TOM PIETRASIK | Photographer

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18 to 25 years, bicycle, co-workers, coal, coke, cold, colleagues, color, colour, dawn, freight, horizontal, India, Indian, informal employment, landscape-orientation, man, man - group, men - group, mineral extraction, mining, outdoor, road, rural, South-Asia, South-Asian, work, working, working-class, youth

Men carry coke on bicycles 25km from an illegal mine to the district town of Hazaribagh. This coke is for household consumption and the carrier can expect to make INR.300-500 (US$7-12) for every load mined, sorted and transported. Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

I was lucky enough to work alongside Jason Miklian earlier this year when the two of us travelled together to visit the coal-mining areas of India’s Jharkhand state. Jason is an unassuming and very amiable traveling companion and I found his wry sense of humor welcome relief from the desperate conditions we witnessed while roaming this largely-forgotten corner of India. You can read about our experiences here.

Jason is a researcher with the Peace Research Institute in Oslo and, together with award-winning journalist Scott Carney, he has just published an article on Indian mining in Foreign Policy Magazine. Miklian and Carney’s story documents the shocking conditions forced upon local people in the name of progress and development in both Jharkhand and the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh.

As Miklian and Carney report, so widespread is the injustice and so deep the sense of alienation and powerlessness, that many indigenous people have thrown in their lot with a Maoist insurrection that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh considers the greatest threat to the internal security of India. Though they may once have been motivated by a desire to confront the exploitation of local people by mining companies, the Maoists now largely concern themselves with extorting money and have become as much a business as anything else – one that will remain profitable as long as the country’s mines continue to churn out the mineral resources that fuel India’s economy.

As Miklian and Carney point out, India’s eastern heartland is,

… the part of the country that produces the iron for the buildings and cars, the coal that keeps the lights on in faraway metropolises, and the exotic minerals that go into everything from wind turbines to electric cars to iPads… If you were to lay a map of today’s Maoist insurgency over a map of the mining activity powering India’s boom, the two would line up almost perfectly.

Over that map, you could place another delineating levels of poverty and find it too corresponding almost exactly. You can read Jason and Scott’s excellent article in Foreign Policy Magazine here. The published article features a few of my photographs too.

25 to 45 years, bicycle, co-workers, coal, coke, colleagues, color, colour, couple, dust, friends, friendship, horizontal, India, Indian, informal employment, landscape-orientation, man, man - group, men - group, mine, mineral extraction, mining, moustache, mustache, outdoor, portrait, portrait - informal, reflecting, relaxing, rural, South-Asia, South-Asian, village, waiting, work, working, working-class

Workers sort and pack coke at an illegal mine. These men will transport the coke, for domestic household use, by bicycle to Hazaribagh, a journey that will take them eight hours. The workers are from
the OBC (Other Backward Castes) community. Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010


Written by Tom Pietrasik

August 29, 2010 at 12:48 pm


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The opening spread to a feature I illustrated on the lives of Aravanis.
Caravan magazine, 2010

The dimly lit corridors of the Arcot Hotel are rank with the smell of sweat, cigarettes and stale beer. The hallways ring with loud chatter, raucous laughter and the occasional scream. The summer heat is sweltering. Half-open doors reveal grungy rooms crowded with large women in various stages of undress. Pink petticoats, padded bras, hair extensions, sequined saris, miniskirts – some on, some off. Out in the passageways, a few men hang about, hungrily eyeing the women who stride out of the rooms. One grabs at Kalki as she walks past, dressed in a modest salwaar-kameez, her glossy hair pulled back in a ponytail. She turns and speaks to him softly before she gently extricates herself and moves on. The man suddenly seems reduced, almost bashful. The hunter looks hunted. But this isn’t surprising. For Kalki Subramaniam isn’t quite who she seems. Out here, all definitions, all identities, are fluid. The only certainty is that in this packed hotel I’m the only naturally born woman. The rest are aravanis, kothis and panthis (transgenders, feminine homosexuals and their seemingly straight male clients).

This is Maureen Nandini Mitra‘s introduction to her fascinating story on the lives of south India’s transexual Aravani community, recently published alongside my photographs in Caravan magazine.

More of my photographs running alongside Maureen Nandini Mitra’s words on India’s Aravani community.
Caravan magazine, 2010

Defined by their sexual-orientation, Aravanis are rarely accepted by India’s largely conservative society. As a consequence, many are tormented by the disapproving gaze of others and suffer a lonely existence from which they seldom find solace. The transgender gathering I photographed in the Tamil town of Koovagam is one occasion when Aravanis are able to emerge and take centre-stage – if only for a few short days a year.

Unlike the wider Indian gay community I’ve written about here, I found the Aravanis I met in Koovagam and Chennai to be a rather self-absorbed lot. This may be the result of their being shunned by society and enduring the lonely stigma of rejection. I’m sure it doesn’t help that – like much of Indian society – many Aravanis lack the education or resources to properly articulate their concerns beyond an understandable desire to express individual anguish.

An Aravani sex-worker shares a cigarette with some boys while looking for clients in central Chennai. Denied the opportunity to undertake regular jobs, many Aravani’s are forced into selling sex to earn a living.
Chennai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

So, while India’s wider gay community who have begun to confront discrimination with a collective campaign for rights and recognition, Aravanis continue to define their struggle in very personal terms. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is chat-show host Rose Venkatesan who describes herself as an transgender celebrity.

When Maureen and I approached Rose for an interview, she was being trailed by an American TV crew who were profiling her for a documentary series. Rose was brought up in an upper middle-class Tamil household and, having studied for a degree in the US, we had hoped that she might have offered us an informed and articulate perspective on the transgender experience in India.

Instead Rose insisted that her presence in our article would reap us financial reward for which she must be compensated. She demanded several hundred dollars. Suffice to say, we didn’t pay and ultimately neither her wit nor wisdom – nor her portrait – graced Caravan’s pages.

An Aravani takes a shower before venturing out onto the streets of Chennai to look for sex-work. Denied the opportunity to undertake regular jobs, many Aravanis are forced into selling sex to earn a living.
Chennai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009


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The Guardian Weekend Magazine feature on Divya Thakur’s Mumbai
apartment featuring my photographs. Published April 3th 2010

The Guardian Weekend Magazine recently commissioned me to photograph Divya Thakur’s beautiful apartment, housed in a 100 year-old colonial building in Mumbai’s Colaba neighbourhood. Thakur runs Design Temple, a graphics firm she established ten years ago.

Designer Divya Thakur on the balcony of her Mumbai apartment overlooking the famous Taj Mahal Hotel.
Mumbai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Thakur gave me free reign to photograph her home, a very pleasant task given the elegant decor and an abundance of natural light filtering in through shuttered windows. For the most part, this ambient light was enough but on occasion, for instance in the portrait of Divya above, I used a flash mounted on stand to balance out the light streaming in from outside.

One of the three bedrooms in Divya Thakur’s century-old Mumbai apartment.
Mumbai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

The apartment has three bedrooms on two floors and retains many original Victorian-era features. Not far away is the famous Taj Mahal Hotel and the Gateway of India with their views across the Arabian sea. You can read Hannah Booth’s words that accompanied my photographs on the Guardian website here.

The kitchen in Divya Thakur’s century-old Mumbai apartment and, behind it, a courtyard bathed in natural light.
Mumbai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Written by Tom Pietrasik

April 19, 2010 at 9:07 pm


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Langur monkeys forage for food in the grounds of a Hindu temple inside Ranthambore National Park.
Monkeys are honoured by Hindus across India, thanks to the popularity of the monkey-god Hanuman.
Rajasthan, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2008

There is plenty about life in Delhi that I failed to anticipate when I arrived to live in the city eight years ago. Among the most annoying is the menace of monkeys. More specifically, the rhesus monkey, a feral creature with plenty of confidence and – more frighteningly – a stubborn intelligence to torment all but the most zealous animal-lover.

As luck would have it, I have just such an animal-lover living across the road from me. While she scatters chapatis about her balcony for the benefit of the local monkey troop, so the rest of the neighbourhood must hope her simian friends don’t decide to roam in search of tastier fare. I have, on more than one such occasion, failed to keep the doors of my apartment firmly shut and discovered monkeys helping themselves to the contents of my fridge. Shouting at them doesn’t help. In fact, unless you have a stick or start throwing shoes at them, rhesus monkeys seem to consider humans more a distraction than a threat. A couple of years ago, Delhi’s deputy mayor S.S. Bajwa died when he fell from the terrace of his home after a gang of particularly ferocious rhesus monkeys attacked him.

The only means to avert such tragic encounters appears to be securing the services of a langur monkey. And this is precisely the solution employed by British High Commissioner in India. I don’t make a habit of visiting the High Commission but a few years ago I found myself relaxing on the ample lawn of the residence when I noticed a short man approaching me. Strolling alongside him was a monkey tied to a leash. As the man got closer, I realised that his companion was almost the same height as he was. This monkey was very different from the small rhesus variety that I had seen menacing my neighbourhood. Instead of the ubiquitous limp and incessant scratching that seem to be the curse of all rhesus monkeys, this creature walked with an elegant gait and wore a beautiful grey fur coat that appeared entirely fitting given the opulent surroundings.

As this langour monkey lunched on the leaves of a nearby bush, I ventured a stroke and asked it’s owner what had brought the two of them to the High Commission. The man explained that he and his langur were employed to take a daily stroll around the gardens so as to ward off a local gang of rhesus monkeys. Apparently the mere sight of a langur is enough to deter the most determined rhesus monkey.

The simple logic of this strategy appealed to me at the time. Only later did I come to understand that this approach might actually be the cause of my own neighbourhood’s monkey problem. Writing about the langur-strategy employed by the British High Commission and many of Delhi’s government institutions too, Iqbal Malik of the environmentalist group the Vatavaran Trust insists,

It was amply clear that the langurs were forcing the rhesus to disperse and move to newer localities. This led to monkeys visiting places where they had not been found earlier.

So, while the British High Commissioner is able to enjoy afternoon tea sans-monkey on the lawn of his residence, it may be those of us living in less salubrious areas of town who are paying the price of his privilege.

A group of langur monkeys gather beneath the canopy of a banyan tree
in Ranthambore National Park. Rajasthan, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2008

The two photographs in this post were taken eighteen months ago while I worked on a story about tigers for the recently folded National Geographic Adventure magazine. My most memorable encounter with langur monkeys on that occasion was beneath the canopy of a huge banyan tree in Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan. A group of about thirty langurs of various sizes had gathered there to play, groom and, I suppose, just catch up. It was a privilege to witness such an idilic scene and I was completely captivated by these sociable creatures, their behavior so reminiscent of humans.

Written by Tom Pietrasik

April 4, 2010 at 6:06 pm


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Ela Bhatt responds to a cacophony of cheers as she arrives for a SEWA board meeting
at the union’s headquarters in Ahmedebad, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Ela Bhatt is founder of the Self Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA), a union which represents the rights of over one million workers. She lives in the west Indian city of Ahmedebad and while I was there to photograph her last month she took me to meet some of SEWA’s members among the vegetable vendors of the city. Thanks to SEWA, these women have secured legal protection for their trade and escaped the exploitation they once suffered at the hands of the police and money lenders.

Bhatt is a small woman with a gentle demeanor so I did not anticipate the enthusiasm with which she would be received as we entered the narrow lanes of Ahmedebad’s walled city. What I witnessed was not the shallow fawning of a deity or the self-aggrandising fanfare that so often greets political leaders. Instead, Bhatt was welcomed by a spontaneous and warm display of appreciation befitting a woman who has spent forty years helping to mobilize and bring justice to a once-marginalised and factious group of workers.

Ela Bhatt meets vegetable vendors in the city of Ahmedebad. Thanks to SEWA,
such workers have won legal protection for their trade. Ahmedebad, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Bhatt is a member of The Elders, a group of statesmen and social activists brought together by Nelson Mandela to promote peace building and human rights. In acknowledgement of her tireless campaign for worker recognition, establishing cooperatives and setting up credit unions, Bhatt has also received many honours including India’s Padma Bhushan and Japan’s Niwano Peace Prize.

This kind of establishment praise might have softened the stance of a less committed reformer, but it is clear that Bhatt remains an outspoken advocate for the kind of systemic change that is required to bring justice to the poor. Speaking to the UN two years ago, she wondered why the working poor still go hungry,

“We can blame today’s economic environment. It is indeed absurd and out of balance. It does not address simple human needs and rights like food, and water and shelter for all… Employers are constantly searching the globe for cheap labour; but the jobs they create abroad cannot build a society, or a sustainable economy. Special economic zones are nothing but glorified labour-camps that force migration and the break down of families and society. That is not nation building.”

SEWA’s grassroots membership continues to grow, reflecting a swelling of the ranks of India’s informal, or unorganised workforce. These wokers are bypassed by employment legislation because no contract exists between them and their employers.

It is a sad indictment of India’s brand of economic “modernisation” that, according to a 2009 Government report, all recent employment growth (1999-2000 & 2004-05) has occurred in the informal sector which now represents a staggering 92 percent of India’s workforce.

Those employed in brick kilns are not protected by employment legislation and form part of the
92 percent of India’s workforce known as the unorganised sector. Uttar Pradesh, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2006


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Women wait for taxis to take them home after a day of scavenging for coal outside the Parej open cast mine.
Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

At the beginning of the year, while eating breakfast one morning in Ranchi, the capital of India’s Jharkhand state, I picked up a copy of the Hindustan Times newspaper. At the top of the front page, under a headline that read, “New Year’s gift for Bokaro: Second steel plant”, correspondent Sanjay Sahay wrote,

“Bokaro is a city, where a majority of the population, either directly or indirectly, depends on the Bokaro Steel Plant (BSL) for a living. Not surprising then that union Steel Minister Virbhadra Singh’s announcement on Friday that they would consider setting up a second steel plant in the city inspired a lot of enthusiasm and hope.”

As chance would have it, I visited Bokaro the day before Sahay’s article was published. I was there to photograph those living and working around the Tata open-cast coal mine that neighbours the steel plant mentioned in his report. According to Sahay then, I should have come across a lot of enthusiasm and hope among this population who either directly or indirectly [depend] on the Bokaro Steel Plant for a living.

Labourers ferry coke to a local distribution point outside an illegal mine in Hazaribagh district.
Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

But I didn’t. Instead I was confronted by a poor and dejected community, eking out a living on the fringes of a mine that employes few local residents. I saw women collecting coal as lumps of it toppled from the huge trucks exiting the mines. Close by, families living in grotty hovels, were selling plastic bottles of petrol to passing motor vehicles. This was trickle down economics at work, honouring those who’ve been forced to sacrifice their land in the name of growth.

Sipping my morning tea and persevering with Sahay’s article, I glanced across to the sidebar that ran alongside his words. Beneath the lofty headline, “DEVELOPMENT KNOCKS ON BOKARO’S DOOR”, was a list of planned local education and health initiatives. Upon closer inspection it was apparent that there was no substance to any of these projects. The Hindustan Times had simply regurgitated aspirations that the Government “… would seriously consider starting a medical college in Bokaro” or “SAIL (a steel company) would take a decision on establishing another degree college here.”

A family sell petrol to motor vehicles on an approach road to the Tata coal mine at West Bokaro.
Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

When I mentioned the Hindustan Times article to Xavier Dias of BIRSA, an indigenous people’s group, a couple of days later, his rather bleak response was that, “The extraction of minerals is a guarantee that an area will never be developed.” The tragedy is that Jharkhand desperately needs development. With only a quarter of indigenous Adivasi women able to read and an annual per capita income of just $330, there is every need for investment in local communities.

For those that pull the strings of power however, talk of development is simply a means to an end. Health and education projects matter only to the extent that mentioning them helps placate the public. Development aspirations are a tool in much the same cynical way that the specter of a Maoist takeover can be used to justify the removal of obstinate communities from their land.

There are plenty of people with a personal interest in sustaining the injustice of mineral extraction in Jharkhand. Some of them are occasionally found out. Like Jharkhand’s former chief minister Madhu Koda who currently resides in jail, charged with laundering $1.2 billion from the granting of mining licenses. Despite evidence of such shocking abuse of power, disingenuous journalists like Sahay perpetuate a myth by presenting mining companies, their industry associates and their friends in government as as benevolent brokers, bestowing largess upon a grateful public.

An indigenous Adivasi woman outside the Tata coal mine at West Bokaro collects coal as it
falls from passing trucks.
Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Abroad too, newspapers sustain this fiction by failing to acknowledge the hopeless conditions forced on people like those I photographed in Bokaro. When Arundhati Roy considers the “genocidal potential” of mining, The Economist newspaper rebuts her by quoting an Indian finance ministry report that declares, “High growth is critical to generate the revenues needed for meeting our social welfare objectives.” This is a cynical and lazy response when the Indian Government’s meagre spending on health and education pales alongside burgeoning revenue.

If the wealth of mineral extraction is funding social welfare spending, The Economist should ask why ordinary rural communities, like those I met in Jharkhand’s Karanpura valley, persist in a six year struggle to keep coal mining companies and thermal power plants from their land. And too why resistance groups like Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee would sooner face imprisonment than capitulate to myths about development. People living in places like the Karanpura valley are not stupid. They have seen their mineral wealth shipped out to benefit others. They understand better than anyone else that local communities must be at the forefront of the decision making process if they are ever to challenge the powerful interests that exploit Jharkhand’s wealth and continue to deny human rights to those who are being forced from their land.

You can see more of my photographs of Jharkhand’s coalfields on my webstite here.

The Tata open cast coal mine at West Bokaro. Few of those employed at the mine are
from the locally displaced Adivasi community.
Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Of course exploitation in mining isn’t confined to India. Markus Bleasdale’s shocking photo essay, “The Rape of a Nation”, documenting how mining has shaped the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is displayed on the Burn website here.

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Written by Tom Pietrasik

March 7, 2010 at 3:30 pm


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Traders at a tea stall overlooking the Ganges river.
Varanasi, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

At the very beginning of the year, I saw an inspiring collection photographs from Cuba by by photography partners Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb at New York’s Ricco Maresca gallery. You can view a selection of these photographs on David Alan Harvey’s Burn site here. And Alex and Rebecca talk about their collaboration on their Two Looks blog here.

I am new to the images of Rebecca Norris Webb but I have long admired Alex Webb’s photographs for their ambiguity and sense of mystery. Webb’s attention to colour and composition is fundamental to his work. But for me, most impressive is his ability to capture those moments when elements outside his control converge and lend real resonance to a scene. In Two Looks, Alex and Rebecca identify this notion, describing it as serendipity or the lucky chance.

Of course good fortune falls only upon those photographers who are prepared to wait, to look and to recognise the significance of a moment. Interviewed by the Foto Tapeta website, Webb describes the process involved when he photographs,

“When I am working, then I really have to work… I really have to stay attuned… It is really about walking and feeling the situation. How do you enter the situation? Some situations you get comfortable just walking right in. Others you have to sort of dance around the edge and come in here… What I want to experience is this sudden moment of visual insight.”

The cover of Alex Webb’s book on Istanbul

And it was a moment of visual insight that clearly struck Webb when two mysterious figures entered this scene in Istanbul which later became the cover for his book, “City of a Hundred Names”.

What makes this kind of photography exciting for me is the notion that these moments happen all the time. As Elliot Erwitt, Webb’s colleague at Magnum Photos, says, “You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them.” Of course for the most part, these “pictures” pass the world by because no one was there to capture them. Fate has intervened and occasionally presented pictures to me. Significantly it has always been during those moments when I have been patient and willing to wait, to watch and to identify a moment.

A labourer passes the memorial building in Ambedkar Park. The park was conceived by Chief Minister Mayawati as a tribute to the architect of the Indian constitution. In reality, the park exploits Ambedkar’s image.
Lucknow, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

So it was that a man, wearing a green shirt wondered past this scene of a building site in Lucknow while I was working on a story about Chief Minister Mayawati and her Ambedkar Park for the Financial Times Magazine.

Members of the low caste Saharia community challenge a Public Distribution System (PDS) employee about the failure to supply them with ration cards.Madhya Pradesh, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2007

Fate had a part to play when the elements of the picture above unfolded before me and it was only last week that I noticed the Varanasi tea-lady pictured at the top of this post adopting a posture that perfectly mirrored the statue of a deity standing above her. You can see more of my recent photographs of Varanasi, including the picture below, on my website here.

Hindu pilgrims dry their saris after bathing in the sacred Ganges river.
Varanasi, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Written by Tom Pietrasik

February 15, 2010 at 12:34 pm