By Anushya Pradhan Where are all the women photographers? This is a question we had pondered on for a long while and which led us to work on a project titled Through Her Lens (THL), a visual research programme in collaboration with Zubaan Publishers Pvt Ltd., supported by Sasakawa Peace Foundation, under the Fragrance of Peace Project. In just a few months since THL’s inception, we’ve met almost 50 women practitioners from across the eight Northeast Indian states and Darjeeling Hills who are using the medium of photography in various ways—for self-expression, social documentation, journalism, academic research etc.
“Another question that begs to be asked is, Why do we need women photographers? Women undeniably have different perspectives to offer since they have different lived experiences. The gender gap in art practices that was and is still prevalent on many levels tend to miss out on women’s narratives. But it is important that these voices are equally represented and heard.”
This year five photographers from Sikkim and Darjeeling Hills have been selected for the Zubaan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation Grants for Young Researchers from the Northeast. They’re currently working on visual research projects on the themes of Gender & Public Spaces and Gender & Disability. These projects are not only interesting but could be influential in the overall gender discourse in the hills. This is but a small step towards bridging the gender gap in the field of artistic practices in the hills and while we acknowledge that there’s a lot of work yet to begin towards this shift, we couldn’t be more thrilled for these young photographers—Aayushi Gurung (Kurseong), Nawami Gurung (Darjeeling), Sheela Rai (Samdong, Sikkim), Sradha Tamang (Kalimpong) and Sristi Sharma (Hee Gaon, Sikkim).
We had brief conversations with the grantees diving into their photographic journey, their inspirations and aspirations. They’ve also shared some of the personal projects they’re currently working on.*
Aayushi Gurung’s earliest childhood memories are of her moving to a new place every two years. In such circumstances, adjusting to new schools and making new friends can be a struggle for any child and for Aayushi, she found recourse in books. She also developed an eclectic mix of hobbies, which clearly show in her range of creative engagements as an adult—besides photography, she is also a graphic designer and has volunteered at different non-profit organisations for women and children. During the lockdown, Aayushi has also been practising intricate hand embroidery with her mother, who is a fibre artist. “Being engaged in more than one field enables me to explore and experiment widely,” she says. Travelling across the country also meant that she developed an interest in people, culture and language at an early age and started documenting these with her Baba's old film camera. “I have albums and shoeboxes filled with what could today be categorised as ‘newb’ travel photography!”
For Aayushi, most of her creative inspiration comes from her own environment and living in the Hills, she feels, adds versatility to her work. The sheer number of stories of sociocultural relevance, obscure so far, stimulates her mind and serve as an innate drive to produce work, especially through photography. With her work, Aayushi hopes not only to evoke emotions but inspire action from the viewers.
Nawami Gurung is a student of Mass Communication at St. Joseph’s College, Darjeeling. Her interest in photography grew over cups of tea and long conversations with friends who are also photography enthusiasts. She credits Brihat Rai, Ashwin Sharma (both Confluence Collective members) and Neel Bhattacharjee for introducing her to the “art and power of photography” and encouraging her to pursue the medium. “For me, it has been a revelation. I’ve gradually started to understand photography better and how people perceive and process images.” Nawami admits that she wants to continue to photograph for as long as possible and right now she’s still unravelling the art, learning and experimenting almost every day. “I feel I am more inclined towards portraits. I love to explore people and understand their thoughts and ideologies as human beings.”
Talking about the gender gap in photographic practices in the Hills, Nawami says, “Although I’ve seen my friends practicing photography, I haven't come across women from the previous generation practising full-time photography, although this doesn’t seem to be the case among men.” With women like Nawami now emerging as serious practitioners, we hope this gap inches closer in the future. It is also the Confluence Collective’s aim to create a safe and conducive safe for such young photographers to expand their practice.
Sheela Bantawa Rai
Sheela Bantawa Rai’s fascination with photography began when she stumbled upon her father’s black and white travel photographs. “There’s something about those photographs. I find myself returning to them time and again,” says Sheela. She is a self-taught photographer, who finds solace in making images out of small moments. She is inclined towards nature and street photography and over the years has built an interesting picture collection of various species of butterflies. Sheela is also a member of the Photography Club of Sikkim recently working on a collaborative project titled ‘Stories from Home’—a documentation of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. She says that she is learning to develop a confident voice in her practice and hopes to create a large body
of work in the coming years.
With photography being a fairly new medium in the Hills, Sheela believes that there’s still some way to go before a full-time career in photography is an acceptable norm, especially for women, since families push for jobs that are seen as being more stable. “This notion certainly affects women even more than men.” She also feels there are several other societal constructs that dissuade women from taking up photography as a career—working long hours and travelling on a limited budget, sharing rooms with others, especially male co-workers, are seen to be inappropriate for a woman. But she hopes that this outlook changes with time as more women come out of their shell and choose to practice not just photography but also other art forms.
“I’m drawn towards the ordinary and the mundane—things that people normally overlook,” says Sradha Tamang who likes to frame quotidian objects and make viewers see the beauty in them as she does. “Like a pattern of shadow or the afternoon light lighting up a chair, these are the moments I’m drawn to and these are the moments I photograph.” Her growing practice has allowed Sradha a form of escape and to push the boundaries of her imagination. As she puts it, “It has somehow fulfilled my soul.” Her friends, most of whom are photographers, have played an important role in inspiring her.
Sradha is a 21-year-old student of mass communication and journalism and would’ve graduated by now if it wasn’t for the COVID-19 pandemic. But the lockdown has also helped her discover her artistic self. These days, besides photography, she has been painting a lot and writing poetry. According to her, artistic practices are advancing in the Hills and people are beginning to realise their interests and potentials. She says that while there certainly is a gender imbalance currently in photography, she feels confident that things are starting to look up with so many women now starting to take up the practice
Sristi Sharma once read how most history books are witnesses to the rise and fall of great civilizations along ancient rivers, with historians missing out on the smaller stories on the riverbanks that played a critical role in shaping those very civilizations. Sristi wants her art to revolve around such small stories. She, therefore, finds inspiration in every person she meets, every place she visits, every film she watches, books she reads, music she listens to and believes that they’ve all influenced her art. Apart from photography, she also runs a creative studio @studio.natsukashii and is the founder/editor at @la7shorts.
Sristi started out as what she calls a ‘family photographer’ in her early teens, photographing people around her and being fascinated with the ability to freeze time and moment and making people smile with the turn of a lens. “It felt like I had superpowers,” she says. The photos that she took in her early days were limited to 36 shots per film roll which meant that photography was usually reserved for the ‘important occasions’. But this all changed when her Baba brought home a Canon Cybershot, with its eight GB storage and 45x zoom. “From then onwards, I could finally afford to experiment.” Moving on from capturing family moments at home, she then began to photograph the everyday scenes in the Hills—people, trees, sunsets and the rain. She gradually started developing an eye for the small stories that she always hoped to collect. “Would it be too much if I said, I gradually started seeing the world itself as a picture? Haha! Well, that's what happened!”