TOM PIETRASIK | Photographer

PHOTOGRAPHING INDIA’S FOG

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Rickshaw drivers contend with the pre-dawn winter chill outside Moradabad station, Uttar Pradesh.
India ©Tom Pietrasik 2006

Northern India has been suffering unprecedented fog over the past couple of weeks. I had to contend with the frustration of air-traffic delays while stuck at Delhi airport for six hours last Friday waiting for visibility to improve sufficiently to allow my Mumbai-bound flight to take off. And peering through the doom and gloom of India’s Republic Day parade on Tuesday, you’d have been forgiven for wondering if the event were being hosted in northern Europe.

The fog is of course of far greater significance to those for whom flying is an unlikely prospect. The homeless of north India have a miserable time while they contend with the chilly temperatures that accompany excessive fog. The official death toll this season has already passed the 500 mark.

So I felt lucky to escape to the warmth of Mumbai last weekend. And now I’m enjoying moderate temperatures while working in Jharkhand where the nights are chilly but, thanks to a stubborn sun, the days warm to a very pleasant 25C. I do however have to admit to suffering a tinge of frustration because I’m missing out on the fog which, as all photographers know, can make for dramatic pictures. This photograph of rickshaw drivers grappling with the cold was taken before dawn while I waited for my Delhi-bound train to arrive at Moradabad station in northern India. I’d spent the previous week photographing a polio vaccination campaign for UNICEF and though this picture had nothing to do with the commissioned work, it was perhaps the most memorable image that I captured on that trip. As I find is so often the case in photography, it was the incidental moment, neither planned nor anticipated that yielded the most significant result.

Written by Tom Pietrasik

January 30, 2010 at 8:01 am

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THE JAIPUR LITERATURE FESTIVAL

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Jaipur literature festival director William Dalrymple and some of the animals with whom he shares a home in Delhi.
New Delhi, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

Jaipur’s fifth annual literature festival gets underway today. According to festival director and author William Dalrymple, writing in last Sunday’s Observer newspaper, the gathering is distinctive for it’s egalitarian spirit. Still in it’s infancy, but already attracting a long list of literary luminaries, Jaipur has apparently so far avoided the need for VIP enclosures and green rooms. Dalrymple proudly recalls the assimilation of Bollywood celebrities into the genial mood of previous gatherings at Jaipur. Having attended a few of book launches myself, I fully appreciate that maintaining this atmosphere of innocent bonhomie will be a difficult task.

It was ten minutes into the launch of the biography “Two Lives” by Vikram Seth at a hotel in Mumbai a couple of years ago that I noticed Bollywood star Aamir Khan taking his seat in the audience. If Khan thought that his late arrival would go unoticed, he was sadly mistaken. As soon as the press photographers attending the launch caught a whiff of the actor, they immediately dispensed with Seth and converged on Khan. The photographers’ tactless display of celebrity-worship completely undermined Seth’s introduction as his soft-spoken words were lost behind a blur of flash lights and the fuss surrounding Khan.

The potential for such commotion is unlikely to distract William Dalrymple from the infectious enthusiasm with which he champions the Jaipur literature festival. When I took this portrait of him just before Christmas, Dalrymple was already wearing his director’s hat and eagerly anticipating the literary excitement.

Written by Tom Pietrasik

January 21, 2010 at 12:49 pm

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ILLUSTRATING A TRAGIC STORY

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Gaurav Saini looking anxious with his barrister and legal representative Amod Shastri outside the Delhi High Court after a hearing on his petition for a CBI investigation into the case of his missing wife.
Delhi, India © Tom Pietrasik 2009

At the beginning of December, Financial Times reporter Amy Kazmin and I drove out beyond the eastern fringes of Delhi and towards the dusty plains of Uttar Pradesh state. Barely an hour from the comfortable residential neighbourhoods of the capital, we entered a world where the cars of the wealthy give way to swarms of bicycles and diesel-spluttering buses. We were in the district of Ghaziabad and on our way to meet the family of Monika Dagar who’s suspicious death at the age of twenty-one presents a disturbing insight into the pervasive influence of caste in India.

Monika Dagar met Gaurav Saini in an online chat-room in 2006. Typical of the new generation of aspirational middle-class urban Indians, the couple were required to tread a fine line between tradition and modernity. Theirs was a relationship that crossed caste-boundaries and as a consequence invited the disdain of Monika’s conservative family. The Dagars are members of the Jat caste, a patriarchal and influential north Indian community that has at times used violence to defend caste purity.

Three generations of women from the Jat community outside their home in Monika Dagar’s
village close to the city of Ghaziabad. Uttar Pradesh, India © Tom Pietrasik 2009

Resolute in their love, Monika and Gaurav nonetheless married in July last year. The wedding was a simple – and legal – ceremony witnessed by only a handful of friends. Significantly the union was not blessed by any member of Monika’s family. As is the tradition in India, Monika decided to move in with Gaurav and his parents in a lower middle class neighbourhood of south Delhi.

A street scene close to Monika Dagar’s home in the district of Ghaziabad. Few women appear on the streets of conservative western Uttar Pradesh and then only in the company of a male relative.
Uttar Pradesh, India © Tom Pietrasik 2009

A week after the marriage the police, accompanied by some of Monika’s relatives, raided the Saini household in the middle of the night and forcibly removed the couple. Monika was handed over to her family in Ghaziabad while Gaurav was taken into custody. He was held for 32 days, accused of abducting a minor and of rape. Gaurav was twice denied bail despite the fact that Monika was over 18 years of age and testified that she had been neither abducted nor raped by Gaurav.

Since his release from police custody in August, Gaurav has been unable to locate the whereabouts of Monika who it is feared may have become the victim of an honour killing. Monika’s brother reported that his sister died of pneumonia in September though no official has verified her death and a postmortem was never conducted.

Gaurav Saini outside the home he shares with his parents and sister in a lower middle class suburb of New Delhi.
Delhi, India © Tom Pietrasik 2009

Thanks to Guarav’s determined and often lonely search for justice, a Delhi High Court hearing at the end of this month will decide whether a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry will be opened into the suspicious case of his missing wife. Gaurav meanwhile continues the search for Monika who he believes is still alive. “I don’t know where to go and which path I have to follow,” he says. “I am just living on the hope that some time she will be back.”

Amy Kazmin’s compelling report on this disturbing case – the culmination of several months of investigation – was published alongside my photos in the Financial Times magazine last weekend. The story raises several crucial questions about the role of the Indian state in protecting its citizens and depicts a frightening picture of India that is far removed from the content and positive image that many would like us to see.

This was one of those assignments that presents a very real challenge to a photographer. Working after the event meant that I was obviously unable to capture key moments in this story. Of course neither Amy nor I were able to meet Monika and as a consequence Gaurav became the focus of our coverage. I felt it important that the viewer be able to understand some of the anxieties that he was experiencing in his struggle for justice while appreciating the environment in which both he and Monika were raised.

Opening spread for the Financial Times magazine feature “Love, death and dishonour”.
January 9th 2010

Ultimately, the Financial Times magazine editors considered the significance of the young couple’s relationship so fundamental to the story that their affection for one another had to presented visually. Consequently they chose to reproduce a number of “collect photos” from Gaurav’s camera and these formed the basis of the opening spread. As much as I would have liked my photographs to have appeared more prominently in the feature I was entirely sympathetic to the editors decision to place them behind Gaurav’s blurred snapshots. The relevance of these photographs lies not in their quality but in the awkward depiction of an innocent and apparently unexceptional relationship that is so difficult to reconcile with the horror of subsequent events.

Written by Tom Pietrasik

January 15, 2010 at 12:22 am

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PHOTOGRAPHING THE ASIAN TSUNAMI

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Less than twelve moths after losing her mother and brother to the tsunami, Vijita Viswanathan walks along the shore close to her home in Talanguda. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2005

Exactly five years ago, on the morning of December 26th 2004, I climbed aboard a dawn flight from Delhi to Chennai. I had been busy with photography assignments over the previous few weeks and this was an opportunity to take a well-earned break. I was looking forward to a bit of relaxation and had packed my swimming gear together with a couple of books and some Christmas gifts for the friends with whom I would be staying.

As we flew south, I noticed Irish reporter David Orr sitting a few rows ahead of me on the plane. David and I had worked together on a couple of occasions so I wandered over to say hello. David explained to me that he and his family were on their way to the old colonial port of Pondicherry for a vacation by the sea. Easing into his economy-class seat, it was obvious that David had already left the anxieties of work behind him.

It was two hours later, while disembarking with my camera bag that David asked why I had bothered to bring along all of my equipment. Surely, he wondered, a holiday wasn’t really a holiday if accompanied by the paraphernalia of work. I always like to travel light so I didn’t consider my camera gear a hindrance. And besides, as a freelance photographer, it seemed sensible to be prepared for the unexpected. As I explained, “what if something were to happen?” David didn’t seem particularly convinced by my argument.

As we waited beside the luggage carrousel, the faint Indian airport-aroma of naphthaline drifting over us, David hurried over to me. This time he was looking a lot less relaxed. In fact he seemed rather anxious as he confided, “You know Tom, I think something has happened.”

David explained that there had been an earthquake. He wasn’t quite sure about the scale of the damage or indeed which part of the country had been affected but something had definitely happened. Misinformation and rumours spread quickly in India and it was entirely possible that David’s information had no basis in fact. But as the two of us bid goodbye and I left the terminal it became clear that something wasn’t quite right. The shambolic fray of taxi drivers, hotel agents and touts that had gathered at the airport gate appeared wholly distracted. Instead of clambering toward exiting passengers, eager to ply their services, they were ignoring us all and talking amongst themselves.

I hailed a taxi and asked the driver what had happened. He confirmed there had indeed been an earthquake followed by a big wave which had struck the coast of Chennai. Many had lost their lives, he said. It was becoming increasingly difficult to dismiss this as rumour but I still didn’t know enough to satisfy my curiosity. As we bounced along Chennai’s potholed roads, I plugged my mobile phone into my laptop. The internet connection was frustratingly slow but I soon gathered enough detail to appreciate that something momentous had affected the region at about the same time my plane had taken to the skies above Delhi.

On arrival at my friend’s house, I quizzed my host Jyashree for what she knew. She said she had been woken at dawn with the clutter on her dressing table shaking furiously. And there was talk in the city of a devastating wave that had swept across the Marina beach. On the television, they were discussing something called a tsunami.

My mobile soon began to ring. I spoke to journalist colleagues in Delhi who were keen to understand what was happening on the ground in Chennai. A picture emerged of unprecedented destruction. And in the South Asia region, Sri Lanka appeared to have borne the brunt of the momentous waves. It seemed obvious that this was the place to go. I approached a couple of newspapers in the UK and ultimately the Times of London assigned me to travel to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.

So it was that I arrived in the small fishing town of Kudawella on Sri Lanka’s south coast, 24 hours after the tsunami had struck. There was a uneasy and rather confused silence about those first few hours, punctuated by cries of grief as bodies were dragged from the shore or discovered among the debris of fallen buildings.

As we all now know, the tsunami was a momentous event that affected the lives of many hundreds of thousands across South and South-East Asia. I would not have been able to cover the immediate effect of the waves had I not decided to carry my cameras with me when I departed Delhi that morning of December 26th 2004. As for David Orr, his holiday was postponed as he traveled the ravaged coast of Tamil Nadu reporting on events for the British press.

I have since returned many times to document the longer-term effect the tsunami has had on the lives of a group of children from the south Indian district of Cuddalore. The photographs displayed here are a small selection from that series and feature two sisters, Vijita and Vijyashree Viswanathan who I am sure today will be thinking of the mother and brother they lost to the tsunami exactly five years ago.

Vijyashree and her father Viswanthan at home in the fishing village of Talanguda. Viswanathan lost his wife and young son to the tsunami. He has since remarried. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

Vijyashree stands alongside her father on the beach at Talanguda, close to the point at which she lost her mother and younger brother to the tsunami. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2005

Vijyashree and her new brother Sanjay. Since she lost her mother to the tsunami, Vijyashree’s father has remarried and now has two children by his second wife. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2007

Vijyashree (left) and Vijita with their mathernal grandmother Govindamma at her home in the Pudhupattinam tsunami temporary relief camp, six moths after the tsunami. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2005

Viswanathan and his children take a walk on the beach four years after the tsunami so devastated their lives.
Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2008

Written by Tom Pietrasik

December 27, 2009 at 2:49 am

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INDIAN SEASIDE

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The sun rises over the Bay of Bengal at Puri.
Orissa, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

Between a seven day stint confined to a hospital bed with malaria (see post below) and an assignment for a British newspaper magazine, I was lucky enough last week to escape to the east Indian town of Puri in Orissa for a particularly pleasant beach-side holiday. I did very little but relax, breathe in the ocean air and stroll along the shore with my camera. It was, as they say, just what the doctor ordered.

The south-facing coastline at Puri looks out towards the Bay of Bengal, providing spectacular views across the ocean at both dawn and dusk. Above is the scene that greeted me after I emerged from my hotel room one morning at 5.30am.


Of course the crows were there before me, unwittingly contributing to the drama of the morning sky.

Bathers gather at the shoreline for a dip in the sea at Puri.
Orissa, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

Puri attracts middle class tourists from across India and like all seaside resorts, offers holiday-goers temporary release from their routine responsibilities. On spotting me with my camera one afternoon, this unlikely gathering of bathers insisted I take their portrait. They weren’t interested in viewing the pictures I took and I can only imagine that the simple process of being photographed provided them confirmation that this was indeed a special day. As soon as their portrait was taken they turned to face the ocean and rushed straight back in.

The ferris wheel is one of the many evening beach attractions at Juhu.
Mumbai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2002

Beaches in India are wonderful places for photographs and the scenes at Puri reminded me of a feature I photographed in black & white in 2002 on the community that congregates every evening at Mumbai’s Juhu beach. This is a photograph from that story.

Written by Tom Pietrasik

November 25, 2009 at 4:57 pm

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MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF MALARIA

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India hospital patient doctor 4

A patient and doctor on Male Ward No. 2 at the Tata Motor’s Hospital where I spent a week
recovering from malaria. Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

A few days ago I was discharged from hospital after spending a week undergoing treatment for malaria contracted while working in eastern India. It is not always easy being away from home when you’re ill. Indeed, those seven days stuck in a hospital bed might have provided me an excuse to wallow in my misfortune and get exasperated with the frustrations of living in India. While there were of course moments when I just wanted to be home, the spontaneous acts of kindness displayed by those who cared for me while I was sick provided me ample comfort and confirmed why I have such affection for this country.

For a week prior to the malaria, I’d been photographing a story on the provision of basic services including water and sanitation in the east Indian states of West Bengal and Jharkhand. I could never have imagined that my own personal experience would provide such a stark confirmation of the pressing need to invest in essential public infrastructure like drainage.

So it was, while in Jamshedpur on entering my hotel room at the end of a particularly long day, that I was struck by the first wave of nausea. Within seconds I was overcome with a shivering that found me clambering beneath the bed sheets in a futile attempt to warm myself up.

I had experienced these symptoms almost a year earlier while in Delhi and my initial fear was that this was another case of the dreaded dengue that had once left me so drained of energy. Eager not to repeat this distinctly unpleasant experience, I relayed my symptoms to the local UNICEF staff with whom I had been working. It was agreed that I immediately admit myself to Jamshedpur’s Tata Motors Hospital.

Two UNICEF doctors were dispatched to my side and escorted me the hour’s drive to the hospital. This was the beginning of an apparently boundless personal interest in my well-being among people I had never met before. After admitting me to the hospital, the same two doctors returned on separate occasions the following day, each of them with a friend, one of whom presented me with a small foil-wrapped rose. Yet another of their colleagues arrived on the third day, again accompanied by a friend.

I was grateful for these acts of kindness but it was the medical staff at the Tata Motors Hospital who displayed a generosity of spirit that went way beyond the call of duty. As a relatively young foreigner on a ward full of local elderly men I was clearly something of a novelty for the nurses, most of whom were troubled by my being struck down with an illness while traveling so far away from home. I was showered with questions regarding my family, my marital status and what had brought me to India. One nurse announced that I was the first foreigner with whom she had ever spoken and several insisted on bringing to my bedside colleagues whose responsibilities lay well beyond the confines of Male Ward Number Two.

The elderly Nurse Paul was one of those hailing from a separate wing of the hospital. It was on presenting herself to me that she immediately announced she was Roman Catholic and would therefor be praying for me. I expressed my appreciation which prompted her to ask if I too was Roman Catholic. Dressed in a white nurses uniform, complete with a hat and looking herself not unlike a nun, it seemed churlish to disappoint her. Besides, I was sure that divulging my atheism to Nurse Paul would have unduly burdened her with an obligation to introduce me to Jesus and other figures from the bible. This process would have inevitably taken a long time and I was certain that working in a hospital shouldered her with responsibilities far more urgent than my salvation.

Nurse Paul was just the beginning of a long line of concerned parties among the nursing staff. There was the chatty and decidedly healthy-looking Anglo-Indian Nicola from Kolkata who comforted me with the revelation that she too had recently recovered from malaria. And it was while taking my blood-pressure that one of the Malayali nurses lamented the Indian postal service that, for the loss of an invitation letter from Ireland, would have seen her working on the distant ward of a hospital in Dublin. She told me that she was one of three sisters brought up by a single mother who was proud that her daughters had each achieved the independent means of a career in nursing.

On one occasion I woke up from an afternoon snooze to a find a group of giggling student nurses standing at the bottom of my bed. Chaperoned by one of the senior nursing staff, these young women who were all still in their teens seemed to be struck by a self-conscious and nervous anxiety that obliged me to take the lead in conversation. And so it went on… for seven days I wasn’t able to feel lonely or sorry for myself such was the concern for my welfare among those looking after me.

Amid this kindness, my mind kept returning to an encounter with a doctor in West Bengal’s Purbamedinipur district who had introduced himself to me just a few days earlier. Unfortunately he disappeared before I could take his portrait but he left behind a note which in hindsight seems particularly prophetic for it is highly likely that I contracted malaria while photographing in the mosquito-ridden district in which he worked. His  words read:

“From Dr Ramesh Chandra Bera. Highly pleased to see and meet you. Moto: Health is wealth and How to keep fit 100yrs of life. Remember 26.10.2009, 9-45am”

Health note 4

Dr Ramesh Chandra Bera’s prophetic words.
West Bengal, India 2009

 

 

Written by Tom Pietrasik

November 9, 2009 at 11:32 am

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HANDWASHING

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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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