TOM PIETRASIK | Photographer

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Girls washing their hands outside the school toilet block. Kalmunai, Ampara district. Sri Lanka ©Tom Pietrasik

Girls washing their hands outside the school toilet block.
Kalmunai, Ampara district. Sri Lanka ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

This photograph was taken in eastern Sri Lanka a month ago. The four students had all been on a hygiene awareness course and had emerged enthusiastic advocates of handwashing.

India celebrates Global Handwashing Day on October 27th. I will be following activities in the east Indian state of Jharkand on that day. In the meantime, I’m in West Bengal photographing the build up to the event and looking at attempts to improve the sanitary conditions of those people most vulnerable to water-borne infection.

I’ve been doing a little background reading on the shocking statistics that demonstrate the urgency of the situation. According to UNICEF more than 5,000 children under the age of 5 years die every day from diarrheal diseases. And acute respiratory infections account for the the deaths of 1.8 million children a year.

According to a report in the Lancet, the incidence of both diarrhea and acute respiratory infections can be significantly reduced by handwashing. The report estimates, for instance, that handwashing with soap could cut the rate of diarrheal infections by almost 50 percent. It is clear that we need to increase awareness of the importance of handwashing. This doesn’t mean that other issues can be ignored. Inadequate clean-water supplies, overcrowded living conditions, a lack of education, poor nutrition and insufficient investment in public healthcare all contribute to the deaths of millions of people every year.

But if the enthusiastic splashing of the students I met in Sri Lanka could be replicated elsewhere, we might have achieved a significant step towards reducing the appalling rate of child mortality.


Written by Tom Pietrasik

October 24, 2009 at 12:08 am

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Subodh Gupta in his Gurgaon studio for The Times newspaper, October 10th 2009. Photograph ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

Subodh Gupta in his Gurgaon studio for The Times newspaper, October 10th 2009.
Photograph ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

In July I was commissioned to take photographs of artist Subodh Gupta for a profile that was published in last Saturday’s Review section of the London Times (see above).

In the past twelve months I have been approached by three publications: America’s Art&Auction, the German ART Magazine and now The Times to illustrate features on the theme of Indian contemporary art. This alone is some measure of the recent international recognition bestowed upon Indian artists including Gupta who I have now photographed on two occasions. You can see my story on Indian art curators, commissioned by Art&Auction, on my website here.

Artist Subodh Gupta in his Gurgaon studio. Haryana, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

Artist Subodh Gupta in his Gurgaon studio.
Haryana, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

Those that know about art will appreciate the significance of Subodh Gupta and particularly his contribution to contemporary sculpture. Gupta was brought up, one of six children, to a railway-worker father in a north Indian village so his modest roots stand in stark contrast to the decadent lives of the investors that now flock to his shows. Given the scale of his success – and despite a propensity for wearing ostentatious glasses – I have been reassured to find Gupta a modest and unassuming man on the occasions we have met in his Gurgaon studio on the outskirts of Delhi. I can only assume that a childhood spent without wearing shoes and a long apprenticeship that included a stint as a newspaper illustrator together with five years acting in a regional theatre group have provided the artist a steady grounding.

Subodh Gupta and his artist wife Bharti Kher in his Gurgaon studio. Haryana, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

Subodh Gupta and his artist wife Bharti Kher in his Gurgaon studio.
Haryana, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

It must however be unsettling traversing such dissonant worlds, particularly given that Gupta’s work is in part defined by the austere rudiments of Indian life and yet hangs on the walls of private galleries in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and London’s Piccadilly. Gupta’s most celebrated sculptures are constructed from common domestic items including the steel pots and pans that are a feature every Indian home. Of the kitchen-ware that forms the basis of his work, Gupta says,

“The poor, the middle class and the rich use it at home. In this country, how many people have the utensils but they starve because there is no food?”

This comment takes on a deeper resonance when you realise that Gupta’s work fetches such huge sums of money. Two versions of his Mind Shut Down, modeled on the human skull and constructed entirely of steel kitchen utensils recently sold for €1 million each. Of Gupta’s many wealthy patrons, François Pinault, who bought the artist’s Very Hungry God, is worth US$16.9 billion. It is a sorry commentary on our world to discover that Pinault’s fortune is greater than the entire annual wealth of Gupta’s home-state of Bihar (US$15.5 billion) with a population of 83 million people.

It would be entirely wrong of course to suggest that Gupta’s work helps us comprehend this injustice. But he is certainly one of those individuals whose life, work and success are framed by the disparity of our globalized economy.

Subodh Gupta's paintbrushes. Haryana, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

Subodh Gupta’s paintbrushes.
Haryana, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

Written by Tom Pietrasik

October 16, 2009 at 7:23 pm

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Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram, accompanied by other <br />political luminaries, makes his presence felt in Cuddalore. ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram, accompanied by other
political luminaries, makes his presence felt in Cuddalore. ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

When India’s high-profile politicians head into town, its difficult to ignore their presence. I was in Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu last week to photograph the lives of those affected by the 2004 Asian tsunami. As I drove into town, I noticed an abundance of Indian Tricolours lining the road. These soon gave way to huge rosettes also in the green, white and saffron of India’s national flag. Further on into Cuddalore and large hoardings began to appear bearing the likeness of political figures, many of whom I recognised as the dominant players in India’s ruling Congress Party. At the town’s main junction a couple of palatial arches had been erected, featuring yet more political portraits, this time adorned with tinsel.

Most prominent among the faces bearing down on Cuddalore’s citizens was P. Chidambaram, India’s Home Minister. There was Chidambaram dressed in a Western business suit reclining in a comfortable-looking leather armchair, Chidambaram in sunglasses with arms folded, looking purposefully towards the horizon and a full-length Chidambaram dressed in the south Indian veshti, striding staunchly toward the viewer.

I’ve no idea what the Anglified, Harvard educated Home Minister himself made of it all. Perhaps he’d have considered the display rather vulgar. Or maybe it roused a fond nostalgia for the days of his royal ancestry.

Every one of Cuddalore’s hoardings that featured Chidambaram presented an array other political luminaries who’s size and position within the display was a definite indicator of their status. Local Congress party workers were in there, consigned to the bottom-most fringes; acknowledged but also rather shunned. A portrait of Cuddalore Member of Parliament K.S. Alagiri, distinctly smaller than Chidambaram but significantly larger than anyone else, kept the Home Minister company. I spotted Nehru’s face a couple of times but was surprised not to notice Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s portrait more often. Most comforting was the ubiquitous presence of Sonia Gandhi, hovering deity-like above all else; no doubt there to keep a reassuring eye on proceedings.

Chidambaram was in Cuddalore to launch a student loans scheme intended to encourage poor families to send their children into further education. I’m entirely supportive of such initiatives but I’m certain I wasn’t the only one in Cuddalore last week who felt that the well-being of students was a rather secondary concern to those elected officials eager to exploit the situation for a bit of self-promotion. Of course we have our own more subtle – though no less cynical – displays of power and patronage in the West. Perhaps it is only the coarse honesty of India’s political class which makes their arrogance and ambition easier to identify.

Written by Tom Pietrasik

October 10, 2009 at 1:41 pm

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