into a collaboration- the Lives in Focus Project which documents through interviews, photographs and video the impact of India’s new patent law on the country’s HIV+ population.
Website : http://www.srinivaskuruganti.com/
Across Faces and Spaces: Knowing Srinivas Kuruganti
My curiosity for Srinivas Kuruganti’s work came in a discussion with a fellow photographer. “Srini was the first one to document coal in India. Have you even seen his work?,” he asked, during our coffee session at Galleria, where we often met and discussed photography.
I went home and googled Srinivas Kuruganti‘s work. To my amazement, I saw a complete documentation of coal mining in Dhanbad, some powerful work on sex workers and the marginalised sections of the society. Then, I stumbled upon his other phenomenal work on environment in Orissa. There was a certain poignancy in his photographs, subtlety and a visual style that I had not encountered so far. I wanted to know him. We met at the India Art Fair in 2015 and had our first conversation on art and photography. His humility, his view of life and a down-to-earth approach, simply bowled me over. Over time, a friendship developed, and I saw that his nature and attitude towards life reflected in his photographs. He was playful and childlike. He often complained about how expensive and chaotic India had become, and the rampant unprofessionalism he had to deal with.
Srinivas joined The Caravan as their photo editor, after he came back from London, and was in charge of enhancing the visual aesthetics of the magazine and bringing in a new visual language to the publication. Working on a few assignments with him made me realise his need for simplicity, honesty and heart in a photograph. “Oooh, Beautiful!,” he sighed, whenever he saw something he liked. During this period, he has shown his work at a few exhibits at Photo UK India at the British Council and Flowers Gallery, UK. During this time, he had dug out some work from his archive which was to be a part of a show, ‘The Surface of Things’, at Galerie Romain Rolland, New Delhi.
I talked to him regarding his work, his practice and influences, just before he was to shift to Mumbai to pursue other avenues of work, to start the cataloguing of 25 years of his journey as a photographer.
Srinivas, if I understand right, you have lived in the US during your formative years, especially in New York. You were born in Washington DC, but you began photography, way back in 1999. Could you tell us a little more about that?
Actually, it started much before that. It started in the late 1980s. I think I got more serious about photography in the late 1990s.
What do you mean when you say you got serious?
Well, basically, when I started in the 1980s, I was not doing any sort of professional work. I was just taking photographs of my friends. So, it was a time when I started exploring photography. But I never thought about it as a career. That is why I said that it started long before. It was something that I was doing just for fun. So, the exploration started in the 1980s and continued up to the mid 1990s.
How did photography happen to you?
I have always been taking pictures. I started taking pictures when I was given a small camera, I think it was a 110, you know, with those flat rolls. So, I took pictures with that. I took photographs of my friends in Delhi. When I was in high school, I became a school photographer. I would not say that was a career-related move; it was just for fun. When I went to the United States, I had my father’s camera and I started taking pictures of my friends in college. I then got my own manual camera. It was a good old Minolta X 700. It was a beautiful little camera and I got one 50mm lens for it. With it, I just photographed all my friends. We had gone for trips to Tahoe and Yosemite and I took pictures there.
This was late 1980s. When I went to parties, I took pictures there. I just wanted to document it for myself, as living in the US was a new experience for me. After Oakland, I went to New York. And there again, I had a big circle of friends. I got really involved in their kind of life and they got involved in mine and it felt very incestuous. There were events, there were parties, there were always protests in New York (it was the time of Giuliani, the mayor). The city had a very vibrant energy and I just wanted to photograph anything and everything I could. I also wanted to connect to the city. It was really about connecting to the place I was living in.
You often say that your work is around marginalised society. How did that come through? How did that transition from living in that community and circle of friends in New York to doing something serious in India happen?
Well, while I was photographing all these friends in New York, I started meeting photographers. It is like when you start to choose a career, you start meeting people in that space. I met a few photographers who were working in New York and they seemed to be doing good work. Watching them and seeing and meeting their friends, I realised that I had to start working on stories. During this time, I came back to India and backpacked for about three, sometimes, six months. Once, I travelled for 10 months and I took pictures of my travels. And slowly, through my travels, I started looking at what was happening around the country. I saw child labourers and I thought I should focus on that. During my next trip, I came back and started photographing children who were working in factories in Sivakasi and in Andhra. So, through that project, other stories started developing.
I met someone who had finished their film on HIV in the late 1990s. And I had seen pictures from India and Africa and I thought I should come here and photograph it. It was a coincidence that I met someone who knew an NGO in Bangalore which was a hospice for HIV/AIDS patients. I decided to go and photograph there and tell their stories.
From there, you moved on to the subject of environment. Could you tell me something about your coal project?
During my backpacking days, I had been to Chandausi, outside of Benaras — a big coal depot. I thought, ‘okay, let me look at a coal mine,’ because I was really curious about where the coal was coming from. So, as part of a workshop, I decided to focus on coal mining. I wanted to do some other work. I did a story on gender when I met someone who knew eunuchs in Hyderabad. With that, I started looking at AIDS clinics and how HIV was transmitted. So, all the other stories came about through that one story. I was working on the coal project and the gender and HIV project at the same time.
Did the coal project pave the way for other environmental projects in Odisha?
Yes, it did. Because of the way I worked and shot the project, it basically set the foundation for me, as I followed some rules and guidelines of journalism. We were told about these guidelines in the workshop and I started using that knowledge in my other stories.
Is there an approach to how you photograph?
My work on friends and the community is very fluid and random. I took pictures as events unfolded. But with all the other series, whether environmental, HIV or the eunuch project, I did my research on it. I met people who had connections or were involved in these projects in some way.
But, mostly, it was about earning someone’s trust first. Even in those environmental stories, I first went and spent time with my subjects before taking pictures, because, there is always the fear of an outsider, as they don’t know who you are. It is about gaining some trust first.
Would you go back to the same location again and again to build their trust?
Yeah, I went back again and again. I spent a week or ten days first, and then, I came back again six months later, or a year later. A year is a pretty long time because they can forget you, but that is all the time I could afford.
You were shooting with film at that point of time. There was no digital. How cumbersome was the process? Tell us about the time you spent shooting coal and gender projects.
I bought film as and when I could afford it. The fun part was dropping off the film at the photo labs. Like in the pharmacy, where you had those QSS machines, and they would ship it off, and they came back two or three days later. It was kind of exciting waiting for these images to come back. Sometimes, we got duplicates made for a few dollars more and then I just gave them to my friends but I kept one set for me. If I had more money, I bought more film, and I dropped them off in one go. If I did not have the money, I waited for months before I dropped the film off. Later, of course, I started printing in my friend’s darkroom, which I think was much more fun. That was like a whole new learning experience. For my long projects, I would buy a lot of black and white film because I had learnt how to process my films. I processed them at home or in my friend’s darkroom. I made my own b/w prints in the darkroom. I bought bulk film in the beginning and just rolled on to these plastic canisters.
In the digital age, you can make a picture, you can cut it to settings and remake the picture because you can see it then and there, but during that time, you had to know your camera, you had to know what you were shooting, which required far more precision. How precise was the science of photography?
I had a good meter and I just had to be careful about focusing, because it was all manual focus and I had to be pretty accurate with the aperture. But the thing is, with colour film, I was overexposing it anyway. I was overexposing in black and white as well, but I could print it in my dark room. So, I had that latitude.
Why were you overexposing?
To bring some more density in my film. If it was night, I had control, but if it was day time, I had to make sure to make it just a little more dense. So when I print it, it is much richer.
Were the prints you are showcasing in your exhibitions from 39th East Street developed during that period?
The colour images are machine prints. Others, I printed in the dark room. So, those were printed from 1993-1994 to 1997-99.
Were you making these pictures for your friends?
Back when I did prints, I was doing them just for myself. I was trying to build a portfolio. Photographers were making exclusive hand-bound portfolio books. And then, you think of getting prints made, put them in a sleeve, but it was like about how much better could you make it that the other person. It was about making the best possible portfolio you could make.
Tell us about the exhibition. How did your work come along?
Rahaab Allana (of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts) had asked me to look back at some of my work for a possible group exhibition. We talked about photography and our interests over a few drinks. We talked about the processes and the theme behind the exhibition. We worked on various ideas, and initially, I proposed my series from India that I was building. The theme didn’t seem suitable. So, I started to look back at my formative years as a photographer. I went back to my images from New York and I felt that this was the kind of work I wanted to show. My experience of New York as a photographer was a crucial period for me.
Was your formative period in New York more of ‘seeing’ and your work in India more of ‘telling’?
Yes, I think so. In New York, it was not about technique, it was just about photographing moments, but in India, it was about telling a story. With time, my skills also improved, so it was about refined storytelling.
Tell us more about this project.
It is a whole set of 4×6 images — all my friends. I did this in New York. Basically, of 1980s or 1990s, early 1990s or mid 1990s was a crucial time in New York. I used to go to photograph protests and of course, it was also a vital time for the music scene. I saw other photographers shoot abstract images through the train and I was really inspired by that. and I decided to do something similar. So, I started to photograph the torn posters on the walls of the New York subway. One set of series is that, but the other more crucial series is of the protests in New York. There was a rally in New York after Matthew Shepard was killed. He was killed in Texas and he was gay. There was lot of pro or against. People talking about Christ, people talking about how homosexuality was a sin, but people also supporting Matthew Shepard. So, I have done a whole series of photographs on that. Then, I also started doing portraiture, I did portraits of my friends. I started making more formal traditional portraits because I think in New York, lot of people were getting contracts on portraiture work for magazines.
When I look at this work, there is a certain amount of proximity to these people, your friends, you were in that space, but when somebody looks at your coal work, there is a certain amount of distance, a certain amount of subtleness in that work. Is that how you planned it?
No. I like to think that I get close enough to people while I photograph them for these stories. But the coal mine series, which was shot over a long period of time, was also much more refined and thoughtful in my opinion. I really spent a lot of time there, sat with people, had conversations and photographed when it was necessary. So, I do feel that I got really close to the subject and the subject matter.
What kind of stuff will you be shooting?
I am looking for more environmental stories, but I also want to look at landscape. I will start by going back and shooting more film, because I want to use the expired film I have. I’m curious to see what I get.
How comfortable are you with the digital pursuit?
Oh, I am very comfortable. I just do not like it very much.
I think it is not for me. I find it very distracting. I feel like I will always look at the images right after I shoot. While I am used to that now, I think the moment is gone once I look at the images I shot and I wish I was not forced to do that.
There is a certain size that you are following in your work. Knowing you personally, you are always keen on smaller sizes. While, if you look traditionally, in photography, people want to make big prints, big photographs, so that they could compete with paintings at some point of time and that trend is still there in India, even here, if you look at the prints that have been made by other people, they are just slightly larger in size. Is there any philosophy in place to go small or is it economics?
Ah, it is probably economics. Probably, because I work with small sizes and it feels kind of personal as all these photos are from the 1990s. I want it to feel like I am doing an exhibition in the 1990s. And at that time, if you could afford it, you would be doing large prints of the colour images. But I never had the budget. I was not keen on watching a person, get close to the images so that they could connect with them. Also, if you have a wall at home, you put 4×6 prints in frame in your home.
I want to keep the black and white images in that size for the exhibition. I make prints before I make big digital prints which are like 40″x50″, 40″x60″. I have done that for different shows. I want to make different kinds of prints and show the process of how I got to where I am now.
Do a lot of details get lost in these small pictures?
I think the details hold in many images. I feel there are more details in smaller pictures.
What would you do next?
I am going to go through my older images and see if I can build more stories through what I have photographed. I mean, I got all these photographs from my backpacking times. I would like to make a series of that, see if there is something I can work with. I have got a whole Kumbh Mela series which I have done nothing with. And, much much more.
What would you like to tell young photographers?
I think one important thing to know is not to go with trends so much. I think there are lots of trends regarding photography, style and aesthetic. I think there are too many influences out there. I think it is more important to stick with whatever you believe in. There was or still is a big trend is processing your work that looks like the work of Japanese or east European photographers. I think we all emulate and copy and I suppose we eventually find our own style. I think one should look at other kinds of work- illustration, paintings, graphic art, print making… It all helps.
Are you talking about the Japanese style?
Yes. Japanese and east European style of burning the blacks. Not all photographers do it of course. I don’t remember the technical term, but it is like crushing the blacks. That was/is a big trend. It doesn’t work for me often. I have got to see detail, even if it appears like nothing. If it has no contrast, I will still like that image. I want to see detail in photographs.
Tell us about Karkhana, the workshop you did in Assam.
I thought it would be interesting for me to go and talk about photography to students. It was a learning experience. I would do it again. I think people who come to these workshops look for someone who has got 50 awards or who has a lot of published work. I do not have any of that. I just have photographed for years and I think I know photography. I know a lot of photographers and what is good and what is bad, but a lot of students definitely don’t want that. They want someone who will get them work. They will go to a workshop and see if they get work. I probably may begin again with a smaller group.
You have been interested in teaching. Tell us about the workshop you conducted in Bengaluru.
It was a small documentary project that students had done in their neighbourhoods. They made a book out of it. And that was really fun. I would love to do that again. I like book making. I like the idea of making something tangible. Rather than a digital book, I like having a tangible book with paper. I would love to do that again.
Do you use Instagram?
I do, but I am not very good at it. I don’t have 10,000 or 50,000 followers. I don’t put my 100% in it. I do it just because the space is there. But it is not something that I do actively. I look for something to push me.
— Udit Kulshrestha is a Delhi-based photographer covering social issues in conflict geographies and culture. He is also the author of Darwaze, a limited edition photo book.
Srinivas Kuruganti March 18, 2013
Toxic site, Hyderabad, India 2008
Srinivas Kuruganti (b.1967, United States) is a photographer of Indian origin. He has have photographed the daily lives of manual laborers, from the ship-breaking yards of Bombay to the coal mining villages of Dhanbad. His most recent project looks at mining in the forests and fertile lands of Orissa. Srinivas was awarded a South Asian Journalist Association fellowship in 2008 for his work on industrial pollution in Gujarat and Andhra. He is also a founding member of ASA Collective that curates monthly slideshow projections of emerging photographers in London.
About the Photograph:
“Patacheru is in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. It’s a major industrial hub where hundreds of factories manufacturing bulk drugs, pesticides, dyes and fertilizers dump their effluents into the streams. The streams here are considered one of the most toxic in the world. I was near a site where a steel rolling mill dumps their waste in and around communities that live in the industrial estates. The people in these communities scavenge for the iron shavings in the waste using massive magnets which they roll over the waste. They separate the shavings and small pieces of metal by size and resell back to the steel mills. The boy and his sister were standing in front of a truck that had just arrived and were in the process of dumping their waste when this photo was taken.”