TA Writer of the Week: The mad hatter photographer, Sindhu Sarathy

Photojournalist, traveller, sustainability educator Sindhu Sarathy goes to bizarre lengths to bring human rights issues to the forefront. A chat with the fearless woman photographer.

Photography can put a human face on a situation that would otherwise remain abstract or merely statistical. Photography can become part of our collective consciousness and our collective conscience – James Nachtwey.

Sindhuja P. Sarathy

And bringing hard-hitting harsh ground realities to the mainstream discussion, from acid attacks to transgender rights, is what Sindhuja aka Sindhu P. Sarathy aka Sindhu Parthasarathy has been working unceasingly at. A remarkable photo journalist who goes to great lengths in her passion to bring to the forefront the stories of people and their rights (or the lack of it), Sindhu travels the length and breadth of the country to write on cultures and humanity for an audience that often hasn’t even heard of them. Her latest story in The Hindu on devadasis in Bellary even got the Karnataka Human Rights Commission to institute an enquiry into the furthering of the banned practice. We go behind the scenes on the life and work of the smiling lady with the camera, work we have always looked upon in awe.

Koovagam, the transgender festival in Tamilnadu.

“I am a restless nomad”

I have always loved travel, but it was in 2009 when I travelled for about 270 days across the 19 states of India that I truly got addicted. I visited about 150 educational institutions, NGOs and governmental organizations to understand how social development interventions work. I travelled alone at times or with the students from the colleges I visited at others.

Four years hence, my work now revolves around travel, photojournalism, education and human development psychology. The core of my photography/writing involves highlighting human right violation issues in the country. I hope to, over a period of time, build a body of work that touches upon the complex socio-cultural landscape of our country and its interplay with humanitarian challenges.

While my family continues to be constantly worried about my safety and sanity, I persist in explaining the reason behind my choices. I’m passionate about music, cinema, theater and fiction.

Protests at Kudankulam

Field footnotes

Well I have had more than my share of scary experiences. I nearly lost my eyesight while shooting Holi in Mathura; got robbed and beaten up in Anand, was close to being arrested in Kudankulam, was left stranded in the middle of nowhere in Daman by a drunk cab driver, slipped off a cliff during landslides at Himachal Pradesh and travelled with an anti-India taxi driver at Sri Lanka who kept threatening to teach Tamils a lesson.

Bizarre experiences have been countless. One that comes to mind immediately was shooting at the Kodungallur Bharani in Kerala. A whole lot of men fell on my feet and prayed after an oracle declared that I’m an avatar of Godesses Bhagavathy (to save me from being sexually assaulted). I played along, did a trance like dance and ended up blessing all of them.

I would think I have learnt now to take calculated risks and become more conscious of where I am and what I’m doing.

Caste violence at Dharmapuri

Ethics and sensitivity in photo journalism

With my limited experience, I think it would be audacious of me to offer my views on ethics and sensitivity. However I could talk about my thought process.

I constantly struggle to fathom what full truth and absolute honesty is and feel torn between the multitudes of opinions/perspectives to each story I document. It helps that I used to train on UN universal declaration of human rights and already come from a place of strong belief in equal rights of survival, freedom and dignity. However, I keep discovering many layers to sensitivity and try to build on my expression of sensitivity anew with each story and person I photograph.

For instance, the first time I shot at Koovagam, my knowledge of gender dysphoria and sensitivity towards transgenders was minimal. My only goal, then, was to observe keenly, listen actively, and narrate the experiences as is without offering any view. However, a year later when I visited the second time, I made friends, got completely comfortable with the milieu and celebrated the rituals with them. I now have strong views on LGBT rights and inclusivity.

It is tedious but I think there is merit to questioning every frame you shoot, and check if you are being ethically responsible (someday, I hope I can do this diligently). I’m currently documenting the lives of acid attack survivors, and it helped me to set norms or mental percepts of ethical representation of their lives so that their interests are safeguarded. I think it also helps to consider what kind of articulation affect people’s responsiveness to the causes one takes up.

Is sustainability a difficult choice?

Yes, I find sustainability a difficult choice, but the most obvious and meaningful thing to do. I see sustainability has always been about pushing myself out of the comfort zone and being more responsible with every choice I make. While there are some parts of my life where making sustainable choices come very easy and is empowering, there are others I have to try hard. I don’t know about my blogs and articles influencing anyone but I am blessed with inspiring friends that have made sustainable lifestyles choices and encourage me to do so.

Kodungallur Bharani festival

Your favourite in The Alternative

I don’t know if I can pick one best story. I read pretty much most of your stories in the Inclusivity and education sections. Untravel of course is another pet area. I love your larger initiatives like the untravel chats, the green bazaar idea, the campus reporter one, the boy-girl thing, the CSA campaign etc.

How can we do what we do better

A friend of mine from Australia messaged me a couple of years back saying, ‘Have you come across The Alternative? They are doing a wonderful job!”. I am sure your readership has only increased since then.

Chamayavillaku, the cross dressing festival at Kollam

I think what really works is that you don’t stop with news and views. Your action oriented projects and engaging with people across Bangalore on different sustainability issues (like your green bazaar, your monthly meets, work in apartments, saving lakes etc) do seem to have a larger impact. It would be interesting if you could take it to other cities in the country. Also, take these to the colleges you have reporters from, or even schools.

[Editor’s Note] The Alternative has a pool of writers and contributors who are remarkable in the wide range of topics they cover, their in-depth analysis, and the extent of their work on topics they care about. Every week, we will feature one such writer who has enriched our platform with interesting and diverse stories and views in our TA writer of the week section.

The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created--created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. more


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The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created--created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. more

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